Praying Twice: The Theology of the Hymnal

Saint Augustine of Hippo is often credited with saying, “When you sing, you pray twice.” I have no idea whether he actually said it or not, but it does aptly capture the lived experience of music in worship. If you want to start a fight in your parish, you do not need to bring up money or sex or the veracity of Holy Scripture. All you have to do is advocate for the singing of a few “unfamiliar” hymns, particularly if you plan on using a different style of worship music. People will be taking sides in no time. Ordinary prayers may resonate in our minds, eventually making their way into our hearts, but sung prayers start out in our hearts. They represent prayer for many people at its deepest level.

Music affects us in a way that almost nothing else can. The earliest stories in human societies were always set to music so that people would more easily remember them. Music has the capacity not simply to entertain us but to make us feel something deeply, in a place where even the best reasoned argument can never reach. Christians have always realized this, which is why the ancient liturgies were sung or chanted. It is one thing simply to utter a prayer, maybe under our breath, in a rote fashion. It is quite another to sing a prayer. Singing uses more of our body and requires more letting go. It is riskier to sing than to speak. What if someone else hears you? There is a kind of vulnerability attached to using our voices as instruments, which is why so many of us are reluctant to do it, especially in an age when most of the music we experience is recorded and received passively. Singing is a bit like being naked. It is deeply personal and renders us easily wounded.

But that same vulnerability allows music to be an unparalleled conduit for the Word of God. For those who are raised as Christians, there is often nothing that more powerfully shapes one’s sense of God than the songs sung in church. I have certainly found this true in my own experience. I was raised largely in the tradition of post Vatican II folk Masses, and even though I have more in common theologically with Samuel Sebastian Wesley than Marty Haugen, I have to say that hymns set to acoustic guitar and piano touch me in a way that the pipe organ simply never will. The hymns of my youth created in me a sense and context for the presence of God in my life. Even though I rejected much of that context as a teenager, lingering long in the wilderness of Paganism and disbelief, when I found my way back into relationship with God as a young man by way of the Episcopal Church, the most difficult thing for me to adjust to was the music. I found it much easier to accept the idea of married clergy than the idea that we needed to sing all twelve verses of a hymn that moved slightly slower than a glacier from one un-singable stanza to the next, without a title, a chorus, or even a time signature to guide me. It very nearly kept me away from the Church entirely.

That said, over the years I have developed a taste and even a fondness for many of the hymns in The Hymnal 1982, though I still think that it could do with an upgrade in terms of how the hymns are arranged. But what I have come to love about many of our hymns, particularly the older ones, is the richness of the theology contained in them. Unlike so many modern worship songs that sound like mushy love songs to a Jesus-as-teen-heartthrob, the lyrics of so many of our older hymns are rich with theological content. And since the Church’s Hymnal is approved for use within the Church on not only aesthetic but also doctrinal grounds, it would behoove us to make use of hymnody as both a teaching tool and a spiritual discipline. Episcopalians ought to have a copy of The Hymnal 1982 in their homes, along with the prayer book and the Bible.

This is why I have decided to inaugurate a new series here on The Conciliar Anglican that will focus on the theology of the hymnal. The posts will focus on individual hymns and highlight their theological content, putting it into context with the wider classical Anglican tradition. This will not be a commentary on the merits of particular tunes, although I do believe that the tune is often crucial to how well we receive the message. Here are some of the hymns I hope to take a look at:

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent

The Church’s One Foundation

Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones

Immortal, Invisible, God only wise

Love Came Down at Christmas

All Glory, Laud, and Honor

Jesus Christ is Risen Today

I will hopefully have opportunity to do others as well and I am open to suggestions. I look forward not only to writing about these hymns, but to singing them under my breath all day afterward. Songs are where many people meet Our Lord for the first time. I hope to spend some time with God in that space, washed over by both the power of the music and the even greater power of the God who made Himself known in the Incarnate Word.

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9 Responses to Praying Twice: The Theology of the Hymnal

  1. John Judge says:

    I am looking forward to reading this series. I love our hymnal and often am amazed at just how much truth one hymn can proclaim. When I have the chance, I will sit in the nave and pray through some of the morning’s hymns before the Eucharist as a way to prepare for worship.

  2. Mike says:

    I enjoyed your thoughtful posting here and when I was done and had reviewed the listing of hymns you intend to treat in the coming days, I was wondering why Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus wasn’t on the list! All kidding aside, I hope you also treat the subject of why many of the old hymns (and there’s probably more from some of the other well known hymnals in use across the country for which this would be true) are so beloved despite their dated, faulty, or just plain sloppy theology. It’s the power of the music itself that not only brings back the memories of when those tunes were first heard/sung (often as babes and then small children) but triggers the exact same emotions and feelings that were present at the earlier hearings. So, for many of us, raised in a different denominational tradition, some of the ‘old timey’ hymns, as abad as they are…..evoke powerful memories and feelings…..all leading to the conclusion that tampering with the sacredness of the hymnal is like messing with the most concretized tradition in our institution. BTW, the hymn first on your list is one of my all-time favorites….for a whole bunch of reasons. Good luck with the project.

  3. Stephen says:

    I hope that you will include what is called Old 100th in your list.
    ‘Before Jehovah’s awesome Throne, Ye Nations bow in sacred joy.’

  4. MichaelA says:

    “If you want to start a fight in your parish … all you have to do is advocate for the singing of a few “unfamiliar” hymns”

    You could also try advocating for moving the organ to a new position, or writing out the cleaning roster in a different format (NB, you don’t need to change the actual content of the roster, just present it in a horizontal format instead of a vertical format).

    All great ways to start vicious fights among the holy people of God … :o/

  5. Stephen says:

    Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the Head and Cornerstone.
    Chosen of the Lord, and precious,
    Binding all the Church in one,
    Holy Zion’s Help forever,
    And her Confidence alone.


  6. Jesse says:

    Interesting that I should see this today. I attend Vanderbilt Divinity School, and I just saw a post by a VDS friend on Facebook (whom I normally think of as quite traditional) identifying “the Church” as everyone of every religion in all times and places, as all of humanity. When I read your post and came to “The Church’s One Foundation,” the first lines came to mind and perfectly expressed my problem with her sentiment:

    “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord,
    She is his new creation by water and the Word.”

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