Landmarks in Scottish Church Music: The Four Church Hymnaries (part 5)

Douglas precentorDouglas Galbraith continues his series ‘Landmarks in Scottish Church Music’ with a history of the four church hymnaries.

The Four Church Hymnaries

The Church Hymnary title is a global ‘brand’ which not only has stood for breadth and variety of content but also for the careful choice and editing of both text and tune. As such it takes its place among the great hymn collections and continues Scotland’s generous contribution to the praise of God throughout the world. Its four editions were published in 1898, 1927, 1973, and 2005.

Church Hymnary

In the previous (fourth) article, it was suggested that the adoption of hymns in the three presbyterian denominations was by drip feed rather than by any dramatic volte face of Synods and Assemblies. By the end of the century all three churches were established hymn singers, and all produced notable hymnals. It was the United Presbyterians who first made the move towards a joint book, and when a world presbyterian conference at Toronto got wind of the idea, other churches came to the party. After much cross-pollinisation from presbyterian churches in other parts of Great Britain and the Empire, in the end the book was prepared by the three Scottish churches and the Irish (who at that point had not produced a book of their own).

At a time of intense ecclesiastical politics (two churches were to unite in 1900, all three to become one in 1929), the joint revision committee had to tread carefully. The three Scottish denominations were loyal to their own collections and the new book had ‘a hard act to follow’ if it were to be taken to heart. In the event, of the 625 hymns they selected 173 had been in all the books, 128 in two of them, and 198 in one (mostly the Scottish Hymnal). 127 hymns, however, were new to the book, a fifth of the total, the result of trawling through 50 other hymnals and reviewing unpublished material. It was a remarkable collection, drawing from all parts of the church and from most centuries. The hymns were arranged into three main sections: praise of God, the individual Christian life, and the life of the church, plus special occasions, and a sizeable (nearly 100) ‘hymns for the young’. Interestingly, the very first hymn was ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty’, as it had been in two of the denominational books and would also be in the 1927 edition. Included were a substantial number of what we now call canticles, settings (including Anglican chant) of such texts as the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. There were also ‘Dismissions’ and ‘Doxlogies’, placed after the regular hymns at the end of the book in a way that suggests ‘liturgical’ use. An interesting feature was the text of Scripture at the head of each and every hymn.

The Revised Church Hymnary (RCH)

Published in 1927, this collection was to be the official hymn book for the Church of Scotland, the United Free Church (the union in 1900 of the Free Church and the United Presbyterians), and the presbyterian churches of Ireland, England, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. This is the book that many in the church will have grown up with and remember with affection. The committee sought to ensure that every period of Christian history, and every movement or controversy, was represented in this very catholic collection, including the new churches established as the result of mission. It appeared against a background of a higher valuing of music in worship and set out to bring improvement by omitting tunes judged to be weak and sentimental and recovering some of the finest melodies of the past. Emphasis is put in its preface on improving the standard of congregational singing, including through local rehearsals and festivals, and the pitch is lowered to help this.

Features were the favouring of hymns of pure praise and adoration (as opposed to introspective, subjective explorations of the individual soul), an enrichment of provision for the Christmas and the Easter seasons, including a hymn to accompany each of the seven last words from the Cross, and a new emphasis on the social mission of the church. The hymns are arranged thematically: God, the Church, the Christian Life, plus other shorter sections. A substantial section of ‘Ancient Hymns and Canticles’ has an introduction about how to sing chant. The committee explain that the children’s hymns are few (41) since the book is for congregational worship, and are included as ‘for home and school’, but there is an index offering hymns from the collection which would be suitable for children and adolescents (separately marked) in public worship. (Clearly it was assumed that as a rule children would be segregated in the Sunday School.)

Church Hymnary: Third Edition (CH3)

There was much interest and anticipation at the publication of the third edition due to the ferment taking place in church music at the time, including the writing of hymns that reflected both social issues and new theological insight, and the use of popular musical idioms. The new book, however, did not set out to reflect this, fearing the enshrining in hard covers of untried material which could fade or go out of fashion, as well as distrusting the use of folk or popular tunes as too redolent of their original content to work in worship. New hymns that raised questions or were too embedded in the culture were also avoided; the trend towards a greater purity and objectivity of the praise of God, seen in RCH, was continued.

If the book could be criticised for its lack of new texts – and for its didactic tendencies, as some commentators found – musically it took several significant steps. Where all three books prior to 1898, and CH itself, had music editors from England and Wales, the committee co-opted a panel of leading musicians from the Scottish church and concert hall. This confidence in Scotland’s national culture also issued in the commissioning of some 30 tunes from composers working in Scotland who were contributing to a contemporary renaissance in Scottish composition. For most, this was their first attempt at a hymn tune and too many of the results presented difficulties in the local congregation; Kenneth Leighton’s splendid ‘Dunoon’ alone survived into CH4. A brainwave was the use of the Border ballad Bonnie George Campbell for Bonar’s ‘Blessing and honour’, a perfect fit for every last line, and there were other imaginative matchings.

The crowning feature of the book was its innovative arrangement of the contents to conform to the shape and unfolding drama of worship (Approach to God, The Word of God, Response to the Word of God, Sacraments etc.), facilitating the appropriate choice of hymns for each part in the service. This arrangement was extended to include the psalms, of which a smaller number were placed throughout the book – some in prose settings – in their liturgical place. This was a controversial decision, given that the psalter had until now always been published as a separate unit, albeit often bound with the hymnary, and there was later a successful move to have the metrical psalter again bound with the new book for those who wished it. A new section at the end, ‘personal faith and devotion’, completed the ‘purge’ of the evangelistic and individualistic Victorian hymn, yet some ‘old favourites’, such as ‘Will your anchor hold?’, and the ‘old tune’ to ‘Tell me the old, old story’ are brought back, while other fine texts which were rarely sung are given new life by new partnerings, like ‘O God of earth and altar’ to the Passion Chorale.

Church Hymnary: Fourth Edition (CH4)

Where the preface to CH3 took the nature of worship as its starting point, the Introduction to CH4 underlined the changes that had taken place in society in the intervening period, showing that these had been considerably more radical and more varied than those which had prompted the revision of earlier books. Indeed, it was suggested, the world was in some ways a quite different world. Moreover, while society had changed, so had the church (new translations of Scripture, the ordination of women, increased frequency of Communion, the deepening interest in the Christian Year and the Lectionary, the greater use of non-ordained leaders in worship: all are mentioned). ‘A book intended to be used for the worship of God in the twenty-first century should reflect the contemporary experience of humanity and the contemporary fruits of God’s creative spirit’. One might conclude that the overriding motive of the editors was to enable to be reflected and expressed in worship the world from which the worshippers came and which was being offered to God in thanksgiving and in intercession.

The radical nature of that ‘programme’ was reflected in the fact that only 272 hymns out of the 695 in CH3 were transferred and only 230 of the 527 tunes. In the space provided were over 100 new texts by contemporary Scottish writers, their pastoral ear tuned to issues and circumstances of the time; a substantial number of hymns ‘from the world church’, bringing new rhythms and processes (spontaneous harmony, unaccompanied singing, musical dialogue – the last two not unknown to us from earlier periods) and an experience of living the faith in other, very different and often very challenging, places; the return of some ‘old favourites’; ‘short songs’ that could enhance key moments in worship; psalms – in their traditional place at the beginning of the book – in modern versions and settings as well as old (melodies in the tenor, psalms ‘in reports’); songs of lament; and a good supply of ‘worship songs’ that represented the way that part of the church now voiced its praise.

Where CH3 affirmed the national culture through commissions to living composers, in this collection there is a wealth of Scottish melody, a great deal of it folk music, Highland and Lowland, to rival the provision of English, Welsh and Irish melodies in other, earlier collections. (Many of these, together with some new hymn texts and the songs from the world church, had been produced or popularised by the Wild Goose Resource Group of the Iona Community.) This was one of the ways the book shifts focus a little from music which requires the support of choirs to that in which the congregation were affirmed as fully participant musicians (and worshippers). This was also enabled through responsive musical styles, short items, the lowering of pitch, and the higher proportion of unison settings. The ecumenical dimension, reflected in all editions of the title, is continued in this, not just through traditional texts and tunes, but in the inclusion (among other things) of a mass setting by contemporary Scottish Roman Catholic composer James MacMillan, hymns by the late Fr James Quinn SJ, also Scottish, and contemporary ‘folk-style’ songs by Bernadette Farrell.

CH4 was in many ways a ground-breaking book, influencing other later collections in other parts of the world church, and carrying forward the traditions of the title. The story of all these hymnaries is not really complete without reference to significant supplements, Songs of the Seventies around the time of CH3, and, since then, Hymns for a Day (based closely on the Christian Year), the best-selling Songs of God’s People, and the unique collection owned by seven Scottish denominations, Common Ground.

Rev Dr Douglas Galbraith worked in the Church of Scotland Offices between 1995 and 2006 running the former Office for Worship, Doctrine and Artistic Matters. He was founder-editor of the earlier print version of Different Voices. He is Secretary of Church Service Society and Editor of the Church of Scotland Year Book and former Precentor of the General Assembly. To discuss this article or further reading list in more detail, please email Douglas.