Daniel Webber reviews the revised edition of a well-loved hymn book.
It is probably a sign of the times in which we live that the most predictable outcome of the appearance of a new hymn book is that it would court controversy. Moreover, the fact that the volume is actually a revision of an older, and much-loved version, makes controversy even more likely.
It would be a great pity, however, if this were the only response to what we trust will prove a useful tool in modern evangelical church life.
If, as the editors believe, the life of a modern hymn book is approximately 25 years, then the older compilation was due for revision. Support for this judgement also seems to be borne out by the widespread use of ‘Supplements’ among churches using the original book.
Chosen on merit
Nevertheless, the ‘for-and-against’ debate over this particular edition will almost certainly be decided on the basis of a detailed comparison between the old and the new.
In this review I shall limit myself to a brief consideration of the following questions: What principles have guided the editors in their choice of particular hymns for inclusion and exclusion? In what ways does the new book differ from the old? What is the end product like, and how does it compare with others?
As far as principles are concerned, almost nothing has changed. The editors say, ‘We have resolutely refused to adopt a sectarian agenda and have considered each hymn on its biblical, spiritual and poetic merit, irrespective of the background of the author’.
It is difficult to see how this approach can be meaningfully and consistently criticised. Of course, eyebrows will be raised by the further admission that the choice of some compositions has been influenced by recent ‘changes in worship style and practice’. Presumably, however, popular usage was not the only consideration when trying to decide whether any particular contribution should be included.
In what ways does the new version differ from its predecessor? The bare facts are as follows: the new hymn book is slighter larger than the original; approximately 190 ‘little used hymns from the first edition’ have been dropped making way for ‘well over 200 new items’.
These new items include a greater number of psalm versions and hymns based on the psalms; this is to be welcomed. There is also a larger selection of modern compositions and, ‘for those who like to make use of these items’, an entirely new section of ‘Songs and choruses’.
Perhaps equally controversial is the attempt to provide ‘a measure of modernisation’ to ‘the linguistic forms in which the hymns are expressed’. This generally means that the designation ‘You’ has replaced ‘Thou’ – but thankfully this policy has not been pursued in ‘a slavish manner’.
In terms of overall appearance, the new words edition is certainly an improvement on the old. Avoiding the clumsiness of other recent publications, this hymn book is a pleasure to hold and use (somewhat on the style of Grace Hymns).
Fair and conservative
The editors are obviously aware that most criticism of their efforts is likely to focus on their selection. Some conservatives will no doubt argue that too many concessions have been made to modern tastes. For example, there will be those for whom the very inclusion of choruses and Kendrick (and the like) is enough to condemn any enterprise.
At the other end of the spectrum some will view the whole venture as a missed opportunity – the compilers have not been radical enough. All in all, this hopefully means that the editors of this hymn book have got the balance somewhere near right.
Finally, and in the interests of perspective, it is probably worth reminding ourselves of two additional factors: firstly, that like most such compilations, Christian Hymns (Revised edition) is the work of a committee. This alone implies that a measure of compromise was involved in the inclusion/exclusion decision-making process leading to the final selection. This is inevitable and, in my view, as it should be.
Second – and one hesitates to say this in public – we ought not to lose sight of the fact that this is, after all, only a hymn book! This being the case, we are not obliged to make use of that presumably very small number of compositions whose inclusion we may regret.
My opinion is that the overall content of this work represents a fair and conservative selection of what is currently on offer, and more than this we cannot expect.
Therefore, it is my sincere hope that this hymn book will prove as useful and popular among the churches as its illustrious predecessor has been.
Published by Evangelical Movement of Wales and Christian Hymns Committee 2004; Music Edition: £29.95 (ISBN 1-85049-208-5); Words Edition: £7.95 (ISBN 1 85049 207 7). Distributed by Evangelical Press.