Refections on a Hymn

By Erickson, Karl Bjorn | Sacred Music, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Refections on a Hymn


Erickson, Karl Bjorn, Sacred Music


Imagine being an invited guest to a beautiful wedding ceremony where every detail has received the utmost attention and forethought. Thankfulness and reverence fill the air, and people clearly feel privileged to be there. As the solemn moment for the vows approaches, you suddenly leap to your feet and announce your presence in a booming voice.

Astonished wedding goers stare at you in shock. Again, your voice echoes through the church and you point to yourself with smug self approval. Perhaps you get in a comment or two more just before the ushers arrive to escort you out of the stunned sanctuary. Your outburst has succeeded in disrupting an otherwise perfect wedding. Now, we would all consider this kind of behavior rude and outlandish. Yet, many of us unwittingly do something strangely similar when we sing certain hymns within the holy Mass.

From "To Be Your Bread" and "As We Remember" to the problematic "Only a Shadow" and, of course, "Sing a New Church," these hymns all betray a theology out of balance with the spiritual reality they attempt to convey. Unfortunately, most Protestant churches don't fare any better. While growing up in the Nazarene Church, I remember my singing coming to a screeching halt on a fairly regular basis. Once I had reflected a moment on the nonsensical words coming out of my mouth, I just couldn't finish the chorus. Even when I was in high school in the late 1980s, many of the beautiful and timeless hymns of the Wesleyan churches were disappearing, replaced with simple-minded choruses. As many critics have pointed out, instead of singing about Jesus, this music encourages us to sing about ourselves, turning inside instead of turning towards God and the Cross.

I was no stranger to poor liturgical music, but nothing quite prepared me for a recent Mass in which "Sing a New Church" was the recessional hymn. It was the first time I had heard it, and its message was disappointing--to say the least. It's hard to know where to begin in the criticisms of this "triumphalist paean to diversity," as Father Paul Scalia (the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia) described it in an article entitled "Ritus Narcissus," which appeared in the Adoremus Bulletin. This hymn remake uses the music of an old and beloved hymn, "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," but its words fall flat and meaningless--especially when compared to the beautiful original. Let's begin by looking at the hymn's first and second verses.

   "Sing a New Church" by Sister Delores Dufner

   Summoned by the God who made us,
   rich in our diversity,
   gathered in the name of Jesus,
   richer still in unity.

   Refrain: Let us bring the gifts that differ
   and, in splendid, varied ways,
   sing a new church into being,
   one in faith and love and praise.

   Radiant risen from the water,
   robed in holiness and light,
   male and female in God's image,
   male and female, God's delight.

   [c] Oregon Catholic Press

While the words may seem simply vapid and harmless, the hymn betrays error built upon error. The idea of a new church, which is more than a call for spiritual renewal, implies that the one true church fell, and this, in turn, would make our Savior a liar when he promised in Matthew 16:18 that "even the gates of Hades will not overcome it." It's also suggesting that we build the church, which implies more than simple cooperation with God. It is painting the stark picture of a church instituted by man (not God) and for man. Without the Cross, however, songs simply exalting each other smell strongly of the heresy of universalism and denial of Christ altogether. If all we see is ourselves, we've missed the point of everything. "Sing a New Church" embraces "feel good" and sentimental elements of a quickly passing culture while paying little honor to our Saviour and Lord.

I'd like to share a powerful quote concerning this hymn from a recent article entitled "Bad Poetry, Bad Theology.

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