Refections on a Hymn

Article excerpt

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." The excerpt below is quoted with permission from Catholic Answers' magazine, This Rock. (1) The writer is Anthony Esolen, a professor of English at Providence College and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization. (2) His words ring true regarding the serious problems created by "Sing a New Church."

   Here the worshipers are like the mythological Amphion at his lyre,
   singing to raise the walls of Thebes from the earth. Again, I'm not
   saying that the typical singers in our churches intend such
   nonsense! But the nonsense has to seep in, eventually. And note
   what it replaces: Jesus instructs us to say, when our work is done,
   that we have been worthless and unprofitable servants. Do any
   contemporary show tunes meditate upon that saying? It is
   instructive to note by contrast the last verse of "The Church's One
   Foundation," which in noble yet simple language gives us the true
   source and the end of our love:

   Yet she on earth hath union
   With God, the Three in One,
   And mystic sweet communion
   With those whose rest is won:
   O happy ones and holy!
   Lord, give us grace that we,
   Like them, the meek and lowly,
   On high may dwell with thee.

   [c] Catholic Answers This Rock

Beginning late last year, I formed a small group of concerned Catholics (and one Orthodox family) who wrote letters concerning "Sing a New Church." Our letters were directed to both the Oregon Catholic Press as well as the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon. We respectfully expressed our concerns regarding this hymn and its theologically incoherent message. More recently, I also had the pleasure to exchange e-mails with Sister Delores Dufner, the composer of "Sing a New Church." She graciously offered of her valuable time in helping me ensure that both sides are given a voice within this essay. Although it failed to change my opinion of the hymn, the responses received were helpful in understanding the multiple issues involved with regard to the use of this particular piece of music, and it also reminded me of the human quality. While we may strongly disagree with a hymn's message, it's imperative that we remember that behind the hymn is a person who deserves courtesy and respect as a fellow brother or sister in Christ.

Sister Delores Dufner's commentary on her own hymn echoed the words also conveyed to me in the letter by Archbishop John Vlazny. They both stressed that the hymn was using the word "new" in the sense of a renewal. While I had read similar arguments before, I was pleasantly surprised by the honesty and expressiveness of Sister Dufner's observations. Below is an excerpt from her commentary.

   According to Revelation 21:5, God intends and desires to "make all
   things new." The phrase, "sing a new Church," is meant to remind us
   that transformation is God's will for all of creation, as Paul
   describes so passionately in Romans 8:18-23. The title and refrain
   of my hymn are not meant to discount the Church of the past or the
   Church of the present: stanza three acknowledges that the future
   desired and promised by God can grow only from the seed of the
   past.

   By our Christian Baptism, we are committed to a lifetime of
   conversion and spiritual growth. My hymn is meant to encourage us
   to remain faithful to that baptismal call. As John Cardinal Newman
   said, "To be perfect is to have changed often."

   The phrase, "sing a new Church," reminds us that the words we sing
   have a formative effect in shaping our spirituality. It would be an
   exaggeration to think that we, by our own power, could renew the
   Church or "sing a new Church into being." But as baptized
   Christians we never act merely by our own power. By God's mercy,
   our prayer through Christ and with Christ and in Christ changes us.
   As we sing our faith, we are transformed and the Church is
   renewed--made new--in the image of Christ. The work of
   transformation is primarily God's work, but we are privileged to
   play a part in that transformation. Our prayers, whether spoken or
   sung, play a part in our conversion and in the transformation of
   the Church and world.

Except for the subtle, but important, exaggeration concerning the cooperative aspect of man's work within God's ordained plan, the sister's commentary in and of itself seems reasonably on-target. It is true enough that the process of conversion is indeed an on-going endeavor. We are all works-in-progress. The error concerning our cooperation with God's plan, however, is important to note since it is also present within "Sing a New Church."

As Anthony Esolen observed regarding this particular commentary,

   We cooperate freely with the grace of God, submitting to it,
   obeying his commandments. Even our cooperation with God, however,
   is predicated upon his prevenient grace, whereby we can freely
   choose to accept his grace and obey him. In other words, the
   conversion of a human heart or the renewal of a church, is all
   God's work, and to him and to him alone belongs the praise. We
   cooperate by allowing God to use us as his instruments.

Even the opportunity of this cooperation, then, is an outpouring of God's grace and a manifestation of his unfathomable love for us. Likewise, the transformation and redemption referred to in Romans 8:18-23 is a gift of God.

It's important at this point in the discussion to explore some of what others have said to me concerning their support of this hymn. Archbishop John Vlazny, as referred to earlier, took the time to share his thoughts with me regarding this hymn. While he characterized "Sing a New Church" as referring to the renewal called for by the fathers in the Second Vatican Council, he also commented that I am not alone in my misunderstanding of the hymn. It apparently happens fairly often. This is an interesting point. As the eloquent Saint Augustine wrote in Confessions,

   I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in
   order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired to
   feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the music itself more moving
   than the truth it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin,
   and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer. (3)

In a sense, our concerns regarding this hymn echo these saint's words, since the message of "Sing a New Church" is so distracting and inappropriate for use as liturgical music. It also reminds me of the eighth chapter of 1 Corinthians. Even if the hymn did represent good theology, which I do not believe, it can be convincingly argued that it presents a stumbling block to many Catholics. Since we are called, however, to avoid action which may make our brother stumble, Archbishop John Vlazny's defense of "Sing a New Church" seems problematic.

One interesting supporter of this hymn is our own parish priest and author of The Seal, A Priest's Story. (4) Father Timothy J. Mockaitis, who agrees that the title of the hymn is "problematic," offered the following in its defense.

The words strike me as Trinitarian and clearly imply this human community has come about because of "the God who made us" and that we are "gathered in the name of Jesus," that we are "one in faith," That we are "male and female in God's image," that the "Spirit strong within" and then reference to baptism: "radiant risen from the water, robed in holiness and light." We are "sprung from seed of what has been." (A reference to the early Christians: "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.")

His response exemplifies the complexities as well as good intentions involved in the discussion of a controversial hymn like "Sing a New Church." It also raises a fascinating question. Would the same opposition exist to this hymn, if its title were less polarizing?

When I first approached Oregon Catholic Press (OCP) regarding my concerns with this hymn, I was directed to a music editor named Randall DeBruyn. He explained the review process all of their hymns must undergo. While he indicated that the hymns underwent scrutiny by both the Portland Archdiocese as well as theologians, he was unable to share the names of any of the theologians with whom OCP regularly works. He did point out that none of these experts expressed concerns regarding "Sing a New Church." But there is something a bit unsettling with the idea of anonymous reviewers. Review without accountability, after all, is not necessarily a true or unbiased review. As a children's writer, for instance, I have spent countless hours researching literary agents. Testimonials or reviews often appear on the agents' websites. As soon as one notices a glowing review offered simply by "Ted," for example, the warning bells should be sounding. It's impossible to confirm the unbiased nature of anonymous "expert" reviewers. It should lastly be noted that Randall DeBruyn was invited to share a comment or two regarding OCP's position with regards to this hymn, but he declined to be quoted for this article.

The main difficulty in addressing the problems raised by "Sing a New Church" really boils down to the challenge of placing objective value upon art, which must first be viewed subjectively. For example, and without any direct comparison with the hymn intended, an artist might create in his gallery a towering monument of milk-cartons. In his own mind, this could be the most amazing and meaningful work of art since the Mona Lisa, the supposed pinnacle and apex of artistic creation. He might stun audiences and art critics alike with his persuasive and eloquent words explaining the meaning and symbolism behind his edifice. In the end, however, we should hope that the audience will take a second look at his monument and realize what it really is: simply a stack of empty milk-cartons. With a puzzled look, the more perceptive and insightful of the group will likely wander off to visit other galleries. This might not be the best illustration given what currently passes for fine art these days. The point, however, is that a culture or society will eventually decide whether the work of the artist will survive. It must possess real and ageless value if the art form is to last beyond that first generation. After all, viewing beautiful art or hearing exquisite music of the past is like exiting the present timeline for the blink of an eye while we take in the rich beauty like so many others have before us.

No one is questioning the good intentions of Sister Delores Dufner or the many others who create new liturgical music for the church, but it seems that many of us who oppose this particular hymn might be guilty of placing a disproportionate value or emphasis upon the view of a few, rather than simply judging for ourselves the quality of the art facing us. In other words, do we trust our own perceptions as accurate? While the sister and Archbishop John Vlazny, for instance, emphasize the hymn as a call to renewal, I would venture that this is not what comes to mind when most of us hear it sung.

An important part of this hinges on the issue of language, and the "baggage" carried by some words. Day in and day out we are bombarded with the depravity of the culture (and world) in which we toil. As our priest recently observed, the nightly news is just the thing to watch--if you want to be reminded of the seven deadly sins. It's also true that political correctness never applies to those who would ridicule our Catholic Church, or Christians in general; people are utterly at ease in saying the most horrible things about our faith. And we, Catholics and other Christians across the globe, take it on a daily basis. We keep our heads high, because we know that pain we endure for the faith is infused with meaning and rich grace. "Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

While our quiet witness in the world points to our desire to serve the Lord, we don't expect to have our values attacked at Mass. It should be a spiritual refuge where we are free to concentrate and focus upon Christ and his incredible sacrifice. This hymn does more than turn us inward. It also relies upon charged language which carries unhealthy connotations within our modern culture. These connotations are frequently strongly opposed to the message of the Holy Gospel. The word "diversity," in particular, plays a prominent role within this hymn. If we pause a moment to examine the history of this simple word, it may surprise many to learn that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, its usage in the twelfth century carried a meaning of "difference, oddness, wickedness, and perversity." While the connotations have changed over time, it's also been transformed into a cliche by our culture's bent towards sin and its futile attempt to excuse and rationalize these sins.

I remember we heard this word quite frequently while we were Episcopalians. When we voiced opposition to the ordination to bishop of an active homosexual named Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, it was as if we had become the outcasts. After all, we did not respect "diversity." We expected and endured this within the Episcopal Church, but we never expected to hear a hymn to diversity sung at the sacred Mass. It may be true that modernism and political correctness have hijacked an otherwise acceptable word. Still, we can't ignore that crime; the word is changed. As a popular radio personality used to remind his audience, "Words mean things." In this case, the modern usage and application of the word diversity makes it inappropriate language around which to write a hymn. While this may change in a century or two, this is the sad reality of the world today.

Perhaps it's time to scrap our hymn rewrites altogether and return to the originals--or to true Catholic sacred music? While there can be legitimate disagreement regarding the appropriateness of hymns such as "Amazing Grace" within Mass, for instance, certainly most would see the error of rewriting a classic hymn such as this only in order to remove the word "wretch." We are truly in danger of singing to ourselves. Beautiful hymns that express the mysteries and joy of faith are seldom heard today in either Catholic or Protestant circles.

In these tumultuous times, it becomes even more critical that our theology and doctrine always be expressed with clarity and truth. To do otherwise not only dishonors the Mass, but it leads Catholics astray towards moral relativism and the siren call of modernism. It also serves as an exceedingly poor witness to non-Catholics, those who may be searching (as our family was) for the truth. Some even argue that the reason more Catholics don't actively sing in Mass has much to do with the quality of the music being sung.

My father-in-law John Carroll Collier (the sculptor of the Catholic Memorial at Ground Zero in New York City and many other pieces of religious art across the country) puts it this way.

   Five hundred years ago, if you wanted to hear the greatest words
   ever spoken, see the greatest paintings, the greatest sculpture,
   and hear the greatest music being sung, you went to church. In the
   meanwhile, something has gone very wrong. There seems a desire by
   current religious art to inspire but it can't because it is
   shallow. Its foundation is not Christ Jesus. Rather it, like much
   of modern art and music, is only about our feelings; and feelings
   which have only good wishes to motivate them. Christians have
   better footings on which to build their art.

What has happened to sacred music like the haunting and beautiful anthem by Thomas Tallis If Ye Love Me or Palestrina's Ave Maria or Gregorian Chant? Why are we permitting the Mass to become a place filled more with reflections of a quickly passing culture than with quality liturgical music of lasting substance and beauty? At the very least, when our music borders (or crosses the line) into heresy or self-centered praising instead of worshiping the Living God, "life itself, immutable," why are we not standing up and raising our voices in protest?

One great resource of hope, encouragement, and instruction with regards to liturgical music is entitled Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, which was recently published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It addresses both the need for quality art and the absolute requirement that this art reflect the truth of the Gospel and tradition. Below is an excerpt which eloquently focuses upon the need for quality liturgical music.

81. The Church needs artists, and artists need the Church. In every age, the Church has called upon creative artists to give new voice to praise and prayer. Throughout history, God has continued to breathe forth his creative Spirit, making noble the work of musicians' hearts and hands. The forms of expression have been many and varied.

82. The Church has safeguarded and celebrated these expressions for centuries. In our own day, she continues to desire to bring forth the new with the old. The Church joyfully urges composers and text writers to draw upon their special genius so that she can continue to augment the treasure house of sacred musical art.

83. The Church never ceases to find new ways to sing her love for God each new day. The Sacred Liturgy itself, in its actions and prayers, best makes known the forms in which compositions will continue to evolve. Composers find their inspiration in Sacred Scripture, and especially in the texts of the Sacred Liturgy, so that their works flow from the Liturgy itself. Moreover, "to be suitable for use in the Liturgy, a sung text must not only be doctrinally correct, but must in itself be an expression of the Catholic faith." Therefore, "liturgical songs must never be permitted to make statements about faith which are untrue." (5) (Emphasis added)

The need for better liturgical music might be better grasped if we briefly examine the nature of sacred space itself. As Jeremy Sheehy reminds us in his insightful essay "Sacred Space and the Incarnation," which is one of eight powerful articles collected in Sacred Space, House of God, Gate of Heaven, (6) our understanding of the sacred hinges upon the nature and mystery of the Incarnation itself. God used physical material--that is flesh and bone, to convey truth and forgiveness to a lost world. He could have chosen any other means, but his choice was to send his Son as a man. Understanding that God is everywhere, are we closer to Christ in front of a beautiful tree, or standing beside our Savior? Clearly, he is more substantially present to us, if we are beside him, or looking in his holy face. This is why churches are not ordinary places. In the Mass, we join with fellow believers of the past, present, and future in praising God and partaking of the blessed Eucharist. The mystical body of Christ is nowhere else so complete as in worship, and this reminds us why quality liturgical music is so important in creating an atmosphere of reverence and worship and expressing our love of God.

It's time to put modernism in its place and insist upon good music within our churches. "Sing a New Church" is hardly the only poorly-written hymn or simple-minded chorus out there. Whether attending Catholic or Protestant churches, the quality of the music echoing forth from our places of worship usually has more in common with a movie theater or other entertainment venue than with the sacred. As the secular invades the sacred, it is easy for many of us to lose hope. Those of us who have attempted to do something constructive run into a brick wall. In one sense, that brick wall is a good thing.

Nothing is easily changed within the Catholic Church, and I thank God that this is true. It is not wind-tossed as so many of the Protestant denominations find themselves. On the other hand, it creates a degree of challenge when facing issues of this nature, matters of true renewal. The hope we have is in Christ, and we know with certainty that the "New Church" will never overcome the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I suggest further that we take hope in the small things. I have been pleasantly surprised and thankful with the number of Catholics who are dissatisfied with the state of our liturgical music. Late last year, a young priest even told me that he was taking steps to place "Sing a New Church" on his permanent "do not play" list. It's only one small step, but it's definitely a move in the right direction.

(1) Anthony Esolen, "Bad Poetry, Bad Theology," This Rock, 19, no. 9 (November 2008), 16.

(2) Anthony Esolen, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Washington, D.C. : Regnery, 2008).

(3) St. Augustine, Confessions, X, xxxiii (50).

(4) Timothy J. Mockaitis, The Seal: A Priest's Story (Philadelphia : Xlibris, 2008).

(5) Excerpts from Sing to the Lord, Copyright [c] 2007, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington D.C. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the permission of the copyright holder.

(6) Philip North and John A. North, eds., Sacred Space: House of God, Gate of Heaven (London: Continuum, 2007).

Although Karl Erickson's articles have appeared in America, The National Catholic Weekly, Catholic Answers' This Rock, Episcopal Church News, Seattle Pacific University's Response, Tiber River Catholic Book Reviews, and the Portland Tribune. In Karl's "spare time", he works for the State of Oregon--as he has done in a variety of positions for the last decade (between the Oregon State Department of Revenue and the Oregon State Employment Department). karlerickson@earthlink.net

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