What Shall We Sing?

She was upset, and I can’t blame her. The song leader changed the words to a grand old hymn. (“When we all get to heaven” became “When the saved get to heaven.” Apparently, he believed some of the singers were vile sinners, but that is a story for another day.) This sweet, upset sister raised an interesting question: “When should we change the words of a hymn?”

Obviously, the meanings of words change over time. So, it seems reasonable to change the text to make the hymn understood. Did you know the original lyrics to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” were “Hark How All the Welkin Rings”? Likewise, the beautiful hymns “Night with Ebon Pinon” and “Here I raise my Ebenezer” are rarely understood by moderns. Perhaps it is time to modernize them. I am especially worried about children and new Christians misunderstanding our songs. I remember one young man asking why we were singing about “Gladly the Cross-eyed Bear” and “Bringing in the Cheese.”

Likewise, we don’t use words like thee and thou in our prayers or in worship anymore. Why should they continue to hold a place in our hymnals?

But change can be dangerous. My friends at the Methodist Church are struggling to update their hymns by using gender-neutral words. (As they sing, some are changing “God Our Father” to “God Our Mother.”) The poor Presbyterians are wrestling with hymns that celebrate substitutionary atonement. (The hymn “In Christ Alone” has a line “the wrath of God was satisfied.” Some believe that reflects a vision of an angry God, and so it was left out of their latest hymnal.) Even worse, the Canadian Anglican church just released Songs for the Holy Other: Hymns Affirming the LGBTQIA2S+ Community, which has been warmly received by many Episcopalians here in the states. The Lord isn’t even mentioned in some of the hymns.

Please excuse my curmudgeonly attitude as I sit in my rocker. The church was born in song – just consider Mary and Elizabeth in the opening chapters of Luke. Music is an essential part of our worship, but it has always been controversial. (Should the congregation sing or just the minister? Should women be allowed to sing? Can we sing “contrived hymns” or should we only use the words of Scripture like the Psalms?)

For me, though, the greatest tragedy during this pandemic has been the loss of our voices as we worship in song. Lord, when can we take these masks off and sit together again?



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