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Musicians gather to shepherd future of hymnody

July 21, 2010

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.

Hymns, praise music, Negro spirituals, Christian rock, sacred harp and Gregorian chant may seem like starkly different styles with little in common, but they share one thing: they can all be heard in churches across America.

That’s what brought about 220 Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Mennonites and dozens from other denominations together for a five-day meeting of the Hymn Society, which ended July 15 at Samford University.

“We all sing,” said Deb Loftis, executive director of the Richmond, VA-based Hymn Society. “We embrace each other’s tradition. What we’re trying to do is embrace the widest variety of congregational music, and bridge stylistic differences.”

One night, the group had a sacred harp singing, using shape-note songbooks. Another, they gathered at a black church and sang spirituals.

“It’s an opportunity to study and celebrate what congregations sing,” said Emily Brink, senior research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, MI “This is one place that text writers, tune writers, musicians and publishers can talk.”

While churches across the country sometimes split and fight over musical styles — with older members arguing for keeping old hymns and younger people pushing for contemporary music — the Hymn Society wants to teach the world’s churches to sing in harmony without conflict.

“We want to open the door to the new, but not turn our back on the past,” said Brink, a former president of the Hymn Society.

Scholars addressed a range of topics, including the role of female hymn writers as social reformers in the 1800s. Abolitionist hymn writer Julia Ward Howe, author of the lyrics for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was a foremost example.

“They couldn’t preach from the pulpit, they couldn’t work outside the home, but they could write hymns,” Brink said. “That was how they preached.”

Part of the Hymn Society’s mission includes encouraging hymn writers to address social issues that have been overlooked, Brink said.

“We can’t ignore the needs of our world,” she said. Something like BP struggling to cap a leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico could spawn a body of hymn music, Brink suggested.

“Abuse of creation is an issue now that hymn writers are being challenged to address,” she said

Greg Garrison writes for The Birmingham News in Birmingham, Ala.

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