By LINDA M. LINONIS
“Glory to God,” the name of the new Presbyterian Church USA hymnal, answers the first question in the Westminster Shorter Cathechism, which is: “What is the chief end of man?”
A new songbook for the denomination happens only every 20-25 years, so it’s greatly anticipated.
To help with the transition, Dr. Mary Louise “Mel” Bringle, chairperson of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song, is giving presentations at churches on the eastern seaboard and Midwest to explain the selection process and contents of the hymnal.
Recently, she visited First Presbyterian Church, 201 Wick Ave., where the Rev. Nick Mager is pastor and an “old friend.” Dr. Bringle is professor of religious studies and chairperson of the humanities division at Brevard College in Brevard, N.C. She also is an award-winning hymn writer and has served as president of the Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada.
At the morning adult forum April 7, she spoke on “Family Albums for the People of God: 13 Things to Know about the New Hymnal.” About 60 people representing 12 to 15 area churches attended an afternoon program for clergy, church musicians, worship committee members and members on “Treasures Old and New: On the Hunt for a New Hymnal.” Dr. Bringle, a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church, said 220 people applied to serve on the committee. Fifteen were selected, and she was elected chairperson. David Eicher is hymnal editor.
Dr. Bringle is no stranger to church music. “I grew up in the church,” she said. A memory of her father is how he “loved to sing hymns,” she said.
Her career as a hymn writer began in an unusual fashion. “It was kind of a fluke,” she said. A former student asked her to write something for his wedding and he set the words to music. That endeavor in 1998, titled “From Sacred Love All Loving Flows,” launched her hymn writing.
Dr. Bringle estimated she’s written between 200 and 300 hymns.
“I get my inspiration from the music,” she said, noting the compositions are written by others. “It’s a different approach.”
Dr. Bringle said the hymn committee first met in August 2008 and met its deadline of January 2012 after evaluating some 10,000 pieces of music. Hymns were anonymous, that is, not identified by writer or composer.
The 15-member committee worked in teams of three; if two out of three voted for the hymn, it moved on to the subcommittee. The entire committee met four times a year at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Ky.
“When we met, we sang, talked and prayed,” she said.
From the 10,000 hymn submissions, the committee whittled the hymnal down to 853, she explained. It contains “old standbys” such as “I Love to Tell the Story,” “I Need Thee Every Hour,” “Rock of Ages” and “Shall We Gather at the River.”
Among contemporary entries are “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” “Awesome God” and “On Eagles Wings.”
Dr. Bringle said the committee established guidelines for inclusion.
“Hymns had to have sound theology, teachings of the Church or tell Bible stories,” she said. “They also had to have skilled use of language and music that was singable.”
Dr. Bringle acknowledged that change evokes a range of emotions including anticipation, concern and excitement.
She likened the new hymnal to the changing content of family albums as new members are welcomed.
Dr. Bringle noted that new hymns are written and should have a place in the hymnal, just as some old favorites should be retained. But, she noted, some hymns “fall out of use,” and “new ones” need to be added.
She reiterated that the title of the hymnal, “Glory to God,” also defines the role of hymns. “Singing hymns helps create community,” she said. “They are a way of praying together.”
Dr. Bringle said defining what makes a good hymn is challenging. “Hymns can be simple to the complex. The ones that touch people’s hearts endure,” she said, adding that’s something hard to predict.
She said the committee realized not everyone will be happy with all the selections in hymnal.
“It reflects a diverse community,” she said.
But she noted the hymnal works with why many attend church — to participate in community, hear the message and sing the music.
Dr. Bringle is writing study guidelines to help congregations in the transition. “Hymns help shape how we worship,” she said.
A nod to technology will be digital options of e-books and DVDs.
When the Rev. Mr. Mager was pastor at Laurinburg Presbyterian Church in Laurinburg, N.C., Dr. Bringle was a member. Mr. Mager said he appreciated how Dr. Bringle helped people have a positive perspective on the new hymnal.
“Our world has changed so much since the last hymnal was published,” he said.
“We’re more a global church community.”
Mr. Mager said the hymns reflect cultural and ethnic diversity, which is part of the church family history and global Christian community. “It’s an investment in being inclusive,” he said.