The Outlook on the Psalm Proposal

As I write this, two important ecclesiastical assemblies have just met: the ninth synod of the United Reformed Churches in North America in Visalia, California (June 3–5), and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s eighty-first General Assembly in Grand Rapids, Michigan (June 4–9). Both assemblies included a vote regarding the final collection of psalm settings for the new Psalter Hymnal our churches are working on together. And both assemblies overwhelmingly approved this collection.

Adopting a new Psalter Hymnal is no small feat for the URCNA, for several reasons. For one thing, our psalm singing hasn’t changed much in a hundred years; many of our churches have inherited a collection of songs dating back to the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter, from which the blue and red CRC Psalter Hymnals are both derived. (See the accompanying graphic on the history of psalm singing.) At the same time, the diverse backgrounds of our churches have given rise to varied songbooks, liturgical practices, and even worship styles, making it nearly impossible for a new Psalter Hymnal to satisfy the needs and desires of every congregation. On top of all this, the Psalter Hymnal project occurs at an incredibly early time in the history of our federation; consider that the OPC, begun in 1936, did not publish the first Trinity Hymnal until 1961, and that the Christian Reformed Church did not have a songbook of its own until almost eighty years after its founding. Unavoidably, the prospect of a new Psalter Hymnal is fraught with at least a little trepidation in the URCNA.

Despite the challenges of adopting a new songbook, however, the Psalm Proposal has many wonderful facets to commend it to the churches. It demonstrates that the URCNA has grown enough as a federation to produce fruit for the benefit not only of our own congregations but also of the church at large. It represents what OPC minister Alan Strange has called “the ecumenical opportunity of a generation,” manifesting our fundamental unity and common heritage with a broader portion of the body of Christ. And it offers us a complete, beautiful, and accurate set of texts for the whole book of Psalms, providing the URCNA with the opportunity to put its Church Order stipulation of giving the 150 psalms “the principal place in the singing of the churches” (Article 39) into practice. These blessings, and others, will make even the greatest challenges in transitioning to a new Psalter Hymnal worthwhile.

The following statistics and graphics are meant to help familiarize you with the contents of the Psalm Proposal. Due to the complexity of a set of songs this large, much of the information below is given as general categories rather than precise data. Also, as minor elements of the Psalm Proposal are continually being updated, the figures here may be approximate. Nevertheless, I hope this remains a helpful summary.

Compared with the blue Psalter Hymnal’s 310 psalm settings, the Psalm Proposal’s 275 selections form a respectable collection. Although they are similar in size, however, the actual composition of the two psalters varies significantly.

In general, the blue Psalter Hymnal tends to devote extra space to favorite psalms and sections of psalms (“God, Be Merciful to Me” and “The Tender Love a Father Has,” for instance) while skimming or summarizing certain less attractive sections of the psalter. The result is a collection of psalms that reads, and is often used, very much like a hymnal. Even the numbering system of the blue book (continuous and independent of the psalm) reflects this trend.

Compared with this style of psalm singing, the format of the Psalm Proposal may seem somewhat foreign. The numbering scheme of the collection utilizes letters in addition to the psalm numbers: Psalm 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 3, 4, and so on. In addition to the stanza numbers, the lyrics include the superscript verse numbers of the psalm text—which, incidentally, demonstrates how closely these settings resemble their sources. Delving into the lyrics themselves, one will find that they are often denser, and perhaps less poetically attractive, than their blue Psalter Hymnal counterparts. The payoff is clear, however: while the texts of the new Psalter Hymnal may represent a slightly different format of psalm singing, they will serve to more deeply hide the Word of God in our hearts.

Primary Sources

One of the greatest strengths of the Psalm Proposal is the diverse yet excellent base for its contents. About a quarter of its texts and more than half of its tunes appear in the blue Psalter Hymnal, but these have been balanced with a large collection of modern psalm texts and tunes from the Scottish tradition of psalm singing, as well as many new versions created or compiled by the URCNA and OPC committees themselves.

The proposal’s new sources represent the best of twenty-first-century psalmody from a wide swath of Reformed and Presbyterian denominations, including the Canadian Reformed Churches (the Book of Praise, a modern version of the Genevan Psalter, ongoing); the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (The Book of Psalms for Singing, 1973, and The Book of Psalms for Worship, 2009); the Free Church of Scotland (Sing Psalms, 2003); and the Reformed Church of New Zealand (Sing to the Lord, 2013). Below is the approximate distribution of the Psalm Proposal’s texts.

 

Lyric Alterations

In general, it seems that the URCNA and OPC committees have taken a middle-of-the-road approach to textual alterations. While they have eliminated most archaic pronouns (“thee,” “thy”) and the name “Jehovah” wherever it can be done unobtrusively, their report to Synod 2014 notes that they have decided to preserve the original language of “hymns considered classics.” In line with the committees’ default English Bible translation, the English Standard Version, gender-specific language has by and large remained (“That Man Is Blest,” for instance). Many blue Psalter Hymnal favorites have had their original texts preserved.

Music

In several instances the Psalm Proposal lowers the key of Psalter Hymnal tunes by a half step or a whole step to facilitate easier singing for modern congregations. Although I tend to be a stickler for original keys, these alterations are easily justifiable and remain musically feasible.

Although, as mentioned above, more than half of the Psalm Proposal’s tunes appear somewhere in the blue Psalter Hymnal, this collection still presents us with a significant portion of unfamiliar tunes to learn. Without delving into the genre we might call “contemporary Christian music,” the Psalm Proposal makes use of several recently composed tunes, including “Before the Throne of God Above” (Psalm 103A) and at least one tune by Presbyterian church musician Paul Jones (Psalm 106). Some of the late Dale Grotenhuis’s reharmonizations of familiar hymn tunes are also employed (Psalms 11B, 25B, 42B). In my review of the Psalm Proposal I have come across only three or four tunes that are not written in standard four-part harmony. Genevan tunes generally utilize Claude Goudimel’s 1564 harmonizations, as they appear in the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise. All in all, the music of the Psalm Proposal is varied and excellent, including highlights from almost every period of church music.

Summary

The question has been asked, “How many Reformed/Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer, of course, is a horrified gasp: “Change?!” Although many forms of change need to be combated with the unchanging truths of Scripture, the Psalm Proposal demonstrates one kind of change in the church that is acceptable, necessary, and wonderful to behold. It is a change that accords with the motto of the always-reforming church, semper reformanda; it is a change that will, Lord willing, assist us in worshiping God more accurately and more beautifully, “in spirit and in truth.”

Michael Kearney a member of the West Sayville URC on Long Island, New York, studies communication and music at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. He welcomes your thoughts at mrkearney@optonline.net