Reflections on The New Century Hymnal

Reflections on The New Century Hymnal
Richard L. Floyd


(Note:  In 1995 the United Church of Christ had just published The New Century Hymnal, which was the first denominational hymnal to take a radical approach to the issue of “inclusive language.” The hymnal was from the first very controversial, and objections to it were raised on both poetic and theological grounds.

In Eastertide of 1996 Confessing Christ sponsored a symposium at the Congregational Church in Boylston, Massachusetts to raise some of the theological issues raised by the language changes in the hymnal. Members of the Hymnal Committee were invited to come and speak, as were people from Confessing Christ.

I was on a panel responding to some of the speakers. I had prepared some remarks, but they have never appeared in print, and I just found them in a computer file while cleaning out an old computer. It is an old battle now, but at the time it was pretty contentious and it was interesting for me now to see what I had to say at the time.)

I’d like to thank Herb Davis and Confessing Christ for inviting me to give some remarks today about my response to The New Century Hymnal.   My friend Ted Trost, who is a historian at Harvard, has reminded me that the German Reformed Church (one of our UCC predecessor bodies) fought bitterly over the language of the liturgy for over a generation and somehow stayed together. Some of you have indicated that you think the UCC is being split over The New Century Hymnal, but I hope that it isn’t so.  I would hope the United Church of Christ can have this extended conversation about the language appropriate for the church to express it faith without ad hominen attacks, “telling the truth in love” for the up-building of the church.

We all know that this subject can evoke strong feelings, and that many in our time have decided certain practices are tests of faithfulness. We need to have this conversation without “unchurching” each other.  I am sorry that my friend and former colleague Ansley Throckmorton feels that she was called a heretic earlier today. I didn’t hear Dr. (Richard) Christensen call anyone a heretic.

What I did hear him say is that that certain ways of talking about the faith have been judged by the church over the centuries to be false or inadequate to express the truth of the Christian faith. This is a descriptive and critical task without which no church can long survive and still be in continuity with the one, catholic and apostolic church.

To use but one example that Dr. Christianson mentioned: to substitute “God” for “Father” in the baptismal formula or in a hymn, as The New Century Hymnal sometimes does, is to express a subordination of the other two persons of the Trinity, for if the first person is God, it would follow that the second and third persons are not God. It is texts we ought to be scrutinizing, not people.  And it is heresies that ought to concern us, not heretics (although to even imagine a conversation about what constitutes heresy in the UCC is to invite a giggle.)

I need to say at the outset that there is much to like about The New Century Hymnal.  It contains over 600 hymns, a complete Psalter and both a scripture index and an index keyed to the Revised Common Lectionary.  The editors have found lots of fine new hymns and commissioned others.  They have returned many old favorites dropped from previous hymnals for being pietistic or otherwise theologically or musically deficient, such as the “Old Rugged Cross,” “In the Garden” and “Amazing Grace.”  They have cleaned up the “thees” and “thous” in old hymns and made the language about people gender-inclusive, removing phrases like “brotherhood of man” and “sons of God.”  All this needed doing and if that is all the hymnal committee and editorial panel had done I think the NCH would have been well received and widely used.

But the committee went very much farther in their agenda to remove words they deemed “offensive” and it is the way that they revised the hymn texts that have made this hymnal so controversial.  The language of The New Century Hymnal is, as promised, “new.”  In the new hymns this can be refreshing, but with well-known favorites, the ones the faithful have in their memory banks, it can be jarring.

Masculine images for God have been nearly eliminated, as have most personal pronouns for God and Jesus.  The word “Father,” considered patriarchal, is out. “Lord,” considered sexist and classist is out, except where it was returned to refer to Jesus (as demanded by a spontaneous floor vote at General Synod.) Hierarchical images are greatly reduced as are spatial metaphors for transcendence.  Images that might be offensive to some people of color or people with disabilities have been eliminated so that references to darkness are out, such as “Dark and cheerless is the morn unaccompanied by Thee” from Isaac Watts’ “Christ whose Glory Fills the Skies” (a hymn that sadly didn’t make the cut for this reason, I would guess.)

The creators of this hymnal hoped that, in Chairman’s James Crawford’s words, “the church will discover a language that stretches the dimensions of justice and helps reveal the unfathomable depths of the God of the biblical faith.” (Introduction to NCH)  Fair enough, but how has this been done?

When I think of the debate surrounding the hymnal I am reminded of the Prego Spaghetti Sauce commercial.  Do you remember it?  When the Italian-American brother comes into the kitchen and asks his brother what he is cooking?  “I’m cooking spaghetti sauce.”  “Does it have ripe tomatoes like mama’s?” “It’s in there!”  To each question about ingredients the brother answers, “It’s in there.”

And The New Century Hymnal is like that.  High Christology?  It’s in there.  The pre-existence of Christ?  It’s in there.  The Trinity?  It’s in there.

So the problem is not the exclusion of the main features of our tradition.  No, the problem is that to avoid words deemed offensive the TNCH has put them into a kind of code, and the coded language will confuse and mystify the faithful and prove inadequate to nurture new generations of Christians into the way the church speaks about the things of our faith.

I am convinced that in many cases the language of TNCH does not adequately express biblical faith, and I fear that a congregation who uses the TNCH as the sole source of its hymnody for a generation is prone to suffer a theological deficiency, a condition not unknown to our churches already, and which is, in some cases, a terminal condition.  This is a terrible disappointment for those of us who have been working hard in local congregations to raise the bar of biblical and theological literacy.

I have several specific major objections to what TNCH has done theologically to hymn texts:
First of all, the decision to eliminate “Lord” for both the first and the second persons of the Trinity has dire consequences.  “Lord” is the typical way of referring to the God of Israel in the Old Testament, and it was the conviction by the early church that they could call Jesus “Lord” as well that led to their earliest confession of faith:  “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:30).

The New Century Hymnal eliminates Lord in several ways.  It simply replaces it with “God” in some cases, such as in #479, a metrical paraphrase of Psalm 23 from the Scottish Psalter sung to Brother James’ Air.  It is a good hymn (I have chosen it for tomorrow, which is Good Shepherd Sunday.)  But to sing “the Lord is my shepherd” is better in several ways than “God is my shepherd.”  It is true to the 23rd Psalm and it retains the nice Trinitarian ambiguity about whether we refer to the first or the second person (or for that matter the third, “the Lord and giver of life!”)  Christians have always heard and sung this psalm Christologically, but that is harder now that we have God as our shepherd, and if the pattern is repeated, as it is in TNCH, you invite a non-Trinitarian and non-Christological perception of deity, leading to a Unitarianism of the first person, which is, I am afraid a tendency of this hymnal, as it is in many of our churches.

My second objection to the method of the TNCH is what I call “the violation of authorial intent.”  To enlarge the palette of words and phrases that refer to God is a laudable aim.  Let a thousand hymn writers flourish! But TNCH has a heavy hand with old texts, bowdlerizing the poetry that authors created. It pains me to see, for example, the poems of Isaac Watts and the prayers of PT Forsyth (not to mention the Nicene Creed) given new renderings that say things the authors never said, or worse, sometimes the exact opposite of what they originally said.

My final objection is the elimination of personal pronouns from The New Century Hymnal. Not only is the repetitive use of “God” to avoid “him” awkward and distracting in hymns and liturgies, but the theological implications of a depersonalized deity run deep. How long will it take for a new generation of churchgoers, hearing and saying liturgies and singing hymns that never use a personal pronoun to begin conceiving of God as something like “The Force” in Star Wars?

I know a great deal of time and money went into the production of this hymnal, and many of the people involved are long-time friends and colleagues of mine.  I question neither their sincerity nor their faithfulness. But I do believe that the language guidelines they employed, while right-minded, were wrong-headed. Political ideology is the enemy of art (and in this case, liturgy.)

Given the freedom our polity affords local congregations I am guessing that many of them will choose not to buy The New Century Hymnal, and I would advise them not to.  But it saddens me to have to say that, since a good opportunity for our denomination to have a hymnal that binds us together has been wasted.

6 thoughts on “Reflections on The New Century Hymnal

  1. Thank you so much for your comments. I am the organist and choir director at our church and, therefore, often the go to person for complaints about the hymnal. I am especially offended by the dismissal of Lord in the hymns, but pleased to note the exception in the hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Wow!! I totally agree with disregarding gender terminology when the reference is to people in general, e.g., “Rise Up, O Church of God.” Way back when, I substituted people for men. This is much better. The neutering of the Christmas carols is especially troubling. Christmas and Easter are, unfortunately, the only contact with church for some people. It is sad to see some non-regular attendees and visitors stop dead in their musical tracks when the congregation is singing different words to a carol. I have witnessed many people at Christmas Eve services stop singing because they didn’t know the new words. Often you can see the embarrassment or anger on their faces. I also believe that we are leading our younger generation away from understanding the deity of God when we totally depersonalize (Him) God. I don’t see our teens participating in hymn singing during services. Not all of younger generation are able to discern the reasons for the changes.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. The NCH was a bold experiment, but they underestimated the importance of tradition and continuity in a religious tradition. The solution is to write more new hymns and tamper as little as possible with the old ones. I write some hymns myself, and try both honor the tradition and the changes that are taking place in language.

  2. I happened to find my way to this post after getting very frustrated, yet again, with TNCH. The specific irritant in this case came from “When Peace, Like A River.” TNCH rewrites the first line to read, “When peace, like a river, upholds me each day…” rather than the original, “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way…” There are so many things wrong with the rewrite, not least of which is the awful mixing of metaphors. As I said on Facebook, unless you attend the First Congregational Church of Inner Tube Enthusiasts, then no, I’m guessing that a river is not upholding you each day. Then a friend pointed out that, even if you’re in an inner tube, it’s the tube that’s upholding you, not the river. Whereas a river that runs parallel to your path, marking out your way forward, is a lovely image of the kind of peace the author is talking about. And speaking of the author: good heavens, he wrote the hymn after his family died in a shipwreck! I don’t think floating on a body of water is really going to be his go-to image for feeling at peace. Plus the “upholds me each day” rewrite disrupts the lovely pairing of river with sea billows.

    I truly don’t understand. Who was the change made for? And why? I’m in my 30s. I teach at a seminary, but about half or more of my non-work-related friends aren’t religious at all. I do not know a single person who is likely to be thrown by “attendeth,” but I know plenty of people who are annoyed at mixed metaphors and unpoetic language. Who is this vast swath of would-be churchgoers whom the hymnal committee believes are thinking, “I’m fine with congregational singing, a practice which has no cognate in any other area of my life. I’m cool with ancient near eastern scriptures, printed unison prayers from a bulletin, and a first-century Palestinian Jewish man as the central figure of this religion. But ‘attendeth’? No, sorry, that’s a bridge too far. Please remove ‘attendeth’ and replace it with something clunky and nonsensical.”

    • Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful comment, although you must know from reading my reflections that you are “preaching to the choir.” It all took place awhile back during a period of vulgar revisionism. I was once quite upset by it, but I sense a return to sanity among some of our younger clergy (much of the laity were always mystified by the issue to begin with.) My daughter is a UCC pastor (and a Wellesley feminist) and is comfortable using a full range of language old and new. Mostly, the NCH remains an artifact of a particular time and context in the culture wars that made all of us look a little stupid. Best, Rick Floyd

      • Oh, yes, I knew I was preaching to the choir! 🙂 I did find your post very helpful in contextualizing the oddities of the NCH, and I’m grateful for that. Thank you! And I’m sure I get overbothered by mixed metaphors and things not scanning correctly, as in the NCH’s version of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” where one of the verses has a line about “sojourning” that places the accent on the second syllable. Your daughter sounds like someone whose church I would enjoy visiting very much!

      • Coincidently, in my home congregation today we sang a paraphrase of Psalm 23 from TNCH. It was based on Isaac Watt’s iconic “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” but they had conflated some of the verses with someone else’s paraphrase. I struggled to get in touch with the better angel of my nature, but I wanted to utter an oath. Lord, have mercy!

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