Hymns the UMC Catechism

If there was ever a tradition that should have violently held to their traditional hymnody it would be the Wesleyan tradition.  Let me be clear, I am not a hyper-traditionalist, there are good a number of contemporary hymns, praise songs, and choruses that I like and think are valuable to the church.  This posting is in no way a rant against contemporary worship per se.  I’ll admit that I personally find myself annoyed with most contemporary worship, but I will be the first to admit that there really is some lyrically excellent music being produced in our day and being used in the contemporary setting.  Nonetheless the trend in the UMC toward using more contemporary popular worship songs is a huge problem for Methodism, larger than it would be for a Lutheran, Reformed, or even the Catholic Church.

Awhile back I posted regarding Creeds and Catechisms, and expressed my disappointment in the fact that the UMC is very sporadic (at best) in their use these historic statements.  I stand behind that post, especially in the way we see the UMC’s incredibly (dare I say fatally) broad theological spectrum.   Methodism has not always been that way.  The Wesley’s were adamant about ‘catechesis’ yet their method was music.  Consider the thousands of hymns written by the Wesleys alone all with the purpose of expressing doctrinal truth in a repetitive and memorable manner.  They wrote the hymns to the tune of familiar entertaining pieces of the day which served to enhance the ability to memorize the key doctrine which the hymns were to communicate.  The Wesleys were specific in how hymns should be sung, and adamant about not taking artistic license to improve upon them, knowing that artistic license created individualism out of what was meant to be community worship and dare I say a form of covenantal catechesis.  In many ways this method of songs, hymns, and spiritual songs as a method of catechesis could be seen as having more biblical support than the standard question and answer format of the reformation and catholic traditions.  Clearly the Hebrews did this with their Psalms, and Timothy was commanded by Paul to continue in this vein.

The point is that in Methodism our entire ‘indoctrination system’ hinges upon hymnody.  Other traditions continue to recite creeds, catechisms, and so on, but we rarely do so.  Instead historically we have been a people who use hymns for that purpose.  Now as we see Methodism going contemporary and choosing songs based partly upon doctrine, partly upon singability, and largely upon popularity we have created a more appealing worship setting but have removed our primary method of indoctrination.  (I use the word indoctrination in the instruction sense, not the propaganda sense).  This is a serious problem for us.
Whenever you attempt to address this you will find Methodists telling you “we originated the contemporary scene when Charles and John started putting all their music to the tune of popular tunes sung in the pubs”, or they say something similar to that.  However they miss the original intent of this.  ‘Pub music’ was not used to make hymn singing popular and fun, in fact the Wesleys put very stringent guidelines as to how hymns could be sung, and it was clear they were not doing it just to be attractive.  The reason for using the bar tunes was because they provided an already clear framework for memory of doctrine.

Now that we have forgone an intentional hymnody and replaced it with a series of contemporary songs that people enjoy, we fail to commit our whole theology to memory.  Again, much of the new music is doctrinally excellent, but it is not intentional in the same way that the early hymns of Methodism were, and the newer music has not been written with the same intent that the original Methodist hymns were written.

Other traditions can survive being loose with their music because there is a consistent system for imparting their theology to their adherents.  Methodists’ music is our system, so we do not have the liberty to be loose with it.


Aaron said...

Same in CHOG... they pride themselves on being free of a written doctrine but you can never take away Bill and Gloria ;-)

Jay Miklovic said...

Aaron, the UMC has plenty of written doctrine and is ok with that. (Note, I shudder at the reference to Bill and Gloria, but they are certainly alive and well in many UMC settings!!).

My fear with the UMC is that Methodism used to pride itself on the fact that their hymnal served also as their confession of faith. (yes we have articles of faith outside of the hymnal, but the 'practical' confession was the hymnal itself.) I do not think it is bad to have the hymnal as the confession, but it needs to be recognized as such and the songs that get placed in it need to be guarded diligently. The issue that contemporary music causes for the UMC is that changing music to contemporary means throwing out the confession of faith itself, or at least rendering it practically obsolete.

Dawn K said...

"Other traditions can survive being loose with their music because there is a consistent system for imparting their theology to their adherents. Methodists’ music is our system, so we do not have the liberty to be loose with it."

I disagree with the above statement, at least with the first sentence of it. I can't speak for the Reformed or Roman Catholics but in my tradition of Lutheranism hymnody has historically played a large part in catechizing the lay people. The idea is communicating doctrinal truth through music.

I think all traditions are impoverished through the replacement of solid hymnody with vapid praise music. It's like replacing meat and potatoes with cotton candy. Compare songs like "Salvation Unto Us Has Come" or "Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice" with songs like "I Could Sing of Your Love Forever" or "There's Just Something About that Name." There is literally no comparison. The first two teach the entire Christian faith from beginning to end and the second two teach little but sentimentality. The logical end of a constant diet of the latter is "the catechism/confessions aren't really that important. All that matters is that we love Jesus." For Lutherans, our hymnody supports what is being taught in the catechism and the confessions. Praise music largely undermines this teaching by its very nature.

Jay Miklovic said...

I agree with your comment, and all other traditions take a serious hit when they lose the great hymns of the faith for those of less substance. My contention simply is that Methodism at its outset put all the eggs in the hymn basket when it came to memorization of doctrine. Therefore, if Methodism loses solid hymnody it indeed loses everything.

My statement:
"Other traditions can survive being loose with their music because there is a consistent system for imparting their theology to their adherents."

Is not saying that other traditions don't lose much if they lose their hymns... it is only to say that they do not lose everything, in the same way Methodism does.