Unitarian Universalists need to be countercultural.  We need to be countercultural because there is much in our home culture (I’m thinking of US culture, but it applies everywhere there are UUs) that needs to be challenged.  One such characteristic (and here I’m definitely speaking of the US) is the tendency to equate progress and future orientation with a dismissal of the past.  Tear down the old to build the new. Adopt this exciting new technology and don’t bother to save anything from the one it replaces.  Favor youth over age. Why learn history?–it’s boring and irrelevant. That’s our modus operandi as US Americans.

So Unitarian Universalist ministers are walking in step with the dominant culture when we diss the “gray hymnal,” Singing the Living Tradition (SLT).  There were a few such occasions during the UUMA CENTER Institute in Asilomar earlier this month, which is why I bring it up. There was a lot that bothered me about the “uh-huhs!” that followed the hymnal-bashing, and the gleeful trashing of the past was bothersome element #1.  Hymnals are not just songbooks; they are repositories of history. For example, SLT records a very brief window in our history, between the adoption of the seven principles and five sources in 1985, and the addition of the sixth source in 1995.* And of course, it holds melodies and words that, like the beautiful brick buildings of old mill towns, I would hate to see discarded in favor of the new, no matter how beautiful the new might be (and the songs we are proposing to put in their place are sometimes as unbeautiful as the factory-built, vinyl-sided crap that now occupies the towns, but that’s a topic for another post).

When we changed over to the gray hymnal, what did we do with all the blue ones? In the case of most congregations, we discarded them, maybe keeping one on hand for the library (or not) but not using them anymore.  That great reading that didn’t make the cut for SLT? Forget it. The vast legacy of Kenneth Patton, whose mark is all over the blue hymnal as it was all over the Universalism (and humanism, and UUism) of his time? Reduced to eight nuggets (and most of them are indeed solid gold). Your mother’s favorite hymn? Gone. What a waste.

I appreciate the openness to other music that characterized the week at Asilomar.  We sang music my congregation almost never uses, and a lot of it was great.  It was cool to find spiritual meaning in pop songs that usually make me change the station (but seriously, UU ministers singing “love, lift us up where we belong!” in worship sound much better than Joe Cocker.  Of course, I think just about anything sounds better than Joe Cocker). I have lots more to say, good and bad, about the music of Institute week, but only praise for the willingness to break out of the hymnal(s) and try some new-for-us music.

However, in creating my home music library, I don’t throw out the old stuff when I buy the new, do you?  I bought a Dixie Chicks CD last fall–for me, this is cutting edge–and I still listen to my Beatles albums. (Is it okay to call them albums? I’m seriously dating myself, aren’t I?)  And that Dar Williams disc that I almost wore out the first six months I had it. And the late Beethoven quartets. And so on and so forth. Let’s not bury the hymnal just because we make the radical discovery that there are excellent songs for worship outside it.

Something I would like to bury is the mantra I heard a couple of times during the week and predict will be repeated ten times more at General Assembly, “No church that’s growing sings from a hymnal.” I want to see some documentation before I take that seriously. Also, I would like to know what it actually means. Individual congregations or denominations? Does it mean they don’t even have a hymnal, or that they do but they tend to project the words on a screen rather than use the books? I suspect it is simply a very broad translation of “mainline denominations are not growing,” which is itself a sloppy statement. The Catholic church and the Mormon church are not, technically, mainline denominations, because that’s shorthand for “mainline Protestant denominations,” but they are not independent or evangelical; they are both growing; and they both have hymnals.

I strongly favor expanding our music sources.  I especially favor getting our noses out of the books so we can look at each other.  I’ve purposely made our new Thurday evening services hymnal-free because something different happens when we sing music that doesn’t require reading.  But they use music from SLT, because it is powerful and beautiful.  Let’s not throw that beauty and power away.


*The first five sections of the hymnal, encompassing 356 of the 415 hymns, correspond to the then-five sources. Also, the Principles and Purposes (which also include the sources) are printed on page x-xi.