Progressive Hymns

Full Hymnal Book


It took 50 years for Eleanor Farjeon’s Morning Has Broken, first published in 1931, to make it into the 1982 Episcopal Hymnbook. Would it even have been admitted then were it not for the widely popular version sung with guitar by Cat Stevens in 1972? Such is the reality that any writer of new hymns faces, and which confronts this collection of almost 50 hymns.

While all these hymns are scored for piano or organ accompaniment, it seems that a third of them were first sung with guitar, and could be now. Their titles such as Moses Is Dead, Sing Me A Carol, Blood Flow Down, Rebekah’s Song, It’s So Nice Here In The Pew, suggest their folksy, intimate feeling. In contrast, hymns called Once More The Advent Candles Burn, Where Are The Prophets?, God’s Dearest Work Of Art, In Faith We say Christ Has Died, evoke a sense of greater formality.

However, it is the title Progressive Hymns that should grab our attention. For what exactly might make a hymn “progressive”? The Introduction in the hymnbook ties a hymn’s tendency to raise questions to a progressive quality. Hymn titles such as Where Are the Prophets?, When A Building, When A Church?, Who Is Our Neighbor?, and Where is Jesus Now For Me? actually include a question mark. Other questions are prompted by the titles: To A God Within, If We But knew How To Worship You, Spirit, Like the Wind, Is Wild, God’s Dearest Work Of Art, and This, My Song, A Skeptic’s Hymn.

As you might anticipate, there are no allusions in these hymns to a royal potentate who answers prayers on demand, nor to a heavy atonement theology which understands Jesus’ execution as a necessary price to be paid for our sins.

Where theology is actually featured, attributions are made to known theologians: Under A Cross (Richard Rohr), Two Loves Have We (Theilhard de Chardin), God’s Dearest Work Of Art (James P. Carse), Spirit Within Us (Paul Tillich), and We By Hope Are Saved (Reinhold Niebuhr).

Lyrics and theological thought are not what most persons remember hymns by. They remember titles and phrases, but only if the melodies have appealed to them and settled in their memories, seemingly forever. What of the melodies of this collection of hymns? Well, the professed oldest hymn (late sixties) has a House Of the Rising Sun feel; and what is probably the latest hymn, Sanctus, is borrowed by the composer from his earlier setting of a Shakespeare sonnet. Once More The Advent Candles Burn adheres not to the melody but to the form of King’s College Choir’s Once In Royal David’s City. It’s So Nice Here In the Pew might well recall a popular Edith Piaf ballad, while New Born Children Of God could remind someone of a Gordon Lightfoot song. There’s a Name Too High has a hup-two-three-four quality like the Marine Corps Hymn, and Sing, Then, Noel! could be a deep-voiced, Slavic ballad.

A final and important note: Those wanting to have a melody line plus lyrics to these hymns, to print for congregational singing, can go to the website and download and transfer any of these hymns to Sunday bulletins – at no charge. That could be worth ten times the hymnbook’s modest price. (And yes, if organists or pianists are to accompany these hymns, they will need the full arrangements conveniently printed out in the hymnbook).

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