Editor's Postlude: The Hymn Book as a Prayer Book and Bible

November 08, 2023
hymn book in hands of a child and adult in a pew

“Come, almighty to deliver; let us all thy grace receive.” I find myself singing Charles Wesley’s hymn “Love divine, all loves excelling” (VU 333) each morning as I drive to work at the church. His words, penned in 1747, express the yearnings and deepest prayers of my heart, as I think of concerns I have for family and friends, and for my community and the world.

I am drawn to hymns that address the Divine, hymns that help me reach out to God with praise, concern, and longing. These are the hymns that stay in my heart long after I’ve sung them, much more than hymns that are more didactic and seek to teach me some piece of theology. I’ve set myself the goal of memorizing the words to every hymn in the hymn book, so that I can carry them always in my heart and mind, inviting them to shape my faith and my life.

I understand why we have turned to technology in worship by projecting hymn lyrics. It provides a better posture for singing, with the head turned upward rather than focused down on a book. It is easier for those who find it difficult to hold the weight of a large tome of hymns in their hands. Perhaps it saves paper, though most hymn books stay in sanctuaries for decades. For communities of faith who do not have permanent sanctuaries, projection saves having to store and move around the physical hymn books. Projection also makes it easier to include new hymns and songs.

Yet, there is something lost when we do not have a physical hymn book available to us. When a hymn is projected, the words disappear from our view with a click, and the next words appear. But what if there is a phrase that has captured my attention and resonated with me? It is gone and I don’t have a chance to review it and savour it.

Since the development of the printing press, which made Bibles and hymn books available to all worshippers, the hymn book has served not only as a source of singing but also as a prayer book. It was common for people to have their own copy of the hymn book at home, bringing it along with the Bible to church on Sunday. Hymns were sung at home, but they could also be read, studied, and used as prayers.

Hymn books were the first sources of theological reflection in many households. How does Isaac Watts interpret this scripture passage? What does Charles Wesley have to say about Jesus? What words did Cecil Frances Alexander use to describe God for children?

Hymns have brought scripture to life. With story and music woven together, scripture has found a lasting place in people’s hearts and minds. So often, it is easier to remember something we’ve sung, rather than something we’ve only read.

While we will move forward with using technology to project the words of our hymns, I invite us to remember the role that hymn books can play as prayer book and Bible. Even if you always project hymn words, make sure to have some physical hymn books available and provide hymn numbers for what you are singing, so that people have the opportunity to find again that phrase that captured them. Or perhaps it was something they disagreed with, something they want to consider and maybe never sing again.

Use verses of hymns as prayers: “Creative God, we give you thanks that this your world is incomplete” (VU 292). Create sermons based on hymns, exploring the theology as well as the poetic approach and historical context of the hymn. Invite people to pray through a section of the hymn book for a season, such as Advent or Lent, and ask them to reflect on hymns that resonate with them and those that don’t, and why. Offer the opportunity for people to share what makes a hymn their favourite.

I wonder how often we sing the words of a hymn and hardly consider what we are singing. We sing, the words disappear from the screen, and on we go with worship. How might we recover the hymn book as our prayer book, and discover the theological depth and beauty of so many of our hymns?

“Take, O take me as I am; summon out what I shall be…” (MV 85)

Susan Lukey, Editor