Hymns for a lifetime

Ed. Note: Audrey Seah attended this year’s Hymn Society conference and offers this reflection on one of the breakout presentations.

Over the past 25 years, Ken Wilson, music minister at Knollwood Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has fostered a culture of hymn singing amongst the entire congregation through a remarkable program of hymn memorization for children in grades 3 – 5. Through the program, children systematically memorize one or two stanzas of 20 hymns, carefully chosen to fit year A, B and C of the Revised Common Lectionary. The children are exposed to part-singing early as they learn to sing both soprano and alto parts. The basics of hymnody such as hymn forms and tune names are also taught.  Children who successfully memorize 60 hymns are awarded with a place on the “hymns for a lifetime all-stars” board that is displayed in the church sanctuary.

This video gives you an idea of what has been accomplished:

Learning the Language of Praise from Stephen Ball on Vimeo.

As part of his presentation, Ken Wilson shared 10 reasons for developing a culture of hymn singing among children. A few that struck me:

  • Children are prepared for a lifetime of service as church musicians – starting them young, and having them take on leadership roles in younger choirs, help the singers experience music as ministry.
  • The children set the tone for learning and singing for the rest of the church – having a child sing a hymn by memory beside an adult during worship is incredibly inspiring.
  • The memorization of 60 hymns equips the young with a repertoire of theological language to express themselves with through high and low moments of their life.
  • A hymn-singing culture becomes a place where it is very easy for the transforming love Christ to become “indelibly engraved” on the hearts of all who sing.

The third point stands out to me, as a Roman Catholic. One of the intentions for introducing responsorial psalms into the post-Vatican II mass was to enable the faithful to learn the psalms and hopefully use them as a language for prayer. But has that worked? How many Catholics (non-liturgical musicians, especially) express themselves by quoting or singing the psalms?

Given that a “hymn-singing culture” in the Roman Catholic church is either non-existent or in its infancy in most places, what then, is our theological language outside of the mass? Is hymn singing something worth cultivating? How would such a program in a Catholic parish impact the lives of parishoners? Can/should a hymnody program be part of faith formation, and possibly integrated into all other ministries so that singing becomes a culture?

Audrey Seah is pursuing an MA in Theology (with a concentration in Liturgy) at Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary in Collegeville, MN.

11 comments

  1. Broken record continues here.
    The US bishops failed us in not pushing for a Psalter more quickly and then committing infanticide against ICEL’s offspring on the basis of a narrow prejudice by a small minority against the long-planned and worked toward inclusive language. Shame!

    The English speaking RCC needs a single Psalter, preferably one amenable to a variety of musical forms, but one Psalter, ASAP. The lack of a Psalter has just the effects mentioned, no common prayer language for the people outside of Mass. Makes one jealous of the Anglican tradition.

    A Psalter and the freedom to compose for the set texts and assurance of at least 25 years of life should do much for reducing the liturgical music wars and the harsh criticism of hymnody which continues so irrelevantly from some quarters.

    A Psalter, now, and use it for Introits and Communion and for full length Psalms in the Liturgy of the Word, please.

  2. Is there a list anywhere of the most recent 60 hymns the children have memorized?

    How many of them would be appropriate for use across all Christian denominations?

  3. Tom, point of fact re: your first paragraph.

    The US bishops and ALL English-speaking conferences of bishops approved the ICEL psalter for liturgical use. It was the Apostolic See which refused to confirm that decision.

    Now we have the Revised Grail Psalter, which possibly will become the universally used English psalter, And it has the confirmation of the Apostolic See.

    1. Ron: you guys who were there and know what REALLY happened need to make sure ALL THIS GETS WRITTEN DOWN before it’s too late and people forget (or worse still, people put around untrue stories).

      The Prophets of Doom are already re-writing too much history to suit their own (disastrous) ends!

  4. Which apostolic see is that: Rome, (Peter and Paul); Constantinople, (Andrew); Alexandria, (Mark); Antioch, (Peter); Jerusalem, (James); Athens, (Paul); Ephesus, (John); Philippi in Macedonia, (Paul); Thessaloniki, (Paul); Corinth, (Paul) Malta, (Paul); Paphos, (Barnabas) to mention but a few?

  5. The third point stands out to me, as a Roman Catholic. One of the intentions for introducing responsorial psalms into the post-Vatican II mass was to enable the faithful to learn the psalms and hopefully use them as a language for prayer. But has that worked? How many Catholics (non-liturgical musicians, especially) express themselves by quoting or singing the psalms?

    Audrey, thanks for posting this. My short answer to your question is: It has begun to work. People tell me that they finds themselves remembering, even singing, bits of psalms in moments of fear, delight. and the like.

    Given that a “hymn-singing culture” in the Roman Catholic church is either non-existent or in its infancy in most places, what then, is our theological language outside of the mass? Is hymn singing something worth cultivating? How would such a program in a Catholic parish impact the lives of parishoners? Can/should a hymnody program be part of faith formation, and possibly integrated into all other ministries so that singing becomes a culture?

    I don’t know if I can agree with your first sentence: Hymn-singing is very much a part of the RC culture in the U.S. But our language inside and outside of Mass ought to be the psalms and canticles. The whole intention of the Psallite project is encourage the singing of the Word of God. to get the Word down into the heart, and to help the heart sing.

    1. Paul, I will have to respectfully disagree with the idea that the language inside and outside of Mass ought to be only the psalms and canticles. Hymns extend beyond the psalms and canticles because the Word includes so much more than that. Growing up in a Protestant environment meant for me, a childhood filled with praise and worship music, traditional Anglican hymns sung at morning assemblies and around the piano during reccess, and children’s songs from bible camps. Many of these lyrics still return to me today. The R.C. “hymn-singing” tradition dims in comparison to my experience growing up. To be honest, I don’t find responsorial psalms as helpful for building theological vocabulary as it is unlike praying the psalms and canticles at the liturgy of the hours. I suspect that it is difficult to commit psalms to memory when the responsorial psalms (or any text for that matter) lack proper (and memorable) tunes, are broken up into 1-line responses for the congregation, and have a myriad of parahrases. What Psallite has done is definitely a great start, especially for places that don’t even sing, but we seem to have a great deal more to do.

  6. I’m not sure what I think about this. As much as I love children singing in churches, this idea seems potentially dangerous for two reasons. A) while children control the pace of learning, children have no choice over the hymns sung and this can potentially limit God to a select series of hymns. B) Part of this seems like a power grab to build a culture where hymn singing is privileged over other forms of music, which I find problematic. By building children as the base of learning hymns, the people in power are building a culture of children and through the children seek to make hymn singing the accepted practice. I don’t like this model as even if the end of hymn singing in Mass is agreeable, the method could at least be questioned as being manipulative. But to be fair, I’m always decently suspicious of people in authority and how people spread ideology as I think there’s not enough listening by people in power. And personally, I also don’t think hymns are always theologically healthy if we’re trying to build a positive anthropology and relationship with God. Sadly, I think a lot of secular music understands this relationship better than Christian music (and I do include hymns and not just the praise music a lot of people like to critique on these parts…)

  7. I sometimes wonder what shape congregational singing would be in if Vatican II had been followed by an extensive and vigorous program to teach people – especially children – to sing the Mass (like if the collection of chants in “Jubilate Deo” had actually been taken advantage of) and to sing the psalms in a simple chant-like way in English.

    My memory of CCD was that it was never so rigorous that there would have been no time to learn how to participate in singing the Mass and God’s word. I probably would have had more fun and long-term benefits from learning the Sanctus in Latin and some simple psalm-tone settings than from all the time I spent doing word searches and crossword puzzles.

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