Changing the lyrics of hymns

In his sermon yesterday, Bishop Miller discussed the hymn “Come Down, O Love divine.” In the course of his comments he mentioned a rather significant change in the text from the 1940 to the 1982 Hymnal. The third stanza of the hymn in our hymnal reads:

And so they yearning strong, with which the soul will long,

Shall far outpass the power of human telling;

for none can guess its grace, till Love create a place

wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling

In the 1940 hymnal, the third line reads:

“For none can guess its grace, Till he become the place”

At the time, not knowing the earlier version, I assumed the change had to do with the gendered pronoun “He.” A quick look at the text suggests another reason–it’s not clear what the antecedent of “He” is. The soul? But when I looked back at the 1940 Hymnal, it struck me that there is a significant theological change to go with the change in wording. For it is not just switching from “He” to “Love.;” the verb is also changed, from “become” to “create.” And thus Love, perhaps God, becomes the main actor, creating space in the soul for the Holy Spirit to dwell; whereas in the earlier version, the sense is more passive; there’s no stated subject and no sense of activity on the part of the soul or of God.

It’s an odd coincidence that I’ve read several items in the past couple of days about the wording of another particular hymn (song?) Bosco Peters drew my attention  to a contemporary Christian song “In Christ Alone” that has become quite popular. It was sung at a recent Synod meeting and he reacted negatively to this line in it:

“Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied”

Peters argues that “these words as interpreted by many (if not most) in that room is heresy.” A follow-up post includes a poll in which you can vote on what you think is the meaning of those words.

A manufactured debate among Kiwis that has no significance for North America? Ah, but a Christian Century article from Mary Louise Bringle, who is involved in the Presbyterian Church (USA) hymnal revision discusses the very same words from the very same song. In the end, it wasn’t included in the hymnal because the replacement lyrics proposed diverged too widely from the authors’ theological perspective. (Peters’ post and readers comments suggest that a good bit of editing is taking place in those congregations where the song is used regularly, but such diversions aren’t possible when copyright permissions are necessary).

Messing with the language of hymns is always fraught with peril as those who were involved in gender-neutral revisions of hymnals over the last three decades can attest. Bringle points out some of the hymns that didn’t make the cut because of gendered language or problematic imagery, but she also writes sensitively about the larger issues at stake.

The song in question deals with Atonement theology and there are few matters that arouse as strong and divisive response as the atonement. From comments on articles, facebook and blog posts, it’s pretty clear that people disagree deeply and many of those who are critical of stances like that of Peters cannot fathom what’s at stake. But it’s also quite clear that one of the reasons passion run so high on matters of hymnody is because our faith, theology, and Christian experience can be profoundly shaped by the hymns and songs we sing and that messing with the words can mean messing with our deepest held beliefs and our deep feelings.

I’m glad I don’t serve on hymnal committees…

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