In Part Two of this interview, Jeffery Rowthorn spoke with Elisabeth Kvernen about the process of producing a hymnal. Read Part One.
What is involved in the process of putting together a new hymnal?
The process of putting together a new hymnal requires faith, hope, and love. Faith that you can actually carry the project off, hope that it will be of some use to people, and love of the text and tunes you’re dealing with.
In 1992, I finished working on a hymnal with a professor of church music, Russell Schulz-Widmar, who taught at Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. In due course Yale University Press published A New Hymnal for Colleges and Schools, a nondenominational, ecumenical collection of over 400 hymns and 100 psalms, designed for worship services in academic communities, in 1992. That was a great experience.
When I was at the Collegeville Institute in 2009 I started to think about the need for a hymnal that focused on peace and justice and our responsibility as Christians for the wellbeing of our society and world. When I next saw Russell Schulz-Widmar, I asked him to collaborate with me. To my delight, he agreed to be the music editor. So we had the two key people in place: Russell as the music editor, and me as the general editor.
Sing of the World Made New is an intentionally ecumenical hymnal with a bent toward peace and justice. What inspired you to put together this hymnal in particular?
I have long been troubled by the fact that though the Christian gospel speaks to every aspect of our lives, we tend in our preaching, praying, and singing to shirk making the connections. At this moment, the world, the nation, local communities, and the church are threatened by many acute problems. I wanted to help equip the church to face these daily problems bravely, with competence and with honesty.
There are hymns about peace and justice in every hymnal, but a particular hymnal may only have 20 or so hymns addressing those critical issues. We thought, “Why not put 200 hymns into people’s hands?” We wanted to empower priests, pastors, and musicians to help their congregations face a range of challenges.
In 1962, we saw what has become known as the “hymn explosion.” As the church began to open its doors and windows to the world around it, seeking to be more involved in caring for creation and society, they needed hymns to support that work. People began writing fresh and strong hymns, with wonderful texts, and familiar or new tunes to go with them. What we have done with this hymnal is to gather together some of the best hymns on the subject of peace, justice, and Christian responsibility, from all corners of the nation and the world, and put them in people’s hands.
Sing of the World Made New has six categories: Creator and Creation, Peace and Reconciliation, Justice and Human Need, Dignity and Diversity, Commitment and Service, and Hope and Expectation. You can see through these categories that the work begins with God and what God has made, and it continues through hope and great expectations for the world made new.
In 2010 and 2011, I spent months at the Collegeville Institute going through every hymnal I could lay my hands on in the Alcuin Library. We finally came up with 500 hymns. The publisher came back to us, and said, “That’s far too many—you can include 150 hymns.” From there we bartered back and forth until we finally agreed on 200 hymns.
Sing of the World Made New includes a chant from the Taizé community at the end of each thematic section. Why did you decide to feature these chants so prominently in the hymnal?
When I was a bishop in Europe, my wife and I took groups of teenagers from around Europe to the Taizé community in France. It was an extraordinary experience. Picture several hundred young people sitting in candlelight, singing in Latin; they are from 20 to 30 countries, worshiping together under one roof. In the repetition of these simple antiphons, you enter another level of worship. You cease to be worried about the tune, you cease to be worried about the words, but in the quiet repetition, the meaning sinks deep into you. By adding these chants to our hymnal, we wanted to celebrate and remember that experience at Taizé, which has meant so much to so many people.