As mail clerk at Crown and Covenant, I often talk to people who are new to singing the Psalms. Since they are unfamiliar with singing from The Book of Psalms for Singing, I often suggest that they would benefit from a little tool that is available for free from us. This tool is called the Familiar Hymn Tune List in The Book of Psalms for Singing. It is a double-sided sheet of paper listing 120 familiar tunes of hymns that are used in The Book of Psalms for Singing. For example, Psalm 3 uses the tune of the very familiar hymn, Amazing Grace, while Psalm 45C uses the hymn tune for Crown Him with Many Crowns. Psalm 101 is sung to the tune of The Church’s One Foundation.
I usually include a copy of this list with orders for The Book of Psalms for Singing and am happy and eager to send this free aid to anyone who requests it. It also is available online by going to our storefront and clicking on Psalter Copyrights. There is a link to this tool available on that page.
How refreshing to attend a conference on psalm singing without any other Reformed Presbyterians! Not that I tire of RP fellowship, but rather I was energized by the enthusiasm of non-exclusive psalmists who are hungry to sing psalms. The buzz question (and name) of the conference was “Where Are the Psalms?” (See related post.)
People were looking. Some were musicians, some pastors, some students. They asked questions like: “Why did the American church go from psalmody to almost exclusive hymnody so quickly?”; “How can we introduce more psalms into our worship?”; “What are the best kind of arrangements to sing?”
Terry Johnson, pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga., summarized a history of psalmody and psalm books. He referred to the psalter as the “canonical hymnbook”; and he stressed that in reformed theology the “congregation is the choir” and music must be written with that in mind. He, unlike some others, preferred the Scottish metrical tradition with familiar tunes and clear, modern versifications.
Composer Hal Hopson, on the other hand, introduced his responsorial psalm arrangements, which use the words straight from scripture. This style requires a trained choir and cantor, singing Anglican-chant style, with the congregation only singing a repeated phrase of the psalm occasionally.
John D. Witvliet, author and director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, spoke of challenges to psalm singing and how to overcome them.
1. Viewing worship as expressive not formative. When we think that worship is just about expressing ourselves, as opposed to us being formed and changed by worship, we might not choose to sing the psalms or at least not all of them, suggested Witvliet. He quoted from a few early church fathers to show that they thought that scripture, particularly the psalms, were meant for us to know how to feel and how to be—not just for us to use to express how we already feel or how we already are. Singing the psalms, all the parts, will change us toward what God wants us to be.
2. Over-familiarity or casual familiarity with the psalms. Sometimes we are so casually familiar with certain psalms that we don’t think about their true meaning or all the applications to our hearts and minds. One solution, he said, is to juxtapose psalms with the sermon sometimes—not always singing the expected or familiar.
3. The psalms settings we sing. Sometimes the melody doesn’t fit the whole psalm. Witvliet suggested singing different parts to different tunes or finding tunes that can adapt to different moods.
4. The “untidy parts” of the psalter. Here, the challenge is how to sing imprecations, complaints, and despairing thoughts. “With a holy whisper,” was his reply. We must wrestle with God in humility. All the words in the psalter are profitable for us because they are God’s word, but this doesn’t mean that we sing them casually or with arrogance, especially those more difficult parts.
5. Resources. If you think there are not enough resources for psalm singing, Witvliet has compiled an encouraging stack in his book, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources. You will not be surprised to know that Crown & Covenant Publications is mentioned more than once.
If I am able, I will provide a link to the recorded audio of these talks when they go online.
Where are the Psalms in American Protestant worship life? Even denominations that used to define themselves by their exclusive Psalm singing have often largely abandoned the practice.”
These sentences announce a symposium about the state of psalm singing in congregational life. It promises to address why denominations have been “so ineffective in convincing congregations to sing the psalms,” including discussion of what actions, if any, should be taken to encourage more psalm singing.
The subtitle of the conference is “The State of Congregational Psalm Singing after Fifty Years of Worship Renewal.” Discussing how congregations swung so suddenly from exclusively psalmody to almost exclusive hymnody is a brilliant place to begin this discussion on
the psalm singing. I hope to be there.
Where Are the Psalms? is to be held at Erskine College and Theological Seminary on February 26-27 in western South Carolina. Speakers include professors from the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Seminary: Robert Glick, Robby Bell, and Mark E. Ross. Also speaking are John Witvliet, Hal Hopson, and Terry Johnson.
Amazingly, the brochure says that the first thirty paid registrants get free lodging!
When I was young, my worship song came from the 1950 blue psalter. My parents had joined the Reformed Presbyterian church just before I was born. The congregation was aging and they were, I’ve been told, a bit shocked at my dancing on the pews to the singing.
But I always loved the psalms: the first tunes, the word pictures that were dear to me, even the smell of the books. I’m not sure if the aroma was from the glue, the paper or the blue-dye edging on the pages, but today if I pick up one of those books, it still smells like the 1960s worship service.
In 1973, the words and tunes changed with the publication of The Book of Psalms for Singing. It wasn’t blue and it had more tunes. Worst of all, some of my childhood favorites—“The Birds of Heaven” and “The Lord Will Light My Candle” were gone. I was a teenager during the transition and found that the losses were more than compensated by the rewards. There were new tunes, less archaic language, and no page numbers. The new psalter was organized by the number of the actual psalm of the Bible. My mind became even more attuned to the scriptural origin of what I was singing.
To this day, I still sing some “blue psalter” words by mistake (when everyone else is singing a 1973 edition psalm.) It is a minor jolt that makes me think about meaning and context and purpose. The disparate words make me more aware of the original Spirit-inspired text.
This week, the Reformed Presbyterian Synod approved the work of a committee for a 2009 psalter. Once again, I will be learning new settings, singing wrong words, and exploring a new book of worship song.
I look forward to the learning curve because I know what will come of it: a deeper understanding and appreciation of God’s Word.
We just received boxes and boxes of our newly revamped Psalm Settings booklet. We updated this booklet four years ago to fix a number of musical and layout issues found in the original “green” booklet. However, there were still some things that were less-than-ideal, especially the size of the type.
In this new version, we have standardized the type-size making for a more readable and singable book. We have also fixed some of the lingering musical issues.
If you would like a copy, you can get one from our website.
Have you ever wondered about where Crown & Covenant ships Psalters and other materials? Well, not long ago we shipped several cases of The Book of Psalms for Singing to Hawaii while a few months earlier we loaded a wooden pallet with boxes of Trinity Psalters to go to Singapore. Sometimes our orders go to South Africa, other times to India or Ireland. Occasionally, it’s Peru and often it’s Canada. People all over the globe are singing Psalms because of Crown & Covenant!