At the recent conference in Arlington VA, UUMN member Mimi Gonigam Stevens presented a thought-provoking look at Unitarian Universalism through the lens of our hymnals . Her thesis is that our real holy texts — the books that embody and express our core spiritual values — are our hymnals.
She mentioned a passage from the preface to the 1964 hymnal (Hymns for the Celebration of Life) that caught my attention:
In choosing tunes we have been guided by the belief that a vital religion calls for fresh, as well as for familiar, musical expression.
At that time, “fresh” meant “American folk hymnody” to the hymnbook commission. In 1993, “fresh” was implemented in Singing the Living Tradition by including songs by writers like Jim Scott, Holly Near and Joyce Poley (all still very much in the folk revival tradition). In 2005, Singing the Journey expanded the stylistic range to include gospel, pop and, calypso.
Though we are far behind the contemporary Christian church in keeping up with current musical styles, we are still following the path set out by the writer of that 1964 preface. We want to keep the musical voice of our faith vital and fresh — otherwise, we’re doomed as a denomination.
So, I see the task of dragging our music into the 21st century not only as a stylistic accommodation — it’s an essential expression of who we are and what we believe, and Mimi Stevens pointed out. It must be a living, breathing thing; when it stops growing, it’s dead.