Rev Jen and I often reflect on the unique nature of the community at Grace. One important aspect of this uniqueness is its ability to pray in song with heart, mind, and soul. Another unique trait is the wide range of musical styles we use to do this.
When we pray together at Eucharist, we do so with all Christians who have ever lived, who are living now, and will live in the future. As the General Editor of the Hymnal 1982, Ray Glover, has written, “… in [our congregational song,] we are bound together with countless numbers of those with whom we share the faith experience. Among them are not only the visible body of people with whom we gather for corporate worship, but also that invisible body of people who share our faith, but live and worship in other places. And even larger than all of these is that body of the saints who are present with us and who continue to sing their endless songs of praise and prayer around the ‘Lord of hosts Most High.’ The rich variety and sheer magnitude of congregational song is almost beyond human comprehension, imagination or conception.”
The Hymnal 1982 was followed by several other authorized American Episcopalian collections for use in our prayer. These extended the variety and excellence of songs available to us in our weekly prayer. Wonder, Love, and Praise: A Supplement to The Hymnal 1982 was published in 1997. Its preface tells us that this collection “should be seen as a continuation of the current hymnal.” Hymns from this book and other supplements are printed in our weekly bulletin for ease of access to us. Wonder, Love, and Praise has added many of our favorite hymns including
“We are marching in the Light of God,”
“Now let us rise and hymn the grace,”
“We all are one in mission,”
“Will you come and follow me,” and many others.
Even before Wonder, Love, and Praise, the national Episcopal church recognized the rich and unique heritage of African American religious singing traditions and published Lift Every Voice and Sing II: An African American Hymnal in 1993. Drawing on the incredible rich tradition of Negro Spirituals which is at the core of our experience as Americans, this book also reaches into other traditions including African, Caribbean, Native American, and Hispanic hymns and songs. From its pages we use
“Ain’-a That Good News,”
“There’s a sweet, sweet spirit,”
“Is there anybody here who loves my Jesus?”
“Just a closer walk with thee,”
“Standing in the need of prayer,”
“This little light of mine,”
“Take me to the water,”
and “Soon and very soon.”
In the 21st century, historians are correcting American history to reflect those of us who arrived here in chains enslaved and continue a life of incredible pain and suffering even after the abolition of slavery. In my opinion, the genius of American music is its eclecticism, the fusion of so many musics to make something very unique. The African American experience has been a key ingredient in this.
in 2003, the hymnal supplement, Voices Found, was added to list of authorized hymnal supplements. The purpose of this book was to provide a “rich collection of hymns and spiritual song by, for, and about women.” It is another important resource we use. Many songs we use come from this work such as
“Give me oil in my lamp,”
“O wheat whose crushing was for bread,”
“We stand within the circle,”
“Bread of Life,”
“Jesus, name above all names,”
“Be still and know that I am God,”
and “Love astounding, love confounding.”
As individuals we come from many religious backgrounds. Many times parishioners who have decided to be part of our community express surprise at the songs we sing. Our resources draw on the breadth of Christian song only limiting it to the theology of our church.
Of course there are many other ways we use the beauty of music to enhance our prayer. While the choir is an important leader of our sung prayer, it also brings the heritage of choral music into our Eucharist. Our group of dedicated singers meets weekly during the choir seasons. Performing the wide range of excellent choral music we do requires a rigorous discipline. For every minute of fine music in our service, choristers have spent hours practicing and learning it to the best of their ability. The result is a first rate church choir. The beauty of its offerings elevate our sense of who we are as humans and Episcopalians and is an significant part of the story of Grace Church.
Our bodies and voices are the essential instruments of praise in our worship. Grace is also privileged to have a significant pipe organ to lead us in song and provide preludes and postludes. The Martin Pasi, opus ?, installed in 2017, is an example of the highest art of pipe organ building. The purity of its sounds leads us to not only sing better but also experience the beauty of the great organ music. As the wind passes through the pipes and creates ripples in the air around us, it moves among us like a reminder of the real presence of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit in us. Both in its appearance and sound, the craftsmanship, authenticity, and beauty of this splendid instrument will enhance the worship of Grace community for years to come.
The Grace community is a remarkable one. But we also are humbled by the privilege of serving Christ and each other with our time, talents, and treasures. When we embrace each other and the larger community through social justice and inclusiveness and other ways, we are most ourselves and the Church. Thus the “circle is unbroken” as our daily lives draw us to gather together in our weekly communal prayer to hear the living Word in proclaimed scripture and gather at the Table of Eucharist. Then the doors of our church building open and we go out to be the Church in the world.
In our ears ring the words of songs we have sung together.
“How often, making music, we have found, a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound Alleluia” Hymn 420 in The Hymnal 1982
“The church of Christ in every age, beset by change but spirit led,
must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead. Hymn 779 in Wonder, Love, and Praise
Steve Jenkins, Music Director of Grace Episcopal Church, Holland, MI