I had written previously about how much I appreciate my old music tradition in the Apostolic Christian Church, where fairly complex music was sung in church and people were expected to sing in 4-part harmony. I also spoke about how I still love the Zion’sHarp hymnal that we used. I was then a touch critical about how my current Presbyterian church sometimes did not present the best quality of music possible in a church setting. In this piece, I would now like to take an opposing view. During our time at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, we have been blessed with much wonderful music, to which I will address.
Before I specifically address the music found at FPC, I would like to discuss the conduct of the service itself, since it offers the appropriate setting for the type of music heard in church. FPC offers what might in England be called a high church service. It is a formal service, and the conduct of the service is aimed for worship and away from being a form of entertainment. Thus, the choir is unseen and behind, as they are not performing for you but for God. The only person in front is the pastor, who represents God speaking to us. The pastor will lead the entirety of the worship. All children are expected to be in the worship service and be behaved. There is no children’s service, as adult worship is supposed to be a model for your children. There might be lite beer, but there is no Worship Lite. The congregation does not select the hymns to be sung because they are selected by the pastor to fit the theme of the sermon. There is either a piano or organ which leads the singing, and nobody serves as the conductor/song leader in front of the congregation. There is no projector for the tunes, there is no worship team (the pastor is the worship director), and no dancing girls and guys leading the song worship, as there is no drama. When church becomes entertainment, it ceases to be church. The pastor wears a robe, the order of the service is printed, prayers (outside of congregational petitions) are said on kneelers. We do raise our hands (as in the photo above) whenever the offering hymn is sung or when the tune describes the trinity or the majesty of God, such as in the last verse of Lo He Comes in Clouds Descending. There is nothing informal about the service from start to finish. In many settings, such conduct of service would be dry and boring. For FPC, worship is anything but boring, and the church has remained a packed, growing community of the faithful. It has been particularly effective in our community which is ultra-liberal, and where people are craving for authenticity. FPC provides that authenticity. At this point, I would never return to a contemporary style service. I get more worship in a formal Catholic church service than in most of the pop contemporary services, even when they are PCA churches. I don’t think many contemporary church-goers view a worship service as a worship service. Church worship should promote a deeply reverent view of God. Enough! I will return now specifically to music.
FPC does have a choir which has been conducted under the excellent direction of Florence Rayburn, wife of the pastor. When we first started attending FPC, we became particularly aware that Florence held the choir to a very high standard. Practices were rigorous, and nothing shoddy was allowed to come across during a worship service. Often pieces were sung in Latin, German or French, and a translation would be provided in the order of service. Many pieces by classical composers were presented to the congregation, all with good effect. More recently, a number of the children of the congregation have become expert in the violin, flute, trumpet and other instruments, and have been able to accompany the choir or congregational singing.
At times, music at church would go beyond this, and a full classical piece of work would be presented. There were friends of the congregation from other PCA churches around who sung professionally in the opera and at major public performances in Seattle. There were a number of members of our congregation that are semi-professional singers, and they would provide the solo parts of the Messiah, various Bach works, etcetera. As an example, this Easter, a Saturday performance of Faure’s Requiem will be offered. Unfortunately, I will be on the PCT at that time. One time recently, we even had a Tacoma area choral group accompanied by FPC instrumental musicians perform Bach’s St. John Passion. Music at FPC definitely has its outstanding features, which was only rarely found in my past ACC denomination.
When we first started attending FPC, many of the hymns were completely unfamiliar to us. They did not sing many of the gospel songs that are so familiar in Baptist/Anabaptist church circles, or which we sang in the ACC. Pastor Rayburn was very sensitive to the words of a hymn, which had to not only be doctrinally correct but also to have poetic excellence. We sing every printed verse of the tune, to catch the full impact of the hymn writer for the hymn. Many times, Dr. Rayburn would discuss the hymn writer and tell stories about them. As an example, I can no longer think of the hymn “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” without including “by Ray Palmer”. Some tunes were ancient. To those, I identify the Doxology and Gloria Patri. Also included and loved is “Oh Light that Knew No Dawn”, a wonderful hymn written by the Cappadocian father Gregory Nazianzus, and one of the oldest existing hymns of the Christian tradition. There is also “Hallelujah Praise Jehovah” taken from a Gregorian Chant by Lowel Mason, and “Art Thou Weary, Art Thou Languid” translated from St. Stephen. I dare not forget “Hail Gladdening Light”, usually sung in the evening service, and probably the oldest existent hymn. It is sung as a chant. The music is included below.
In the early Reformed tradition, we have
1) The Old 100th (All People who on Earth do Dwell) by Louis Bourgeois
2) I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art by John Calvin
3) God Shall Arise and By His Might, a Huguenot versification of Psalm 68
4) All Praise to God Who Reigns Above (Johann Schütz)
5) The Sands of Time are Sinking (Rutherford/Anna Cousins)
Many of the hymns of Watts/Cowper (pronounced like Cooper!), Newton and Wesley which were not sung in our ACC tradition, include
1) Give to Our God Immortal Praise (Watts)
2) God Moves in a Mysterious Way (Cowper)
3) Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending (Wesley, best with the tune Helmsley, music below)
4) Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder (John Newton)
5) Sometimes a Light Surprises (Cowper).
6) Who Would True Valor See (John Bunyan, music below)
I am not sure why these absolutely wonderful hymns did not make it into ACC hymns, as they would not be doctrinally offensive.
Then there are the early American composers, before the gospel song movement took over…
1) Lord With Glowing Heart I’d Praise Thee, a wonderful hymn written by the author of the National Anthem, Francis Scott Key
2) Great God of Wonders (Samuel Davies, pronounced Day-vis, like Davis!)
The 19th-century British hymn writers also stand out, especially Andrew Bonar…
1) For All the Saints (WW How)
2) Hear, O My Lord (Bonar)
3) Not What My Hands Have Done (Bonar)
4) I Lay My Sins on Jesus (Bonar)
5) When the Weary Seeking Rest (Bonar/Mendelssohn)
6) A Few More Years Shall Roll (Bonar)
7) Jesus I My Cross Have Taken (Henry Lyte)
8) Weary of Earth (Samuel Stone, music below)
9) O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus (Trevor Francis)
10) Father I Know that All My Life (Anna Waring)
A smattering of others include versifications of the Psalms, some already mentioned above, and include “Unto the Hills Around (Ps 121) and “God Be Merciful to Me” (Ps 51). Just a few other new (to me) hymns that I particularly like include
1) God My King Thy Might Confessing
2) Whate’er My God Ordains is Right
3) Come Ye Disconsolate
I’ve omitted many hymns that Betsy and I have learned since coming to FPC. These are hymns that are on our minds all the time. We cherish them as wonderful statements of our faith in Christ. It is a treasure that we are most grateful of Rev. Rayburn to have provided to us.
I still have a few persistent dislikes with the music at FPC, which reflects what might be happening at many PCA churches in our denomination. Keith Getty tunes have become popular. The words are solid, but often not as well written as many of the older hymns. Newton or Cowper or Gerhardt might even go so far as to identify the Getty songs as nothing but doggerel. What annoys me the most are the tunes themselves. They lack creativity. Once you’ve heard one Getty tune, you can predict all the others. If you were to identify any tune, it could be broken down into certain phrases. Amazing Grace would be A-B-C-A’, or the traditional Rock of Ages A-B-A’-A’-A-B’. With the Getty tunes, the phrases are simple and highly repetitive, almost like singing a mantra. One tune for instance, “By Faith” would be phrased as A-B-A’-A. (Giant Yawn!) They just don’t make for good music. Then, there is the New City tune (A-B-A-A-B’-A’) (Super Yawn!) to Rock of Ages, where the tune is catchy but highly repetitive and has absolutely no correlation with the words. JS Bach would turn over in his grave if he heard and understood the New City Rock of Ages tune. My criticisms are light, my praise is heavy for Presbyterian music.
I also have some complaints about what the PCA has done to the Trinity Hymnal. Why in the world would they drop “Weary of Earth”? Why are they adding popular tunes that truly are not fit for congregational singing? Why are they including newer songs, devoid of theological content, just because they are popular? The Trinity Hymnal from 1961 truly is a great hymnal, with well-translated hymns, versifications that excel, and a variety of hymns that cover every circumstance in life. Most of the newer “improvements” have only diminished the value of the hymnal. Hopefully, the PCA does not ultimately lose its tradition for quality church music.