The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada just met in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with the conference theme "The Meeting Place." As usual, this conference of the Hymn Society was indeed a meeting place — for lovers and leaders of congregational song from dozens of traditions; for composers, hymnwriters, and publishers; for scholars and students of hymnody; and for Winnipeg natives who joined us by the dozens for each of our evening hymn festivals.
Our opening hymn festival is a fine symbol of the week as a whole. It was coordinated by two leading Mennonite musicians, Irma Fast Dueck and Marilyn Houser Hamm, at Winnipeg's Sargeant Avenue Mennonite Church, based on the theme of the conference, "The Meeting Place." The first two hymns at this festival would be familiar to many Roman Catholics — Marty Haugen's "Gather Us In" and "What Is This Place," text by Huub Oosterhuis. Marilyn noted that these hymns had found a home in the hearts and hymnals of other traditions, including their own. This festival included an eclectic selection of songs, from a bluegrass version of "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing" (set to HOLY MANNA) to Charles Tindley's "Thou, O Christ, my Lord and King," to George Mxadana's "Sithi Bonga" ("We sing praise, O God.")
This year's plenary addresses included an address by Alice Parker, in which she offered thoughts and critiques (some quite pointed) on the musical and poetic quality of our songs. "I want transcendance every time I sing," she demanded, commenting that what is on the page is 5%, or even 1%, of the total music making experience. Another plenary was given by Dr. Andrew Fullerton, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian, who explored the connections between liturgy, drama, human creativity, and truth in a most engaging way. Liturgy and theatre share many commonalities, and Andrew invited us to compare our liturgies to "holy theatre" or "deadly theatre." Deadly theatre, he suggested, comforts the complacent, prevents an encounter with what is real, soothes and amuses its audience, purchases applause at the cost of truth, and changes no one.
Sectionals gave hymn writers, tune writers, and song writers a chance to work on their material; presented new collections for purchase, or gave participants to learn about topics as diverse as Dakota hymnody or hymn-related videos on YouTube. Several current graduate students presented their hymn-related work, including Jonathan Hehn (DMA candidate in organ performance, Florida State University) who won this year's Emerging Scholar award for his paper, "Congregational Song as Theological Debate in Late Antiquity: A Case Study of Arius' Thalia and the Development of Trinitarian Orthodoxy." Two recent hymnals were showcased: Worship, 4th edition (GIA Publications), and Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship (Faith Alive Christian Resources).
This year marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Hymn Society. The conference included a celebratory luncheon, a wall display of some notable figures from the group's history, and some invitations to brainstorm about the future of the Society. Congregational song is in flux; while the group's name refers to the specific form of hymns, the Hymn Society has spent significant time in recent conferences engaging current trends such as global music, the music of Taizé, and praise and worship music. In fact, of the society's four hymn festivals this year, only two of them used the organ extensively. While maintaining and passing on the great musical treasuries our traditions have inherited, there is great excitement about the future of congregational song and what that will look like.
The 2013 conference will take place in Richmond, Virginia, from July 14-18, 2013. The conference theme is Vatican II as a source of renewal for congregational song. For more information on the Hymn Society, please visit www.thehymnsociety.org.