But we're beginning to wonder whether it's already all over -- and by "it," we mean all of hymnody. Or at least hymnody as we know it.
A while back, we were talking to a Charismatic minister, who didn't really understand our worship style -- and no wonder, given the great gulf fixed between our churches. We were talking about vestments and Eucharistic prayers, all of which got a blank look from him; and after a while he said, "So you're old-fashioned. That means, what, you still use hymns?"
Still, mind you. That's the key word.
Today, we were talking to a far more worldly fellow, who has a working knowledge of the worship styles most commonly encountered in both Europe and the Americas. We weren't talking about worship at all, until, illustrating some other point entirely, he said, "Your church has something for everybody. You know, a band for the young people, hymns for the old people."
Or maybe he didn't mention the band; we don't even remember anymore. All we remember is this: Hymns for the old people.
Like many readers, Father A. was raised with hymns. Being neither a musical child nor a notably devout one, he spent fairly little of his childhood church time singing or praying; but he spent a great deal of it flipping through the Service Book and Hymnal to see what was inside. At about the age of eight, he concluded that anything worth singing had the name of either John Mason Neale or Catherine Winkworth attached to it. Even today, he'll stand by that judgment with only the slightest qualification. This locates your humble correspondent quite easily within a certain liturgical period: the Romantic Revival of the mid-19th century. And indeed, his preferences and convictions in many matters, from hymnody to dogmatics, are those of just that period: Historical and confessional, both with a touch of the antiquarian. Not coincidentally, therefore, many of his favorite hymns are written in Long Meter -- the iambic tetrameter which represents in English the meter of the Ambrosian office hymns.
We don't know all that much about hymns or music, but we do know two important things:
First, that over the past half-century, many churches have abandoned the conventional stanzaic (or strophic) hymn in favor of other musical forms. Praise choruses and Taize songs, with their simple melodies and repetitious texts, can be learned in moments by many congregations. This makes them extremely appealing, and sometimes for good reasons. Songs that are more complicated, either musically or verbally, may be better relegated to the choir.
And second, that stanzaic hymnody is something of an aberration to begin with. It formed no part of the earliest Christian worship, and developed only from the fourth century. Even then, it was long excluded from the Eucharistic service. For that matter, most singing of any kind was done by the schola cantorum; until the Reformation, most people were neither required nor desired to sing even the liturgical responses. Even today, there is a certain sort of Roman Catholic who turns up his nose at the undignified use of such "Protestant" devices as congregational singing of hymns or much else in the Mass.
Hymns have certainly changed over the centuries. The 25-stanza processional hymns of Prudentius (or of the German Reformation) have little practical use today. Modern hymn-writers rarely attempt to draw together as many disparate Biblical and theological images as their predecessors did; they tend to focus upon a single idea, and ring changes upon it for three or for stanzas. But we are not talking about changes in the style of hymns, so much as about whether they are used at all.
If our friends are right -- if hymns are an old-fashioned form, now smelling of Polident and Ben-Gay -- then maybe the past five centuries have been a phase, which is now coming to its natural conclusion. And maybe that's not so bad.
Mind you, people will not suddenly forget Vexilla Regis Prodeunt or How Great Thou Art. There will always be a place for the very greatest hymns. But that place may be gradually restricted, and the second and third tiers (from, say, "Stand Up for Jesus" to "You Satisfy the Hungry Heart") will disappear from all but the library books.
This isn't an entirely bad thing. We will be delivered at last from "loud boiling test tubes" and the works of Marty Haugen. But it isn't an entirely good thing, either. Thousands of pages of thoughtful religious poetry, set to tunes that can be sung and therefore memorized without much trouble, will be lost. And that will be sad.
Maybe none of this will happen. It is certainly hard for a Lutheran to imagine life without hymns. Here in Romania, the hymn-boards of the German and Hungarian churches typically list six or eight hymns to be sung in a Sunday service. But then, with their black robes and extremely limited lay participation, they are willfully preserving a liturgical style which seems dated and even inadequate to those of us conditioned by the 20th century's so-called Liturgical Movement.
Our own services, lately, have been adjusted for a culture in which English is a foreign language, and lean heavily on canticles which do not change from week to week. Where the local Lutherans sing six their variable hymns, we sing two -- and over the summer, it will be reduced to one. So perhaps, for the first time in our lives, we are somehow on the liturgical cutting edge.