For those of us who grew up in the Episcopal Church, or in any liturgical tradition for that matter, the singing of hymns feels so commonplace that it is hard to imagine that it was ever any other way. But congregational singing, and particularly the singing of texts outside of the Psalter, was not the norm until the 19th century.
In England, it was the influence of Isaac Watts (1674-1748) that began to shift this paradigm. Watts is often referred to as the “godfather of English Hymnody.” He was a prolific hymn-writer and inspired many that came after him. We continue to sing many of the hymns that he wrote. A brief scan of the Hymnal 1982 will lead you to such central texts as “When I survey the wondrous cross,” and “O God our help in ages past.”
The inclusion of the poetry of centuries of hymn-writers continues to enrich our worship. In planning for a Sunday liturgy, I read the lectionary for the day; the Old Testament Reading, the Psalm, the Epistle, and the Gospel all serve as inspiration for the choosing of hymns. There are various resources available to church musicians that offer suggestions of hymns and anthems that will reflect the lectionary readings, but I often find myself leafing through the hymnal, reading the hymn texts, and hoping for one to strike me as the right fit for the day.
The Psalm appointed for this Sunday is Psalm 19. I didn’t even need to look through the hymnal – Timothy Dudley-Smith’s beautiful hymn, “The stars declare his glory,” immediately came to mind. This hymn both paraphrases Psalm 19 and ties to the Ten Commandments in the Decalogue at the front of the service and the reading of them in Exodus:
“The stars declare his glory;
the vault of heaven springs
mute witness of the Master’s hand
in all created things,
and through the silences of space
their soundless music sings.
So shine the Lord’s commandments
to make the simple wise;
more sweet than honey to the taste;
more rich than any prize,
a law of love within our hearts,
a light before our eyes.
So order too this life of mine,
direct it all my days;
the meditations of my heart
be innocence and praise,
my rock and my redeeming Lord,
in all my words and ways.”
Elizabeth Lenti, Director of Music and Organist