The transcendence of hymns

When I was in the Netherlands, every time our group of Mennonite trainees were together at a church service, we were called upon to sing; for, in the words of one Dutch pastor, "a group of Nederlanders just make noise, but a group of North American Mennonites is an instant choir."

North Carolinian Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a lead thinker in the growing new monasticism movement, knew to attribute improvised harmonies to Mennonites in the audience, when he invited those gathered to hear him speak in Winnipeg to join in an impromptu song.

This past weekend, at a conference attended by mostly middle-aged male Mennonite pastors, mostly of "Mennonite ethnicity," we sang grace -- Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow -- and the harmony was rich and strong in confident male voices.

I love being a part of a tradition which can pull off a spontaneous rendition of the complicated interwoven harmonies of "Old 606" or "Friedensfurst" -- or at least, used to be able to.

The thought that effortless four-part harmony is becoming a thing of the past in Mennonite churches saddens me. Until recently, I've been as guilty as the next person because, using my vocal range as an excuse, I always sang the melody line. However, recognizing the value of this rich tradition of part-singing, I seek to be the change by pulling out the hymnal and trying to figure out the intervals in the alto line.

Retaining our hymn tradition is more than just nostalgic clinging to old ways. A woman who grew up Catholic but now worships at a Mennonite church spoke of the power four-part singing holds for her as a call to worship in an otherwise fairly ascetic tradition.
"One of the strongest pull factors into Menno­nite community for me — and this may seem shallow, but oh well — was the singing.... I’ll never forget that moment ... hearing my colleagues break into song before a meal. I was stunned. The singing was breathtaking to me.... I had never heard people spontaneously engage in four-part singing before, particularly not in church.... While my Mennos are sadly lacking in transcendent visual aids ... Mennonite singing is wonderfully transcendent."
(read full article here)
What more need be said in defense of harmony? That our music should be a beautiful expression of the community we seek to embody as a church -- that is an answer to a prayer we have not yet spoken.


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