Singing as basis for United Methodist unity

This week’s possibility for source of unity of United Methodism is singing.  Whereas I’ve pointed out problems with the three previous sources of unity I’ve examined (theology, history, and polity), I would like to suggest that singing is a potentially promising source of United Methodist unity (though not without its own problems as well).

It’s also more distinctively United Methodist than the other three areas I’ve looked at.  Of course, I’m not saying that only United Methodists sing.  Obviously, other denominations have fine traditions of singing, especially the Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ/Christian Churches, with their well-developed tradition of unaccompanied part singing.  Nevertheless, while not uniquely Methodist, I would like to suggest that singing is distinctively Methodist.

Methodists have long been known as “a singing people”, and I believe that designation remains apt today.  Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, was also one of the most prolific hymn writers ever.  His brother John also composed and translated hymns.  In America, hymn-singing was an important part of the tradition of camp meetings, religious worship and revival services common in the nineteenth century.  The current United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) is the most successful hymnal ever published.  While certainly not all Methodists can sing or like singing, the denomination was and is a tuneful one as a whole.

Of course, singing is not an entirely uncomplicated source of unity.  Even if everyone agrees that Methodists should be singing together, there remains the question of what to sing, and here there have been and are some significant disagreements.  There are, of course, the famous worship wars of the past couple of decades between those who like the old, traditional hymns and those who prefer contemporary worship songs.  There’s the question of the adequate inclusion of black gospel and spiritual songs in denominational hymnals, not to mention the issue of Spanish-language songs and songs from other ethnic groups.  It’s also often the case, as the supervisory committee for the UMH found, that the list of best-loved hymns and the list of most-hated hymns have some overlap.  People take issue with hymns for a variety of theological, musical, and personal-preference reasons.  In addition, there’s the question of revisions to the words of hymns.  So, while United Methodism may be united in agreement over the importance of singing our faith, there is disagreement over what exactly to sing.

The question then becomes whether we are able to overcome some of that disagreement on what to sing and still sing together for the sake of having our voices in harmony.  Can we still lift every voice and sing together, even when the owners of some of those voices dislike what’s being sung?  Are we willing to sing a few songs we don’t like (or don’t know) along with some that we do, so that everyone can sing together and everyone can find something they like?  Or will every song that’s not on our own personal list sound discordant to us?  These are important questions for us to consider as a denomination.

I would like to believe that despite the potential for disagreement over particular songs, singing does still have to potential to unite us as a denomination.  Not only is singing a shared value, but the act of singing embodies that unity toward which we should strive as a denomination.  Furthermore, singing together is a fundamental component of worship, which is one of the primary functions of the church.  Thus, if we can sing together, we’ve gone a long way towards being able to worship together in unity and thus toward being the church.  While none of us individually may have a thousand tongues, collectively we as a denomination have several million tongues to sing our great Redeemer’s praise.  Let us strive to use them in chorus.


Ben posted on August 20, 2011 at 9:52 am

This interests me because I think hymn selection has been a source of division for many denominations. By the way, any proper Lutheran would have to take good-natured issue with the statement that singing is “distinctively Methodist.”

David Shane posted on August 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm

I have to say that I would never have thought of singing as a source of unity for a denomination! As an outsider, I’ve never thought of Methodists as a distinctively singing people, but I have limited experience in Methodist churches. In any case, that doesn’t mean singing can’t be a source of unity.

But perhaps you could write a similar article for Christendom at large – we all sing many of the same songs, at least in the English speaking world, and would surely be willing to sing them together when we meet together in an ecumenical way. (The fact that you can find hymns by Luther! in Catholic hymnals tells you all you need to know, eh?)

David Wm. Scott posted on August 22, 2011 at 7:53 am

Ben, far be it from me to say that singing isn’t also distinctively Lutheran!

And David, I think you’re right that there could be a similar article for Christianity at large, as divisive as hymn selection is at times, people are a lot more willing to unite around music than they are around theology or history or rules.

official source posted on May 26, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Very good written information. It will be valuable to anyone who utilizes it, including me. Keep up the good work – i will definitely read more posts.

Molly posted on July 12, 2015 at 11:35 am

What interesting material! I’m doing a bit of research on the Methodists and their singing traditions and would be really grateful if you could direct me to some resources. Thanks!

David W. Scott posted on July 13, 2015 at 1:27 pm

I’m glad to hear the blog was interesting to you! I recommend John Tyson’s biography of Charles Wesley, _Assist Me to Proclaim_. Tyson also has a chapter in _Sing Them Over Again to Me_, edited by Mark Noll and Edith Blumhofer. Some of the other articles in that collection may be of use too. James F. White’s chapter on “Methodist Worship” in _Perspectives on American Methodism_, edited by Richey, Rowe, and Schmidt will be useful as well, as may be the third chapter of David Hempton’s _Empire of the Spirit._

Beth posted on August 17, 2017 at 8:55 am

Being raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran in the Deep South and now a Methodist Minister, I read with great interest this blog. I am blessed to have a rich tradition in singing and have always found hymns of any kind to be a prayer or a praise to God, just simply a way of rejoicing! My sermon this week starts with why we sing the hymns we do.
Thanks for your thoughts and blog

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