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.