Controversy sells. It sells newspapers, journals and movies. It may even sell conference registrations, to judge from the frequency with which I’m asked to speak at such events about “controversial issues” that confronted the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCOCS) as it worked on the denomination’s new song collection Glory to God.
Does controversy also sell hymnals? I’m not sure. But the Presbyterian Hymnal of 1874 came out in the midst of a controversy so intense that pamphleteers took to writing about the War of the Hymn Books. The war they had in mind was a campaign launched by disaffected members of the official hymnal committee who seceded to create a rival publication. In response to this campaign, the board of publication for the denominational hymnal took pains to report (in the January 1875 edition of the Presbyterian Monthly Record): “It will be gratifying to our Presbyterian constituency to know that the persistent efforts to prevent the adoption by the churches of the new Hymnal . . . fail to arrest its sale.” Indeed, by June of 1875, the rate at which congregations were adopting the new hymnal was reported to be “without a parallel in the history of hymn and tune books.” So maybe controversy does boost sales, even where hymnals are concerned.
Still, I am relieved to note that the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song has experienced nothing as dramatic as a secession and threatened publication war. The most animated disagreements we experienced within our group were over matters of theology; our most animated disagreements with people outside our group have been over issues of musical accompaniments and (not surprisingly) of language.
Two examples of theological in-group disagreements stand out. The committee debated a long time over whether to include in Glory to God the American folk hymn “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley.” The hymn does appear in the Lent section of the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal, as well as in hymnals and supplements of several other bodies (such as the Disciples of Christ, Roman Catholics, Mennonites, United Methodists and Society of Friends). Yet opponents of inclusion argued that the text makes statements that are theologically questionable. How can Christians sing that “nobody else” can walk the lonesome valley with us or that we have to stand our trial “by ourselves,” when the very heart of the crucifixion narrative holds that Jesus walked—and continues to walk—alongside those who suffer and that he went on trial for our sakes?