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20 minutes with David Eicher

When do churches need a new hymnal -- not just new volumes, but new selections? Who decides how many hymns to include, which ones are "in" and which ones are "out"? Leslie Scanlon, Outlook national reporter, recently talked with David Eicher, the new hymnal editor for the Presbyterian Publishing Corp. to get more information on the new Presbyterian Hymnal now in the planning stages.

L.S.: Let's start with your background. Why don't you introduce yourself to the church a little bit?

D.E.: I've been involved in music in the Presbyterian Church for almost 30 years. My background was not Presbyterian; I was raised the son of a Church of the Brethren and grew up in a real hymn-singing tradition. My parents both sang. And my sister and I, when we got old enough -- the great excitement was when finally my voice changed and I could sing tenor, and then we had a soprano, alto, tenor and bass. The whole family would sing. One of our games in the car when we were traveling was to see how many stanzas of hymns we could sing through, without any books.

When do churches need a new hymnal — not just new volumes, but new selections? Who decides how many hymns to include, which ones are “in” and which ones are “out”? Leslie Scanlon, Outlook national reporter, recently talked with David Eicher, the new hymnal editor for the Presbyterian Publishing Corp. to get more information on the new Presbyterian Hymnal now in the planning stages.

L.S.: Let’s start with your background. Why don’t you introduce yourself to the church a little bit?

D.E.: I’ve been involved in music in the Presbyterian Church for almost 30 years. My background was not Presbyterian; I was raised the son of a Church of the Brethren and grew up in a real hymn-singing tradition. My parents both sang. And my sister and I, when we got old enough — the great excitement was when finally my voice changed and I could sing tenor, and then we had a soprano, alto, tenor and bass. The whole family would sing. One of our games in the car when we were traveling was to see how many stanzas of hymns we could sing through, without any books.

Eicher earned a degree in organ from Manchester College in Indiana, a Church of the Brethren-sponsored school, and later a Master of Arts degree with a concentration in organ and church music at Valparaiso University, in Valparaiso, Ind. After graduation, he worked for nine months in a Lutheran congregation, where one of his first responsibilities was to introduce a new hymnal, Lutheran Book of Worship. He later worked at The Presbyterian Church of La Porte, Ind., for close to 27 years. For the last two years, he’s served as the part-time interim executive of the Association of Lutheran Musicians, worked at First Presbyterian Church in Mishawaka, Ind., and did freelance work as an accompanist. He began work as editor of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s new hymnal in January 2008.

L.S.: What is the history of the PC(USA)’s decision to develop a new hymnal now?

D.E.: My understanding is that they actually did some survey questions about “Are we ready to begin developing one?” Apparently what they heard back from the church was, “Yes, the church was ready to start looking at development of a new book.” So sort of a partnership seemed to develop between the Office of Theology and Worship, the Presbyterian Association of Musicians, and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. And those three entities sat down and worked up a proposal … they took to General Assembly in ’06. The assembly endorsed that proposal, so they are moving ahead.

A hymnal is expected to be published in 2013 or 2014.

L.S.: What’s involved in the process?

D.E.: What we’ve been working on mostly is an application process for folks who are interested in serving on the hymnal committee. Our desire is to have a very strong committee that represents well the church. The General Assembly asked that two of the members of that committee be under the age of 25.

Applications should be available soon on the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation Web site, as well as that of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians, with a deadline for submitting applications of July 11.

L.S.: What kind of background or experience are you looking for?

D.E.: Obviously we want people who are experienced in church life, who have some experience in planning worship. … We need people who are really going to be able to work well together, who are able to work collegially, who have a real passion for the people’s song, for the song of the church. And also people who are willing and able to devote some chunks of time to this whole process. We’re thinking the committee will probably meet at least four times a year, for probably three days at a time. So it needs to be people who are willing and able to make that kind of time available, to make this process a priority in their lives really for the next four or five years. We want obviously good representation across the spectrum of the church. We’re talking about a committee of 12 voting members, in addition to myself.

There also are plans for soliciting input from advisory or consulting groups, and to create a Web site devoted specifically to the hymnal project — including a “frequently-asked-questions” list.

L.S.: There has been some controversy over whether it’s too soon to have another hymnal, correct?

D.E.: The No. 1 frequently asked question is, “Why do we need a new hymnal?” And along with that, “How often should the church produce a new hymnal?” … I know we all still refer to the 1990 hymnal as “the new hymnal,” because it’s the last one we had. But by the time the new hymnal is actually produced, we’re talking about 23 to 25 years. Historically, Presbyterians have produced a hymnal about every 20 years or so. In the world of hymnals, we often talk about every generation producing a new hymnal. One of the reasons … is that every 20 or so years, there’s sort of this desire — I refer to taking a snapshot. The hymnal kind of provides a glimpse into “What is the church thinking at that point in its theology, which is reflected in its song?” and to ask, “What from our past is valuable to us? What has brought us securely this far that we want to keep and hang on to?”

L.S.: Is there a canon of hymns that are viewed as must-have, that never change?

D.E.: Certainly there is a core. The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada … sponsored back in the late 70s an ecumenical consultation on hymnody that tried to ask that question: Is there sort of a core of hymns that are common to the Christian faith in almost all its various forms? And they came up with a list of over 200 hymns. And then about 10 years or so ago, Michael Hawn, who’s a professor of church music at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, took a look at that list, but then surveyed 40 English-language hymnals that had been produced since that list had been put together, and sort of rethought the list. … Many of them are sort of the standard favorites across denominational lines.

L.S.: Is there a sense as you start out of how many hymns need to be in the new hymnal? Is that negotiable?

D.E.: It’s negotiable, sure. It’s always a balancing act. For every hymn that you retain from the previous book, you take up a page or more. That’s less space to include new things. There’s also a desire on the part of the church for the hymnal to include more liturgical material than the current book had in it — a more complete order of worship, for instance.

(And as a parish musician, he heard complaints) … that the 1990 hymnal is too heavy — there are questions of weight. … We also are finding that we need to print music and words larger for people than used to be. So you can’t just squeeze two hymns on a page and make them really small print. People can’t read it. … All of those factors go into it — and the weight of the paper. If the paper is too light and too thin, you get bleed-through from the back page, and it makes it hard to read. If you make the page size too big, it won’t fit in people’s pew racks. All of those are things that go into it. But how many hymns? I think you probably would be looking at a maximum of 600. That’s just a number of the top of my head.”

L.S.: What challenges does changing technology pose for the development of a hymnal?

D.E.: We have a lot of people who think you shouldn’t even produce an actual hymnal anymore, a hardback book. It should only be available in electronic formats. That whole area is changing so fast right now I don’t think I can speak with any authority on what will be available. I can say that certainly the hymnal will be available in some electronic format — as much as we can do given copyright restrictions and those sorts of things.

L.S.: For congregations, what are some of the implications of electronic formats? How are they using hymnals differently now?

D.E. From what I’m hearing, there are mainly two ways in which congregations use an electronic format. One is certainly the issue of projected image of the hymn. There you get into a whole area of “Do you project only the text, or do you project also the music?” … A second way is to be able to just drop that hymn into their Sunday bulletin. They actually print it, but it’s within the order of worship itself.

(From talking with friends involved in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America hymnal that came out a year and a half ago,) they were surprised at the number of congregations who were purchasing both forms of the hymnal. They were still purchasing the hardbound copies in the pews. They were also purchasing the electronic, CD-Rom format, either for projection or for dropping into a bulletin. So we’re in this transitional period.

L.S.: There’s definitely a sense that, increasingly, people attending Presbyterian churches are less likely to have grown up in that tradition. You get more people attending churches who grew up in another faith tradition, another denomination, or from no religious background whatever. What role does that play in decisions about hymnals? Now even a hymn that’s considered a church classic may be completely new to some.

D.E.: That certainly makes the whole challenge of music ministry greater. We’ve become obviously much more aware of songs from other traditions, because people bring them to us. … I think it is a challenge for us to be able to say, “What is it that is uniquely Presbyterian — is there such a thing — and what is it from the world at large, from the ecumenical church, that is important for us to also take note of and to make available?” … You’re always balancing the songs from the past with what’s new and trying to get really the best of both.

L.S.: What are people most passionate about when it comes to hymns?

D.E.: What raises the passion the most is if one of their favorite hymns gets left out. … I think if you dig into why somebody’s hymn is one of their favorite hymns, you often find that it’s connected to some significant event in their life. It was sung at their mother’s funeral. It was sung the day that they were confirmed. It was sung at their wedding. … They remember leaning on their grandmother’s breast when she sang them to sleep, and she was singing that old Rock of Ages or that old gospel hymn. It just has this personal connection.

L.S.: Why is it important, other than the fact the General Assembly told you to, to have some people in their early 20s or younger on the committee?

D.E.: I think it serves two purposes. I think it helps younger people to understand the tradition and heritage of the church, but it also helps bring this fresh young energy into the process. When we’re discussing hymns of the past, I think it helps to get someone’s perspective who doesn’t have an emotional attachment to a particular style or a particular hymn. … This committee is going to have to try to discern what is the best from the past, what is the best from the present, and what are some things that are maybe pushing us in a new direction that need to be included. The young people can help us with that.

L.S.: In some congregations, contemporary music has become classic in its own way. There certainly would be young people who’ve grown up with that as their familiar music. What role will the ongoing discussion about traditional music and contemporary music play in the development of this hymnal?

D.E.: That’s obviously an area that has to be talked about. Most of it (contemporary music) has not been around long enough for the church to kind of be able to make a discerning judgment on whether it’s valuable for us as people of faith. It’s harder to make those judgment calls, I believe, on the newer stuff. It’s easy to make a judgment call based on style, because we have stylistic preferences, all of us do. But (we don’t know) whether it’s helpful to us or not as people of faith on our faith journey, and what of it will last.

L.S.: Is inclusive language part of the conversation?

D.E.: That’s got to be part of the conversation. And that whole area divides into, “Are you talking about inclusive language for God? Or are you talking about inclusive language for humanity?” I think there’s certainly been a commitment on the part of the Presbyterian church for inclusive language about humanity, and there’s been a lot of conversation struggling with the issues of how do you talk about God. … We know that there are no human words that fully express God. We keep trying to find the words. We keep struggling with how to talk about God in our limited language.

L.S.: Are there things I haven’t asked about that are important to discuss?

D.E.: One thing we haven’t talked about is feedback from the church at large and how we are going to go about doing that. We’re beginning discussions with Research Services for the denomination, to get some hard data. We’re very interested to know what are congregations singing? Are they using the 1990 hymnal? If so, what from that hymnal are they singing? What aren’t they singing? If they aren’t using that hymnal, what are they singing? Those are things that I think are crucial to us in the development of this new book. That’ll be a fairly scientific sampling of congregations of various sizes and ethnic makeup and that sort of thing.

They hope the Web site will provide a way to get less scientific but not less important feedback. And they hope to develop a network of representatives this year from each presbytery who would serve as their contacts, to help them communicate with the church — both to send out information and to receive it.

L.S.: There’s been discussion about the way the Presbyterian church reflects the diversity of the world at large — how it’s changed and how people would like to see it change. We’ve got more immigrant fellowships, people from many different ethnic backgrounds. What role can hymns play in being welcoming to people who come from all places on the earth?

D.E.: Let me give you one anecdote from the church where I was for so many years in La Porte. When the 1990 hymnal came out, I and the other staff members there in La Porte introduced this new book to the congregation. And we had been using the 1955 red hymnbook in that church pretty much since it had come out. So this was a big change. And they would open the book and they would see some hymns printed in other languages. And they would go, “Well, we don’t have anybody who speaks that language. What’s the importance of having that in the book? Why bother to take up the space to put it in there?”

And then we had a Korean woman join our congregation. She married a man in our church. … I’ll never forget, she came to me after church, the tears streaming down her face, and she said, “Look, they’ve put something in my language in the book.” And she said, “It means so much to me that my church cared enough to put something in there in my language.”

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