The Book of Praise’s Uncertain Future

For several decades the Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter has been the exclusive song book of both the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  It’s something we’ve agreed upon in our Church Order.  Here in Australia, our last synod decided to move towards an Australian version of the Book of Praise.  It will have the extra 19 hymns in the 2014 CanRC Book of Praise, the FRCA Church Order, Australian spellings (like ‘baptise’), and a few other bits and pieces unique to the FRCA.  Overall, however, it will still be the familiar songbook.

In Canada, the Book of Praise is facing an uncertain future.  There were two recent proposals at regional synods which illustrate some changes afoot in the CanRC.  While only one of the proposals passed and will move on to the General Synod in Edmonton next year, the existence of these proposals demonstrates that there are questions in the CanRC about whether the hegemony of the Book of Praise is a sure thing going into the future.

Classis Central Ontario of September 6-7, 2018 adopted a proposal from the Fellowship CanRC in Burlington regarding a change to Church Order article 55.  The proposed reading was as follows:

The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in public worship. The metrical Psalms and hymns adopted by General Synod, as well as songs approved by consistory that faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity, shall be sung in public worship.

This proposal was then forwarded to Regional Synod East of November 14, 2018.  The hope was that RSE would adopt it and then send it on to General Synod 2019.  However, RSE didn’t adopt the proposal.

On the other side of the continent, Classis Pacific East of February 22, 2018 adopted a proposal from the Aldergrove church dealing with the Trinity Psalter Hymnal recently published by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the United Reformed Churches.  This proposal stated that the psalms and hymns of the TPH also be approved for worship in the CanRC.  The proposal went to the Regional Synod West of November 5, 2018.  This was RSW’s decision, as reported in the press release:

RSW decided to forward the various submissions about the Trinity Psalter Hymnal to General Synod
with the recommendation that, in addition to the adopted Book of Praise, General Synod Edmonton 2019
approve the Psalms and Hymns of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (TPH) for use in public worship as per Church Order Article 55. Along with this recommendation it added the following remarks:
6.1 Those letters which were submitted as appeals were received as letters of the churches interacting
with the overtures.
6.2 The overtures demonstrate a commonality in speaking about the Trinity Psalter-Hymnal (TPH) and
its merits in addition to the Book of Praise (BoP).
6.3 The purpose is not to replace the BoP but to enhance the unity in worship between us as sister
churches in North America by allowing the churches to also sing from the TPH.
6.4 The language of the overtures and the other materials received by RSW demonstrates that this is a
topic that lives in our churches. In addition, the material shows that some of the arguments either
supporting or opposing these overtures are subjective.
6.5 There is great value in maintaining the principle of a federative approach to corporate worship.
While not wanting to make exceptions the rule, RSW acknowledges the uniqueness of certain
congregations in their circumstances (e.g. mission churches).
6.6 The SCBP’s (Standing Committee for the Publication of the Book of Praise) evaluation process of
suggestions for new hymns from the churches is perceived as not sufficiently responsive to what the
churches through decisions of general synods have requested. It is debatable whether the SCBP is the
appropriate forum to evaluate the TPH.
6.7 In order to have the churches appreciate the quality of the TPH, the churches should have ample
opportunity to interact meaningfully with its contents, as has happened in the past with the introduction of the Augment.

So this matter will be going to the General Synod in Edmonton next year.  They will have to decide whether the Book of Praise will continue to be the exclusive song book of the CanRC.

What are my thoughts on this?  I haven’t actually seen the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, so I’m in no position to judge its contents or quality.  I do, however, place a lot of stock in trusting my brothers and sisters in the OPC and URCNA.  They’re not theological slouches.  So, that’s one thing.

Another thing is whether the exclusive use of the Book of Praise is necessary or helpful.  Is it required of us by God or is what’s agreed upon in our Church Orders a matter of convention that may or may not be helpful?  Obviously the latter.  It’s not the “law of the Medes and Persians which can never be changed.”  Circumstances can change, church sub-cultures can change (in matters indifferent), and therefore so can what we might agree on as our collection of songs for public worship.

Moreover, there’s also the question of adding more hymns.  I once held to exclusive psalmody.  When I became convinced that biblically based and biblically sound hymns fit within biblically regulated worship, then I also became convinced we should sing the best hymns.  If we’re going to sing hymns at all, then we should have the best collection of hymns in our songbook.  The 1984 Book of Praise had 65 (actually 66) hymns, but there were gaps in the selections, and other issues.  The 2014 Book of Praise has 85 hymns and there is improvement in expanding some of the sections (notably, with the resurrection of Christ).  But there is still the question of whether this is the best we can do in terms of our hymnody.  After all, shouldn’t we offer to God our best in worship?  Therefore, in principle, I’m open to the idea of adding more, carefully vetted, hymns to what we sing in public worship.

Finally, a word about the Genevan psalm melodies.  I love them, at least most of them.  I grew up with them and still sing them daily.  But I’m not stuck on them as the be-all-and-end-all of psalm singing.  Some of them are challenging to sing, especially for new comers to our churches.  Still, most people get used to them and even start to enjoy them.  The Genevan psalm melodies are used in Reformed churches around the world, in many different cultures (which is rather amazing!)  However, we need to keep all this in perspective.  The psalms themselves are far more important and precious than the tunes to which they’re sung.  If there’s a way for certain psalms to be sung and appropriated by God’s people more effectively by using a different tune than the Genevan, then we ought to be open to that.

I’m sure the Book of Praise will continue to be used in the CanRC for the foreseeable future.  Yet the inescapable reality is that the days of its sole primacy are numbered.  If the change doesn’t happen at General Synod 2019, it will surely happen further down the track.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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