Monday, April 07, 2008

Culture Wars and the UM Hymnal

The results are in for the recent hymnal survey conducted by the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD) and they bear a striking resemblance to the ballot of answers suggested by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and Good News in their 2007 call to action.

In the fall, Good News sent out notices to members instructing their constituents how to complete the survey. The following comes from a Good News letter:

"We would encourage you to participate in a hymnal survey being done currently by the church. You can share your ten most favorite hymns as well as the ten least favorite that you would like to see removed from the hymnal. Mark Tooley reminded us recently that the supplement to the hymnal which came out in 2000, entitled The Faith We Sing, had some problematic hymns included. They were approved because the supplement did not have to be approved by General Conference. Hymns such as "I Am Your Mother," "Mother God," and "Womb of Life" to just name several, have problems theologically. They would be good for your removal list. To participate in the hymnal survey, go here."

This target list indeed bore out in the survey results. The top three least favorite hymns reported by the 4,119 survey respondents included Mothering God, I Am Your Mother, and Womb of Life, followed closely by She Comes Sailing on the Wind, Bring Many Names and A Mother Lined a Basket.

This survey attests to the pervasive impact of the larger culture wars on the life of the Church. The debate over the hymnal is not new. In 1989, the same lines conservative v. liberal were drawn then. For a brief history, check out Cross and Flame's 2007 diary entry.

Is the UMC really so opposed to feminine images of God and praise for women in leadership? I cannot imagine that to be the case...not in a denomination where women serve at every level of leadership from laity to bishops; not in a denomination where the percentage of women in seminary exceeds that of men; not in a denomination that sponsors a powerful global mission society of women; not in a denomination whose tradition has been to promote and advocate for women's rights throughout history.

No, these results do not represent the wider United Methodist denomination. In fact, the protest directed toward these particular hymns does not even represent the opinion of the majority of survey respondents. The results show that only 13% of respondents chose Mothering God to be eliminated, only 10%, I Am Your Mother, and a mere 9%, Womb of Life. Hardly a resounding majority! In fact, it is only at most 535 people out of a denomination of 8 million. The survey itself revealed a wide diversity of hymns that folks liked and did not like.

GBOD is not unaware of the orchestrated campaigns to purge the United Methodist hymnal of feminine images of the Divine. In fact, earlier this year GBOD responded to the IRD campaign with a thoughtful letter that attended to the concerns of some in the church that feminine images for God were not scripturally sound.

Both Good News and the IRD have a history of using controversial issues related to sexuality and gender to motivate their constituency. Yet, despite their success in pushing through an anti-homosexual agenda in recent years, they have failed to advance any of their other agenda items related to doctrinal fidelity, reshaping judicial processes, changing the accountability of the Women's Division, refocusing the Board of Church and Society, reconstituting the University Senate, and requiring confessions of faith for seminary name a few.

The Rev. Scott Campbell noted in an essay in the book, Hard Ball on Holy Ground, that the call for schism at the 2004 General Conference was a direct result of the resounding defeat of the conservative agenda. Campbell writes:
Conservative renewal leaders find themselves in a most uncomfortable place. They have a denomination that rejects the ordination of homosexuals, but which has enacted almost nothing else on their reform agenda and doesn't seem inclined to do so any time in the near future. The church remains solidly centrist by almost every measure. What is more, it continues to lean to the left in terms of most of its social policy positions. (Why the Right Proposed Schism, p. 83)
As we approach General Conference, it will indeed be interesting to see what, if any, impact these conservative renewal groups have on the wider church. The tradition of the United Methodist Church has always been one of openness and diversity and there is little indication that it will change anytime soon.

The culture wars that we witness in the UMC are not disimilar to those in the wider society. The recent trend of political polarization (red state/ blue state, for example) translates itself from town halls to church councils. This is not all bad news...for the UMC has always affirmed a unity in diversity. Perhaps it will be the church in the next few decades that will model for the world a way of reconciliation in the midst of division.


Keith McIlwain said...

I voted in ways similar to the positions of IRD & Good News, not because I'd read their suggestions (I didn't know about them until I read your post), nor because I am opposed to feminine imagery for God (though not at the expense or exclusion of traditional laguage), but because a lot of those newer hymns in The Faith We Sing just aren't very good, in my opinion. Hopefully, the quality of the songs was as much (or more) a factor in the results.

Craig L. Adams said...

I seem to have missed that Good News bulletin as well. (Though, really I should have gotten it.) I've never been on the UMAction list. I always hear about Tooley's activities second-hand. I don't know why. I participated in the survey, but didn't comment on anything in The Faith We Sing since I've never used it very much. My recollection is that the process of controversy & accommodation that produced the current Hymnal also produced a strong consensus of support behind it.

Rev. Jeremy Smith said...

In a similar vein, I'm quite struck by how many songs from other cultures are in the bottom 20. At least 9 outta 20 UMH (11 outta 20 for the laity, the bulk of the respondees) were translated from other cultures.

It seems that whitebread America and songs that reflect American white culture are the favorites, while anything that offers alternative visions, tempos, and genders is voted off the island.

Craig L. Adams said...

Good point. Some of those songs from other cultures are absolutely beautiful, too. But, in several of the Churches I've served there's some resistance to singing them. So sad.

Keith McIlwain said...

I wonder why that is; some of those "international "songs are quite good.

Craig L. Adams said...

Oh, it's definitely a cultural thing (not in the sense of "culture war" as Tiffany used the phrase - which is more ideological/political/moral). It's an unfamiliar style of music. And, sometimes it's hard for us to figure how the words go with the music. In the church I'm now serving, we have some fans of "Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore" (though I still do get complaints about it, too). I personally love # 434 "When the Poor Ones." I stumbled across another one with wonderful lyrics (couldn't find it right now) that I decided not to use because I'd put another unfamiliar-to-this-congregation one into the bulletin already.

Larry B said...

I am a little surprised by your post here. I try to read your blog often even though I disagree with your position.

This is one of the few posts where you have deviated from a reasonable attempt to explain your position by substituting it with an ill reasoned prejudiced post regarding a fringe group.

You start with an unsupported pre-supposition and assume it as fact. You forget that correlation doesn't imply causation. Then you later abuse the statistics of the study to support your own position. No song in the TFWS survey received much more than 10-15% for positive or negative, so by your own reasoning neither the like or dislike is representative of anything. And if that's the case, then the influence of the IRD isn't statistically supported.

I frankly have come to expect better reasoned arguments from your blog, but this post was disappointing.