Poems of Grace

Texts of the Hymnal 1982

What is a hymn? Very strictly and etymologically speaking (Greek hýmnos), it is a poem or song in praise of a hero or deity. Most American laymen, on the other hand, if they thought about it at all, would probably define the term ‘hymn’ less in terms of genre than in terms of form, context, and use: ‘a strophic poem sung to a strophic melody, most often in the context of a formal service of worship, most often by the entire group in attendance’ might be such a definition.

Relatively few of the texts in the Hymnal, however, were written with exactly this use or context in mind (certainly not the Eucharistic liturgy, where they are most often sung today, as neither the Roman nor the Anglican Mass had an official place for hymnody until quite recently), and their original purposes and genres – some written or adapted for the Daily Office; some originating in para- or extra-liturgical services such as processions; some beginning life as means of evangelization, polemic, or exhortation; still others meant as devotional or occasional poetry and not intended either for public use or for singing at all – along with many musical settings, any number of which are unsingable without the training and practice that only a choir could muster, indicate that the Hymnal 1982 is not imagined solely as a book for congregational singing. Indeed, the Hymnal is not only a collection of the various kinds of texts just described, but is also a remarkable compendium – and in fact an official representative, having been vetted by a theology committee and approved by General Convention – of the doctrine and symbology of the Church, including much that is rarely expounded in modern pulpits or classrooms.

This can be difficult to appreciate, as in modern North American hymnals the text is wholly subordinated to the music (it is common in the UK and Europe to find hymnals with texts only, or with unharmonized tune heading the text, with the verse [except in Germany] set out line-for-line; the Hymnal 1940 was in fact published in a melody-only edition with the tunes heading the versified texts, in a small format to match bcp1928). In 1998, however, Church Publishing released Poems of Grace: Texts of the Hymnal 1982, in which the hymns are printed as the verse that they are, without music. Though Poems of Grace deserved much better typography, printing, and binding, and is now unfortunately out of print, it is easily and cheaply available secondhand. It belongs in every home on the shelf alongside Scriptures and Prayer Book, with which it forms a sort of ‘three-legged stool’ and richly repays study and meditation.