Hymns vs Propers

There’s an interesting argument over at NLM about hymns vs. propers. The “propers” are Scriptural compositions–mostly psalms with other material added in–appointed for Sundays and major feasts through the year that tie into the old one year lectionary cycle. One of the items under discussion is the Anglican Use Gradual, a resource created for the Anglican Use of the Roman Church which uses traditional language translations of the propers set to psalm tones a la Rossini (a set of tunes some would say were used to death before Vatican II and one of the features that gave the Traditional Latin Mass a bad name from a musical perspective…).

I’m ambivalent about the debate myself. The propers are part of the web that wove the various lectionary and Church-Year cycles together, making a harmonious system of Scripture and Tradition that was crucial to spiritual formation for those who lived the liturgies and understood Latin—but meant very little to people outside of intentional liturgical communities. And thus, I really like the point that Gavin makes about the pedagogical and catechetical value of hymns. Most protestant groups, of course, did choose hymns over propers, the best retaining the connections between hymns and liturgical occasions—the worst overlooking them entirely. (Which, to be perfectly honest, is one of my big complaints with the way I’ve seen praise music services done: there’s been a complete disconnect between the music and the experience of the liturgical year. Theoretically it could be done, and done well, but I’ve never experienced it…)

The real value of propers to my mind is that 1) they are primarily Scripture and 2) without fail they stabilize and deepen our understanding of the Church Year. A real complication with using the old propers, however, is the introduction of the three year lectionary which means that if you intend to tie things together, you ought to think about a three year cycle of propers, not just the old one year cycle. This is one of the advantages of the (maligned) By Flowing Waters which offers propers for use by season rather than by occasion and thus is quite useful in a three year cycle. However, this means the connections within each occasion are not as tight as they could be. (But at least they exist thematically…)

At the end of the day, I’d like to do both—use classically conditioned propers with edifying hymnody—but I wonder how hard that would be to pull off…

6 thoughts on “Hymns vs Propers

  1. Christopher


    It, that is, “using classically conditioned propers and edifying hymnody”, can be accomplished. What is required at this point are propers for the three year cycles (and collects, to boot) and the intention of the priest and other worship leaders to prepare thoughtfully when selecting hymns. Hymns should ideally in my opinion engage with the lectionary texts for the day, with the season, etc. And many of them too are threaded with Scripture. Then again, the sermon should ideally also do the same–many in my experience do not!

    We should not underestimate the catechetical value of all of these in being immersed in the Mystery of Christ and frankly in getting to know more about Scripture through praying.

  2. Christopher

    And what are you thinking going to collects to discuss theology? You mean our liturgy might actually have something to do with the content of our faith? ;)

  3. John-Julian, OJN

    Come on, now.

    I know this is monkish, but I simply cannot get up even a modicum of enthusiasm for “hymns” at Eucharist. I doubt that anyone in an ordinary congregation has ever learned anything from a hymn or had any other experience than some kind of emotional jag at a familiar one. The Church got along without them very nicely for at least 1700 years — until the Romantics took over in the 19th century.

    Not long ago, I happened to go to a parish Mass where they sang SEVEN hymns in addition to the sung propers. It was the closest I have ever been to walking out in the middle of Mass.

    Horrendous, dragging, ponderous misdirection, liturgical prostitution, competition with the liturgy (and winning!). And it didn’t matter if the hymns matched the commemoration (or readings) of the day or not. They were just too bloody much!

    There: I said it, and I’m glad!

  4. Christopher

    Fr. John-Julian,

    This simply is not true that for 1700 years the Church got along without hymns. Battles between Arians and Catholics often occured in hymnody. Luther composed hymns in the 1500s.

    I simply disagree that they compete with the liturgy, or that nothing is learned from them. There is a lot of rich theology in our hymnody, including the Gloria, I might add…

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    Fr John-Julian–I’m going to have to severely disagree with you here… I know quite a number of people–M among them, I think–who have learned more (and better) theology from hymns than books.

    The problem IMO is the problem with the rest of the liturgy—people (congregants and clergy alike) good stuff with deep meanings but never let on that they’re there or what they are. This is one of the points I keep hammering on day in and out in my Church Year class—hymns aren’t just nice distracting music to break up all the talking; they mean something and can be powerful vehicles for theological truth. The only way they’ll *function* as vehicles, though, is if we pay attention to them.

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