My Own Hymnathon

by Sandy Nelson

A few months ago, my 10-year-old daughter, Elsie, sang through the entire Episcopal hymnal (The Hymnal 1982) in one day! She sings with the intergenerational Evensong Choir at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, and this Hymnathon was a fundraiser for their upcoming trip to England. This summer, the Evensong Choir will be the choir-in-residence at Ely Cathedral near Cambridge and at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. They will sing the daily Evensong service each afternoon for a week at each cathedral. Singing all 720 hymns in one day in January (one verse of each hymn) was a ten-hour effort, and each member asked friends and family members to sponsor them. What a day! I joined in the singing, and it was a real pleasure to do so much singing with such wonderful, accomplished singers.

Saint Mark’s Cathedral has an impressive choral music program. They follow the tradition of the Royal School of Church Music in England. Elsie started singing with the Junior Choristers four years ago and she currently sings with the Senior Choristers and the Evensong Choir. Each week she has Musicianship classes along with choir rehearsal. This is wonderful choral training for her.

Singing through the Episcopal hymnal was a great way to experience the music of that denomination. Their hymnal was printed in 1982. I find it surprising that they haven’t updated their hymnal in 36 years. But I appreciated the breadth of music from ancient plainsong hymns to a few familiar hymns as well as many sung prayers and liturgical choruses. I also noticed a lack of melodic, fun-to-sing hymns that I know from The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook. I really missed our beloved Swedish hymns!

Inspired by the Saint Mark’s Episcopal hymnathon, I decided to embark on my own personal hymnathon. A few weeks later, I spent the weeks of Lent singing through the entire Covenant Hymnal, one verse of each of the 777 hymns. It was such a lovely time, playing the piano and singing a dozen or two or more hymns each day.

What a joy to sing so many hymns by Lina Sandell, Carl Boberg, Nils Frykman, and A.L. Skoog, too. We are blessed to have such melodic, singable songs in our hymnal – “Thy Holy Wings, Dear Savior” and “Our Mighty God Works Mighty Wonders,” among many others. Just last December, I visited Lina Sandell’s home and church in Fröderyd, Sweden. Seeing and experiencing where she wrote her meaningful words really brings those particular hymns new depth and life to me.

And there’s a depth to the old hymns, such as “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” written over 260 years ago. It is still a beloved hymn. Our congregation sang “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” recently, written in 1738 and still relevant and pleasing to sing.

I found that it felt prayerful and meditative to focus on the words and tunes of so many hymns each day. And my piano playing improved with this practice so much more quickly than I would have expected.

I observed that there are six hymns that use the tune “Hyfrydol.” And I recognized many hymns by Marty Haugen, a gifted Lutheran musician whose music I was first introduced to during my time at Holden Village, a remote Lutheran retreat center in the mountains of Washington state.

Our Covenant Hymnal even includes some South African freedom songs that I know from singing them at Holden. What a lovely surprise! (“We are Marching in the Light of God” and “Hallelujah, We Sing your Praises,” and others.)

We have an old-timey string band that plays in worship once a month at First Covenant Church in Seattle. I play the accordion. Singing though our hymnal helped me find many forgotten hymns – I kept a list of pieces that the string band can play; more than 60 would work great for our group.

I noticed that I was very interested in the era of each hymn and who wrote it. Having that information at the bottom of each page is a wonderful resource. And what a delight to see so many familiar names. I actually know many people who have contributed to Covenant hymnody: Glen Wiberg, Aaron Markuson, Royce Eckhardt, Irving Erickson, Patricia Conrad, Bob Stromberg, and Karl Olsson, to name a few.

We are rich with beautiful music and words in our Covenant Hymnal. May more churches in our denomination use this treasure of a book!