An Austin, Texas, church auctioned off rights to block a hymn from use for a year.
© Christopher L. Walton
Last spring, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, found an easy way to boost its annual auction. Item 61 invited members to ban a hymn, and member Dyanne Cortez took the opportunity. Her bid of $25 won her the right to ban “Bring Many Names” (Singing the Living Tradition, hymn 23) for one year. “It just seemed like we did that one a lot,” she said, “and I didn’t feel it shed any useful light on the mystery, and I was just tired of it. It was just something fun.”
When the transaction made its way onto Facebook it kicked off a flurry of comment. “Some people liked the idea and wanted to borrow it,” said Austin’s senior minister, the Rev. Meg Barnhouse. “Others volunteered the hymns they would ban. For our part, we just thought it was a good fundraising idea and something that was in the spirit of fun.” She said the comment was mostly positive, but about 2 percent of commenters thought the idea was too negative or classist.
A few other UU congregations have also temporarily banned hymns, but some people would rather this idea didn’t spread too far.
“The idea that music can be banned because we don’t find it particularly meaningful works against the way music is supposed to function in worship,” said Tim Anderson, music director at the UU Church of Rockford, Illinois, and president of the UU Musicians Network. “If we ban it, we could be limiting the worship experiences of others. Music speaks differently to different people.”
The Rev. Jason Shelton, associate minister for music at First UU Church of Nashville, Tennessee, noted that congregations have different cultures around music. He said he’d discussed the topic with Barnhouse, and in Austin the minister chooses the hymns and sometimes the same ones get used frequently. At his own congregation, hymns are chosen in a collaborative process involving him, the minister leading worship, and the worship team. There are as many as five hymns per Sunday in a 75-minute service. “We sing a wide variety. And there can be last-minute changes. It’s part of my job to listen deeply to the sermon. If it should go in a different direction—it happens—I will change the closing hymn on the fly. What if the song that is the right one to sing at that moment has been banned?”
Shelton said he was concerned with the reaction on social media to banning hymns. “When the idea of banning a hymn began to get shared there was a kind of glee at the idea. That bothered me. To me, the songs in our hymnbook represent who we are. They are all useful from time to time. That said, there are songs I don’t like. And there have been times those were the exactly right songs to sing.”
Barnhouse understands the opposition to banning hymns. “For us it was a good idea that was carried out in the spirit of goodwill and fun. If it’s not fun for your congregation, don’t do it. I think our experience is good feedback for both ministers and music directors.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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