I have had a chance over many months to get to know the hymnal Cantus Christi published by Canon Press, associated with Pastor Douglas Wilson and Christ Church of Moscow, Idaho. Over this time, I have gathered some reflections about this hymnal. For churches who are considering purchasing this hymnal, they should know a few things about it.1 This is not intended to be a full review, but some ruminations and observations I have collected since using it.
This is a very good hymnal, and has many strengths. First and foremost, rather than let marketing and mass production be the controlling purpose of the hymnal, Cantus Christi is a hymnal for the church, and for those churches that are Christ’s churches without apology. If your church is a church that wishes they were more like a mall or a Starbucks or a country club than a church, this is not the hymnal for you. It is clear that the production of this hymnal came from concerns that the hymnal should be for a church where congregational singing is taken seriously as an important part of corporate worship and Christian life.
Cantus Christi contains very little if any Christian worship music that a truly conservative Christian would find outright objectionable. The hymnal contains no gospel songs, no quasi-Christian soft-rock ballads (though there are some contemporary hymns), and no contemporary praise and worship jigs of a neo-Irish flare. If you are looking for a hymnal whose ratio of good hymns to objectionable hymns is very high, Cantus Christi will likely fit your bill.
The selection of hymns is strong and varied. The editors deliberately picked multiple hymns from throughout church history, including an even casting of hymns from each of the past several centuries. Some songs are ancient and medieval hymns, several come from the Reformation era, still others from the golden age of English hymnody, a good selection from the 19th century, and then a couple hands-full from the 20th century. Reformed, Anglican, Wesleyan, and Lutheran hymns can all be found here. You can find hymns and tunes from America, Germany, France, and English-speaking countries. In this way, the hymnal is in the best sense catholic (small “c”). In this diverse selections, it truly represents the universal church in its diversity, and much more so than supposedly “relevant” music to which so many churches are turning today–music that represents a small segment of Christianity from an extremely limited slice of time
The choice of hymns addressing the cross of Christ and our atonement is strong. You’ll find “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “My Song is Love Unknown,” “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted,” “Ah, Holy Jesus,” and “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness,” among others. I love hymns about the atonement. I am very thankful for so many sound, theologically strong, beautiful hymns about what Christ did for us on the cross.
The hymnal contains a reduced psalter to begin the hymnal. Some of these congregations will be able to pick up right off. Others will require more work. In any case, this psalter is an asset.
Moreover, the editors of Cantus Christi were not afraid to put in what many American evangelicals would consider unusual hymns. I regard this to be a strength. Many will be “confronted” with hymns they do not know. There will be a learning curve. But I am thankful that focus groups and polls did not control this hymnal. Instead, a desire to put in good hymns, even if they are unusual or even obscure, controlled the editorial choices. You might be surprised at your enjoyment of learning some new hymns. I suppose this might bother some people, but for others of us it ends up being something like a treasure hunt.
For all its strengths, however, Cantus Christi does have some limitations worth considering. The selections are not perfect. There is a hymn by Martin Luther about baptism that many might prefer not to use. Some congregations might object to some of the hymns concerning Communion.
The hymnal is very big. It measures 9.5″ by 6.5″ and is nearly 1.5″ thick. You can’t really carry it around easily.
Some hymns would be very difficult to sing as a congregation, in my judgment. I can think of several that I’d probably never try with a congregation because they are unsuitable for congregational singing due to varied verses or simple difficulty in singing them. Take, for instance, “I Bind unto Myself Today.” It’s a great hymn with good words by St. Patrick to a great old Irish hymn melody. Yet it has 9 verses (nearly all of which must be sung) and it breaks out with a totally different hymn tune right towards the end. You have to see it to believe it. It might be nice for a choir to sing (ironically, it is mostly set in unison, so that doesn’t work well either), but I don’t believe a congregation would find it easy to sing. I think some of the Anglican Psalm chants also fit in this category (though they might prove useful for a choir).
Another problem is that the voice leading can be strange at time. I like to sing parts, and I often will sing different parts. There have been many times where the intervals (or jumps) between notes are very difficult to sing or even outside a suitable range for the part singing it. Let me put it another way: if you’re a tenor using Cantus Christi, you’ll be often surprised at how low the tenor line goes (I find the tenor sits unusually low on average), or how high, or how strange the intervals are. If you don’t believe me, take a look at “Whate’er My God Ordains is Right.” Other examples could be provided.2
For many churches and Christians I know, many of the hymns will be unfamiliar to them. I wish this wasn’t an automatic negative, but it is at very least a practical concern for pastors looking at it. To their credit, Canon Press has published several CDs of the hymns both sung and with keyboard accompaniment. Furthermore, this is a good hymnal to build a vocabulary of Christian worship. Nevertheless believers enjoy singing what they know. This is certainly no problem where the hymns congregations do know are good hymns. Moreover, the hymnal not only includes several selections many Christians will not know, but is lacking many other good hymns that congregations would be familiar with. Noticeably absent are hymns like “Abide with Me,” “Amazing Grace,” “Be Still My Soul,” “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed,” “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” and so on.
This leads directly into the next weakness, and that is Cantus Christi’s unusually low number of hymns. The preface seemed to promise a second edition with more selections, but that has not materialized yet (the hymnal was first published nearly 13 years ago in 2002). At page 383, the psalms and hymns stop and the hymnal transitions to “service music.” I have no problem with service music, but I wish this hymnal had more hymns in it. I have Moravian and Lutheran hymnals with over 900 pages. My Trinity Hymnal Baptist Edition has over 700. It is lamentable that this hymnal is so stunted.
So I believe Cantus Christi is a very good hymnal, but I have some reservations about it. I’m thankful for many aspects of the hymnal. I enjoy using it. But it does have its weaknesses, and churches considering purchasing this hymnal should weigh those weaknesses.