You know you're off to a great start in a worship planning meeting when your guest music director says, "Do you all include the gay verse in that hymn?" The hymn: "In the Midst of New Dimensions."
The fuller question from Billy Kluttz, our guest music director on November 22nd: Do you all include the gay verse of "In the Midst of New Dimensions" that has been edited out of the version used currently in the PCUSA, UCC, and Methodist hymnals?
Here's some history of the hymn:
The hymn was written in 1985 the by Rev. Julian Rush (b. 1936), a United Methodist minister who served churches in Dallas, Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs for 17 years, until he came out as a gay man.
When Rush came out, the United Methodist church in Boulder where he was appointed decided he was no longer fit to be their minister, and stopped paying his salary.
"In the Midst of New Dimensions" has beautiful imagery from the Hebrew Bible: pilgrim people, olive branches, God of rainbow, and fiery pillar.
What's been edited out of the hymn is this original verse:
Through the years of human struggles, walk a people long despised, gays and lesbians together fighting to be realized.
Here's what Billy has to say about this underground hymn verse:
I think Rush’s hymn, and its adoption/adaptation by mainline denominations, speaks to the tenuous relationship between queer people and the institutional church. For LGBTQ folks, church music offers a rare point of connection and refusal. In church music, the systems of religious heterosexism/transphobia and the realm of queer imagination collide. Even in this transformational space, however, queer people must sing in code—or be silenced.
There are several types of “gay hymns”. Perhaps most often there are the hymns we creatively claim. We make use of the political theology in broader hymns about inclusion. We change, or improve, existing lyrics. Hymns written by people of all gender identities, expressions, and sexual orientations are claimed by queer communities as reflective of our experiences of God’s expansive grace. Perhaps less often, we also dare to write the specifics of our relationship with the Divine in hymn form, such as in Rush’s hymn. Sadly, these hymns are often sterilized during their adaptation by the broader church.
How do we sing as about relationships with the Divine in hymn form? What happens when a hymn or a verse goes underground in order to support the Church's status quo? What does it mean that a culture has been created within the Church that queer folks sing in code or be silenced? If the role of liturgy is to create transformation, how can music sit outside that expectation?
The Church can have lots of conversations about music. Electronic keyboard vs. organ? Piano vs. organ? Hymnal vs. projected screen? Old hymnal vs. new hymnal?
Those conversations can get really narrow and limiting by playing into our cultural and structural individualism--that singing is for ourselves and exists only within the space between the walls of the sanctuary. "I like this music. I like that music. I don't like this music. Will people like us if we do "x" style of music?"
Creating a beautiful sound together is a beautiful experience. Billy asking us to sing the underground gay verse of "In the Midst of New Dimensions" took us beyond what we sound like. Billy's question was a reminder to me of the purpose of our singing at Pilgrims-- we sing in order to build an alternative community in the name of Jesus, for the sake of the healing of the planet. We can talk keyboard, piano, organ, hymnal, and screens all day long. And that seems to focus on the sound within the building.
We are singing God's holy welcome, God's justice, God's love into existence.
Leave out the gay verse in "In the Midst of New Dimensions" and God's welcome gets sterilized.
There are few places left on the planet where a community can consistently gather to sing as one voice and sing in order to shake up the world.
When we sing as a congregation, we participate in an ancient, subversive practice. The early Church would sing to defy Empire and construct an alternative to Imperial violence and war. I can imagine the sound of music coming of house churches, an auditory sign of belonging and community to Jesus rather than Caesar. Music in the early Church was a sign of an alternative, safe space.
When we sang the words, "Through the years of human struggles, walk a people long despised, gays and lesbians together fighting to be realized" on November 22nd our Pilgrim voices created a safe space. If you were new to Pilgrims that day, you would instantly get a sense of our values in our singing of those words.
When we sing as a congregation, we are singing about Who we belong to. When we sing, the words we sing just aren't words connected to a pretty melody. When we sing, we are proclaiming a world as it is in order to create a world as it should be. As we sing, we are proclaiming our trust in the Holy One and the way in which we live together as people of God's Way.