From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Errors in Newsweek hymnal story
20 May 1996 15:17:21
Feb. 9, 1996
Office of Communication
United Church of Christ
On the World Wide Web:
A D V I S O R Y :
Errors in `Newsweek' hymnal story detailed by church officials;
other journalists asked not to repeat them
EDITORS AND PRODUCERS: "Newsweek" magazine makes several
factual errors on the religion page of its Feb. 12 edition, in
an article that is severely critical of a hymnal published
recently by The Pilgrim Press of the United Church of Christ.
We in the United Church of Christ communication office welcome
coverage and fair criticism of any materials published by the
church, including "The New Century Hymnal." We only ask that
journalists not repeat assertions made by other journalists
without first checking for themselves, and that errors not be
A letter from one of our staff members to "Newsweek," detailing
problems in the Feb. 12 article, follows.
If you would like to cover "The New Century Hymnal," we would be
glad to provide a review copy of the hymn book, fact sheets,
news releases and names and phone numbers of people who could be
interviewed. Please contact Hans Holznagel (phone 216-736-
2214), Andy Lang (216-736-2215) or Nancy Erikson (216-736-2200)
in our Cleveland office.
You can also get information electronically via the United
Church of Christ home page on the World Wide Web at
[Here is the text of the letter sent by the UCC Office of
Communication to Newsweek.]
February 8, 1996
Mr. Kenneth L. Woodward
251 West 57th Street
New York, New York 10019-1894
I was glad to have the opportunity to talk with you before you
wrote your story on The New Century Hymnal, and I want to thank
you for your interest in the United Church of Christ.
I did have high hopes that your story would be a balanced report
covering the opinions of both the members of our church who
believe our new hymnal is faithful to the Christian tradition
and the critics who believe the hymnal has departed from that
But now I've read the article, and I'm surprised and
disappointed that it seems to be devoted almost entirely to a
one-sided attack on our hymnal's theology. You quote one
theologian, Dr. Willis Elliott, who demonizes the hymnal as "the
advent of a new religion." You cite unnamed critics who believe
the hymnal teaches "heresy." You made no attempt to
counterbalance their arguments and you did not cite a single
member of the United Church of Christ who might have challenged
Dr. Elliott's opinion or argued that the hymnal is faithful to
the historic Christian faith.
You had a copy of The New Century Hymnal on your desk as you
wrote the story, so you had plenty of opportunity to see for
yourself if it promotes a "new religion." The claim is at least
questionable, and in my opinion, an outright falsehood.
If The New Century Hymnal does preach a "new religion," here are
the tenets of that faith:
-- The human race is "in bondage to sin" and cannot free itself.
Salvation is possible only through Jesus Christ.
-- Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God, both human and
divine. Jesus is "the way, the truth and the life." There is
no other Savior, and no other Lord.
-- Christ died on the cross to atone for our sins, rose from the
dead on the third day, ascended to the right hand of God's
majesty and will come again at the end of history.
This is the faith of The New Century Hymnal -- expressed clearly
in orders of worship, traditional affirmations of faith and
hundreds of hymns. But you declined to quote any of those texts
in your story. Instead, you cited a few verses apparently
selected to make the case that our hymnal has, in Dr. Elliott's
words, invented a "new religion."
Ken, please understand that all of us in the United Church of
Christ -- including conservatives and liberals -- believe that
Christ is our Sovereign and Savior. The New Century Hymnal
affirms -- using the words of the UCC Statement of Faith -- that
"in Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen
Savior, you [God] have come to us and shared our common lot,
conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself."
The order in the hymnal for reception of new members into a UCC
congregation -- which you either did not notice or simply
ignored -- asks candidates to profess their faith in Jesus
Christ as "Lord and Savior."
I try to be a follower of Jesus Christ as my God and Savior,
even though I often fail. I can certainly attest to the deep
Christian faith of the women and men who worked hard over the
years to prepare The New Century Hymnal for publication. To
accuse them of inventing a "new religion" and of "heresy" --
without giving them any space to rebut these outrageous charges
-- is unprofessional, unethical, and deeply offensive. It is
also bizarre, to say the least, that in the last decade of the
20th century, a secular magazine like Newsweek would allow
itself to be used as a platform for charges of "heresy" against
members of a respected Christian church without giving the
accused an opportunity to defend themselves.
I simply do not understand why you allowed Dr. Elliott's opinion
to stand without any attempt to present balancing views from the
many theologians, pastors and lay people in our church who have
found in The New Century Hymnal a strong affirmation of our
traditional faith in Jesus Christ.
I told you a week before your deadline that when the hymnal's
editors, translators and poets looked for alternatives to
masculine images of God, they relied primarily on the Bible and
Christian tradition. Along with the hymnal, we sent you a copy
of Christian precedents -- from the Bible and a number of
ancient Christian sources -- for "Mother" and other feminine
images of God.
You ignored these precedents and instead insisted that "the
hymnal offers new and frankly feminist creations like 'Mothering
God, You Gave Me Birth,' based on the writings of the medieval
nun and mystic Julian of Norwich." I think most readers will
immediately recognize the contradiction in that sentence: If
the source of "new and frankly feminist creations" in The New
Century Hymnal is a saint who died in 1417 -- five centuries
before the rise of the feminist movement -- then obviously they
are not "new" or "feminist."
In fact, The New Century Hymnal primarily uses images of God
that Christians have sung through the ages -- images like "Rock
of Ages," "Mighty Fortress," "Ancient of Days," "Incarnate
Word," "Triune God," "Majesty," "Savior," "Creator" and "Lord."
But you decided not to cite any of these hymns. If you had, it
certainly would have been difficult to support Dr. Elliott's
view that the hymnal advocates a "new religion."
The center of your argument appears to be that a hymnal must
chiefly use masculine terminology for God to be faithful to the
Christian tradition. A few theologians in the UCC -- like Dr.
Elliott -- argue that Christians may not use any feminine images
of God. God is always "Father," "King" and "He." But many
moderates in our church believe that masculine and feminine
images of God should be equally privileged in our worship --
along with other images that have deep precedents in Bible and
tradition. The moderate view takes seriously the vision of
humanity in Genesis 1:27: that God created both women and men
in God's image. This is the point of view that prevailed in the
hymnal. It is a serious debate you could have reported with
some sense of fairness -- instead of ridiculing our search for
balanced language as "a Valentine verse to an androgynous
You complain that in "Silent Night" the expression "Son of God"
has been replaced with "Child of God." You did not tell me you
were planning to argue that point; if you had, I would have
referred you to the Didache and other ancient Christian texts
that often use "Child of God" in reference to Jesus Christ. I
would have urged you to contact a number of ecumenical
theologians who could have told you something about the
antiquity of titles like "Child of God" and "Only Begotten One"
in Christian tradition.
You cite one hymn that replaces "heaven above" with "heaven
beyond." You then quote my explanation that "people no longer
live in a three-tiered universe." First, you identify me as
"Alan Lang." My name is Andrew Lang. Second, you call me "the
UCC's public relations director." I'm not director of anything
in the UCC, and I don't believe you ever asked me for my title.
But my name and job description weren't the only facts you got
wrong in this article. In the next sentence, you rebut my
explanation by citing "the critics" who say that "eliminating
the vertical is an attack on hierarchical relationships." But
if you had told me that some critics were claiming that "the
vertical" had been eliminated from the hymnal, or that you were
going to report their opinion as fact, I would have referred you
to the dozens of texts that retain the traditional image. You
had a copy of the hymnal; you might, for example, have consulted
the section of hymns for the feast of the Ascension. There you
would have found texts like these:
"Alleluia! Christ eternal, nothing can disrupt your reign;
Alleluia! Born of Mary, heaven and earth are your domain."
"Christ, enthroned in heavenly splendor. . .
Heaven and earth with loud hosannas worship you. . .
Risen, ascended, glorified! Risen, ascended, glorified!"
"O risen Christ, ascended now,
to your blessed name all knees shall bow. . . ."
You might also have consulted the hymnal's orders for worship --
which affirm that Christ is "seated at the right hand of
Majesty," that Christ now "reigns" with God "in glory," that at
the end of history the saints will be united with God in the
"perfect feast with our exalted Savior in the eternal joy of
your heavenly realm."
The truth is that The New Century Hymnal uses both "vertical"
and "horizontal" images of God. Both images are orthodox, and
both affirm that the historic Christian belief that God is
transcendent as well as immanent. In fact, the hymnal teaches a
very high Christology: In other words, it is faithful to the
universal tradition of the church that Christ -- who suffered
and died for our sins -- is the exalted ruler who reigns in
heaven in glory, to whom all creatures owe obedience, worship
By citing a few verses selected to make your case, and ignoring
the many texts that contradict your opinion, you have
misrepresented the hymnal and the faith in the Crucified, Risen
and Ascended Christ which it affirms.
You had the opportunity to write a balanced article. At your
request, we gave you the names and phone numbers of some of the
many churches that are using the hymnal. They have all told us
that they never heard from you. In fact, we can find no
evidence you contacted any of the sources on our list. I also
urged you to call Arthur Clyde, the hymnal editor, before you
wrote the story. He certainly would have been in a position to
give you the names of theologians and pastors who could have
challenged Dr. Elliott's opinion that The New Century Hymnal has
invented "a new religion." But he never heard from you, either.
But you did have a copy of the book on your desk. You could
have read through the hymns and orders of worship for yourself -
- not with an eye for proof texts to confirm your own opinions,
but to compare the book as a whole with the Christian tradition.
If you had, you could not have failed to notice the classical
Christian doctrines -- the justice and mercy of God, the
Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the atoning sacrifice of
Christ on the cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the
sending of the Holy Spirit, the Sacrament of Baptism as a
spiritual regeneration, the Sacrament of Holy Communion as the
Holy Supper in which we are united with the Body and Blood of
Christ -- that are clearly and repeatedly affirmed by The New
Finally, you cite unnamed "African-Americans [who] are incensed
that the hymn doctors have cleaned up the grammar of old Negro
spirituals." We've asked African American pastors around the
country whether you called them to ask their views about the
many African American hymns in this hymnal, and none of them had
heard from you. We spoke to the many African American musicians
and theologians who were part of the team that prepared the
hymnal -- and apparently you did not contact any of them. In
any case, their views are not represented in your article.
There is certainly a debate among African American musicologists
about the use of dialect in African American hymns. I don't
question your right to report one side of that debate. I do
challenge your refusal to report the other side.
Ken, I know you are a respected and experienced journalist who
has covered religion for many years. If this had been a novice
reporter's first assignment for Newsweek, I might have
understood the absence of fact-checking, the selective use of
proof-texts to prove the reporter's private opinions, or the
failure to report the views of experts who would have questioned
those opinions. But your experience and reputation for
professionalism -- not to mention Newsweek's own standards of
balance and fairness -- deprive you of any excuse for this
opinionated and one-sided attack on the United Church of Christ.
In your introduction to Willis Elliott's book -- Flow of Flesh,
Reach of Spirit -- you pay tribute to your friend as a "superb
conversationalist." "[A]ll really good theology," you wrote,
"is, or ought to be, good conversation." I find conversation
entirely absent from your story. Instead, the article appears
to be an inquisitorial attack on our church's hymnal without
even the pretense that the hymnal's supporters should be allowed
to defend themselves from charges of "heresy." Ken, you should
I suppose it is too much to ask you and your editors to publish
an apology and correction. But I sincerely hope that, if you
write again on this subject, you will at least consult some of
the faithful women and men in our church who are using this
hymnal to sing the praises of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Andrew G. Lang
Office of Communication
United Church of Christ
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