The Hymn Society is hosting an online tournament to see which hymn is the greatest of all time. If that seems like a quixotic task to you, keep in mind that The Hymn Society has existed for almost 100 years for the purpose of promoting greater hymn literacy and usage among American and Canadian churches. They know a thing or two about hymns. Plus, the tournament isn’t meant to be taken too seriously.
The tournament actually started this past spring in conjunction with March Madness, but the hymns that have advanced to the Elite Eight were announced this week. Further voting, which can be done via Facebook, will take place during The Hymn Society’s annual conference taking place July 15-18 in Dallas, Texas. So, if you haven’t voted for your favorite hymn yet, there’s still time. Assuming, that is, that your favorite hymn made it through to the Elite Eight: “Holy, Holy, Holy!” versus “Be Thou My Vision”; “O Come, All Ye Faithful” versus “My Hope Is Built on Christ the Solid Rock”; “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” versus “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”; and “Holy God, We Praise Your Name” versus “How Great Thou Art.”
Only three of my favorite hymns made the Elite Eight. Based on my own list’s ranking, I’m rooting for “Be Thou My Vision” to win; although, as I think about it, I love “How Great Thou Art.”
On the question of whether the voting is over the hymn’s text or tune, The Hymn Society explains:
We are treating this tournament as a “total package” tournament including the text, tune, and their marriage. For texts that have been set to various tunes, we have specified which tune is being used for the purposes of this tournament based on the most common pairing indicated on hymnary.org.
Possibly even more interesting than the tournament is how The Hymn Society chose the four divisions:
The Strophic Hymn Division:
Celebrated by the church for centuries, the strophic hymn division has a lot going for it. Rhyme and meter come together into rich theological poetry set to singable tunes…this division’s champion will surely be the “hymn to beat” in the final 4!
The Refrain Division:
What congregation doesn’t love a good refrain? Rich stanzas combined with singable repetition makes a verse-refrain hymn the best of both worlds! As the soundtrack of 19th and 20th century gospel revivals, this division’s champion will be hard to beat in the final 4.
Chant & Cyclical Division:
Chant-based song has long been the backbone of music-making in the church while cyclical song structures remind us of the power of meditation and community music-making by way of repetition. An eclectic group, this division’s champion might be so memorable you’ll find yourself singing it over and over and over again.
CCLI & Staff Pick Division:
How will the the last few decade’s most popular congregational songs stack up against the giants of the past? And will a “staff pick” find its way into the final 4? Only time can tell…
Towards the bottom of the tournament’s webpage, The Hymn Society urges people to have fun and enjoy it and to not take it personally if your favorite hymn didn’t make the list. Echoing their sentiment, as a lover of hymns, I think this tournament is a fun way to get Christians to rediscover great hymns that are rarely sung in our churches anymore.