The United Methodist hymnal committee put the finishing touches this week on a revised songbook for the 9-million-member denomination after almost three years of debate, research and prayer.
Committee members weathered storms of controversy to produce the book of 624 hymns, which will be presented in April to the denomination's General Conference meeting in St. Louis.
If the revised hymnal is approved by the General Conference, it will be published by December, 1989, church officials say.
"I think we have a product that will really speak to the heartland of United Methodist Christians in this country and others as well," said Bishop Reuben Job, committee chairman. He predicted approval from the conference.
"I think there will be healthy debate and the broad central stream will be very supportive and affirmative," Job said. "Those farthest from the center at either side will be uncomfortable."
The 1984 General Conference established the committee to consider the addition of hymns with more liberal ethnic and sex-role language, while charging the group to remain sensitive to traditional hymn language.
The 25-member panel at times met opposition from traditionalists, feminists and others. Plans to include feminine imagery of God, to eliminate militaristic hymns and to add music to some Psalms sparked some of the most heated debate.
The committee decided Tuesday against adopting a hymn that refers to God as "mother" out of concern that the lyrics would offend conservative members of the denomination.
"Let's not shoot ourselves in the foot as we near the finish line," warned the Rev. Charles Smith before his colleagues voted 11 to 10 to reject the hymn "Strong Mother God."
The committee also reversed a decision made last month by voting to retain the hymn "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus," which some members contend is too militaristic.
And despite charges that the lyrics would offend some handicapped members of the denomination, the committee voted to retain a stanza in "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" that uses the word "dumb" in referring to mute people.
"Not only have I received complaints about 'dumb' but 'lame' as well," said Nancy Starnes of Dallas, who uses a wheelchair. "It's painful for many people to sing it. We're all sitting in the back in the chairs and it makes a difference."
The verse will be marked by an asterisk to note that congregations can skip it if they deem it insensitive.
"What we're saying is, we kind of want to be sensitive to that but we didn't have the guts to, so maybe you will," charged the Rev. Beryl Ingram-Ward, of Bellevue, Wash., who argued against the stanza.
Ingram-Ward had argued in vain for the inclusion of "Strong Mother God," saying it offered a fresh alternative to the traditional, "almost exclusively male" Christian terms for God.
Opponents believed the hymn's reference to "mother God" departs from Christianity's traditional names for the Trinity--Father, Son and Holy Spirit.