Nebraska Hymn Poet Rae E. Whitney Awarded the Bishop’s Cross at Annual Council
Nebraska hymn poet Rae E. Whitney was awarded the Bishop’s Cross at Annual Council in Lincoln last week. Marty Wheeler Burnett, Canon Precentor, addressed the convention regarding Whitney’s accomplishments, which include over 500 published hymns. Here is Canon Burnett’s address:
A Nebraska Love Story
It was a starry night in Rome, that summer of 1960, illuminated by a full moon and fireflies weaving a sparkling array.
A couple – strangers – whose eyes first met on the tour bus, climb to the rooftop terrace and embrace in a passionate kiss. The young English woman looks into the eyes of the older man – an Episcopal priest – and says:
“What’s your name? I can’t call you ‘Father’ anymore.”
Next stop – beautiful Assisi, the home of St. Francis. The Episcopal priest proposes to the young English woman.
By the time the tour of Italy concludes, the two are officially engaged. The Episcopal priest invites his fiancée to travel home to meet his mother and visit his parish in……Nebraska.
NEBRASKA? “I had never heard of Nebraska,” she said, “and I had never considered visiting the United States.”
But, she came. They traveled by boat to Montreal, by train to Albany, then Chicago, then Omaha, where they visited Bishop Brinker. By night, the train crossed the Nebraska prairie, arriving the next day in Scottsbluff.
Father Clyde Whitney introduced his bride-to-be to the parish. Their reaction? Surprise! Father Whitney was a 58-year-old bachelor. The congregation warmly welcomed the young woman, a teacher and ecumenical worker.
She returned to her teaching position in England that fall. Clyde left Scottsbluff on Christmas Day, carrying a loaf of communion bread baked for his wedding from wheat grown on his family’s farm. He traveled four days to reach England and married his beloved Rae on New Year’s Eve, 1960.
Rae E. Whitney, who was 33 at the time, moved to Scottsbluff and assisted her new husband in his ministry at St. Andrew’s (now St. Francis). She was Director of the Sunday School, which at that time included 80-100 children. During their years in Scottsbluff, the couple initiated the local observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. During the mid-1960s, they worked to establish the Transfiguration Retreat and Conference Center at Bayard, Nebraska.
After Clyde’s retirement, the couple served a congregation in Guatemala for a year, then returned to the United States, where Clyde worked as an interim priest at several parishes in Nebraska and Wyoming. Rae assisted him as a licensed lay reader and chalice bearer – uncommon roles for women at that time. She was also active in women’s ministries, serving as diocesan ECW president and for two terms on the national ECW Triennial Committee.
The couple shared a love of music and hymns. Prior to becoming a priest, Clyde had worked professionally as a jazz musician. He assisted the Reverend Canon C. Winfred Douglas, the editor of The Hymnal 1940 and leader of the Evergreen Church Music Conferences in Colorado. Through this association, Rae met many of the Episcopal Church’s leaders in the fields of liturgy and church music.
Rae and Clyde traveled to the Holy Land in 1964, an experience that inspired Rae to write several hymns. Her writing continued in the 1970s, encouraged by Clyde and her friends here in Nebraska. Her first collection of hymns was self-published in 1978. Since then, Rae E. Whitney has written over 500 hymns and published 4 major hymn collections. Her work appears in hymnals of many Christian denominations, both here in the United States and around the world, including our own Hymnal 1982.
Through her hymns, we learn about this remarkable woman: her care for God’s creation; her commitment to social justice; her scholarly depth; her lifelong interests in church history and ecumenism; her celebration of women’s ministries. Her texts are grounded in the life of the Christian community. Often starting with a familiar Biblical image, her hymns relate the gospel to the present age and invite singers to join in the ongoing faith story.
During her lifetime, Rae Whitney has witnessed remarkable changes in society and in the Episcopal Church. Her writing continues to evolve and is shaped by her experiences, her Christian faith, her voracious reading, and a deep need to write. Her topics span the breadth of Christian life and experience. She has frequently chosen to write about women: women of the Bible, women saints, and feminine images of God. Whitney’s groundbreaking texts on these subjects have illuminated topics previously ignored by hymn writers. Her hymns have been set to music by the leading church music composers of our time, and she continues to receive commissions and write new hymns.
Rae Whitney’s archive will be housed at the library of The University of the South (Sewanee), where her collection of books and writings can be used in research by hymnologists, liturgical scholars, and poets around the world.
Many Nebraskans know Rae Whitney through her local ministries as a Bible study leader, lector, Eucharistic minister, and scholarship donor, as well as her work in service organizations. What many of you may not realize is that, through her hymns, Rae has quite possibly touched the lives of more people worldwide than any other Nebraska Episcopalian.
Recognized as one of the most significant hymn poets of our time, her words will continue to shape generations of Christians. And it all started with a love story – a Nebraska love story.
– Marty Wheeler Burnett, D.Min., Canon Precentor, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral