I hold Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in high esteem as a churchman, intellectual and compassionate person. I especially admire his commitment to think as a Christian, sometimes “outside the box”, and to push the boundaries of received orthodoxy where they encroach on truth and freedom.
But he surely goes too far in condemning the introduction of English hymns and carols to far-flung parts of the world as “sinful”.
Speaking to senior Anglican Church leaders from the “Global South” in Cairo on November 5, Dr Williams argued that Christian missionaries who taught their converts to sing hymns such as “Jerusalem” and “Hark! The herald angels sing” were guilty of making “cultural captives”. Instead, they should have encouraged local Christians to produce hymns and prayers in their own languages. He especially criticised the ethnocentrism and colonialism of the popular hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern, first published in 1861 and distributed wherever English-speaking missionaries worked.
The sung liturgy of the church certainly shapes Christian theology, as John and Charles Wesley famously recognised. But it also has the potential to shape indigenous culture, and transform - or stifle - indigenous expressions of Christian doctrine and experience. Further, the cultural power of hymns from the centre of the empire may be appropriated to strengthen the grip of colonists on local cultures and to serve the interests of those who hold political power. When the state enlists the church in its service, the church ultimately suffers some loss.
On a personal level, many of us have experienced the strangeness of liturgy that, once embedded in the rhythms of weekly praxis, is both difficult to engage with and difficult to replace. Even Dr Williams’ namesake, Rowan Atkinson, in one of his best-known comedy sketches, has trouble joining his fellow worshippers in singing “All creatures of our God and King”.
But to classify the introduction of English hymns to non-English cultures as “sinful” smacks of abuse of power and sounds very much like a nod of the mitred head to political correctness. Nineteenth-century missionaries possessed rich and diverse resources for worship and discipleship in the hymns and prayers they carried with them to the world. To expect them to leave all that behind and begin afresh with native languages and authors would have been intolerable or impossible for some. To expect them to fully immerse in local culture and language, without recourse to their classic hymns, is to fail to appreciate their humanity.
As a child I lived in Papua New Guinea. My parents were not missionaries, but we associated with a fundamentalist Swiss-based Protestant mission invited in the 1950s by the Australian colonial administrator to help develop the rugged Western highlands. By the 1970s the church I attended in Lae held services in English and Neo-Melanesian Pidgin.
One highlight for me was the regular choir items in indigenous languages (PNG has over 700), sung to tunes utterly unlike the Western music to which we sang our English and Pidgin hymns. Similarly, especially in the villages, preaching was translated into local languages - sometimes from English into Pidgin, and then into a local plestok, which made for very long sermons.
I suspect the choice of Pidgin and English for preaching and singing in PNG was pragmatic, not intended to supplant or stifle indigenous culture and language. People used what was available and accessible, often in the context of very limited resources. Similar choices have been made for the same reason by missionaries everywhere and probably for as long as the church has sent them out. For most, it was neither a sin of commission nor omission, but a practical necessity.
Now to a related issue that I don’t expect Dr Williams to pronounce as “sinful” any time soon. A mix of creative genius, technical excellence, new technology and marketing expertise is now transforming the hymnody of the entire English-speaking world. Witness the rise and rise of Christian production houses like the Australian-based Hillsong music machine, with its astonishing production values and huge national and international sales. Witness the willingness of thousands of religiously-minded consumers to purchase state-of-the-art DVD players and plasma televisions, and then purchase state-of-the-art worship CDs and music DVDs in the fervent hope that this will deliver a quality “worship experience”. Here, arguably, is cultural imperialism in a new guise, with economies of scale and marketing potential to die for.
What to do in this environment? Encourage diversity and innovation, not least in what makes it into formal church services. Explore “alternative” devotional practices. Rediscover the Biblical psalms in all their breadth and depth. Nurture local music and vocal talent. Write your own worship lyrics, or help good local theologians and Bible scholars to write lyrics. And for the radical believers among us: choose not to purchase or consume the mass-market, dumbed-down product. Jesus and the early church got on quite well without it.
It is not for me, as an Australian Baptist, to offer advice to the Archbishop of Canterbury. But perhaps, rather than pronouncing the export of English hymns to mission fields as “sinful,” something could be said - and done - about the increasingly privatised faith and commercialised liturgy of the church today.
The sin of the archbishop lies in reinforcing political correctness among senior Anglican clergy at the expense of addressing political reality in the global religious marketplace. And if teaching English hymns to colonial converts was “sinful” on the grounds of ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism, what is being said about the global cultural industries and their export of Western television, film, music, books, clothing, hairstyles, cars - not to mention Western medicine, law, politics and education?
Thank God, then, for traditional English hymns identifying us with the God of Abraham, and reminding us that our sins may be forgiven, and enfolding us in a new community of faith, and pointing us toward a future shared equally by people of every nation, tribe, ethnicity and language.