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 Christianly, 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 Nov. 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 criticized the ethnocentrism and colonialism of the popular hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern, first published in 1861 and distributed wherever English-speaking missionaries worked.

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 with 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 privatized faith and commercialized 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.

Rod Benson is founding director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College in Sydney, Australia. His “Soundings” column is used here with permission.

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