‘In all sorts of ways the Church over the centuries has lent itself to the error, indeed the sin of trying to make cultural captives, whether it is the mass export of Hymns Ancient and Modern to the remote parts of the mission field…the shadow of the British Empire that hangs over our own Communion, or the export of American values and styles to the whole world… How do we encourage people to write liturgy…in their own language with the rhythm, the association and resonance that your own language has for you and no other has.’ So said Rowan Williams at the recent meeting of representatives of Anglican Churches from the Global South.
As a beneficiary of the ‘cultural captivity’ of which the Archbishop was speaking – I have ministered to an overwhelmingly Afro-Caribbean and West African congregation in South London for over twenty-five years – I am led to ask myself what is the ‘sin’ to which he was referring.
It is true that people in this parish, whatever their country of origin, have a genuine love of the English Hymnal (and view with suspicion the ‘improvements’ of George Timms and recent revisers). It is not true, so far as I can see, that they are the captives of anyone or anything. No more so, for example, than the various Pentecostal groups who use our parish hall. That music, and still more the words that accompany it, enslave because they impoverish.
A repetitious diet of praise songs which are themselves repetitive, neither broadens nor grounds a mature Christian faith. The English Hymnal, (and Hymns Ancient and Modern) do precisely that. They did it for English people in the nineteenth century – introducing them, alongside home-grown hymnody, to the riches of the Greek and Latin traditions and the great anthems of the Continental Reformation. They do it for West Indian and West African Christians now. Through English, irreversibly their lingua franca, and as a result of the diligent scholarship of industrious Victorians, church-goers the world over have been nourished by expressions of heartfelt faith from times and climes they might never have encountered.
I cannot, for the life of me, see the sin in that. Let’s hear it for John Mason Neale!