Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Hymnal to Build Bridges

After near-deportation, a blow-out on the Douala-Yaounde highway, and too many visitors to count, our first Cameroonian summer is drawing to a close. Maman Leah and I can’t wait for school to start Thursday … maybe we can finally get back into a chaotic routine.

The summer’s events, and Rev. John Thornburg’s recent visit in particular, have given me plenty of food for thought as I consider my priorities for work in the Mission over the next year. I mentioned in a previous blog that Thornburg and I are in the initial planning stages of putting together a hymnbook for the UMC in Cameroon. We understand very clearly that this will be no simple matter.

In fact, the Cameroon hymnal project is a microcosm of all the issues and difficulties that face the entire Mission. Let me try to sketch out the major obstacles:

… Language: Any book that purports to serve the whole church in Cameroon will necessarily have to be in both French and English. Never mind that there are another 250 maternal languages in country. But most people can speak either French or English -- one or the other, or both. One day our English-speaking pastors and congregations will be expected to meet, consult, worship, and form a conference … with our French-speaking pastors and congregations. There will have to be common ground to facilitate this event, and we’re hoping a hymnal with common songs, prayers and liturgy may help bridge the gap that exists between the two major language groups.

… Regional Differences: Not only language separates Francophones and Anglophones but a different history and sense of belonging. Among the English-speakers especially, there is a bit of an inferiority complex. After all, the President is a Francophone, the capital is in the French-speaking Central Province, and there is a clear bias towards all things French in administration, government, and culture. For example, Thornburg heard an Anglophone pastor complain that French-speaking Methodists didn’t really know how to worship: “They need musical instruments to accompany their worship,” he said. “But we don’t need that – we can get things moving without instruments!”

… Methodist Identity: I have written about this issue before, but I am again and again reminded that our pastors and congregations come from a variety of backgrounds, and want to know what it means to be called “Methodist”. The challenge remains to find a way to link ex-Pentecostals with ex-Presbyterians in a way that creates something unique and different – and vital for Cameroon Christianity! Thus, our hymnal is going to have to include some educational material – not just Charles Wesley hymns, but service liturgies, pieces of Methodist history and doctrine, our Social Creed, and devotional materials.

… Leadership Training: There is no getting around the importance of good strong leadership, whether talking about the pastorate, Sunday School teaching, or the local choir. Churches with weak leaders struggle. I can’t just place a Bible and Book of Discipline in a preacher’s hands and expect him or her to simply blossom into a pastor overnight. Likewise, we can’t simply put a fantastic hymnal into the hands of people and suddenly have them singing like the Africa University Choir! We will have to train pastors, choir directors, worship leaders, and congregations.

I believe that this hymnbook-in-the-making is an important symbolic document, representing a well-trained, Spirit-led, unified church, a church that bridges language, culture, and politics – kind of like what the worldwide church is supposed to be anyway!