I love the United Methodist Hymnal. The music contained therein has always been an important part of my spirituality. Nor am I alone in my appreciation of the hymnal. It's been one of the, if not the single, most successful hymnals ever published, having gone through multiple printings and millions of copies since it was first released in 1989. It's not even just United Methodists who have used the hymnal. I've seen copies of it in churches in the independent Methodist Church in Malaysia and have heard stories of it turning up in the pew racks of other denominations in the United States.
Despite my great zeal for the UMH, I realize it's still a product of a particular time and place and far from a universal document. That's why I was excited to read this article about the creation of a bilingual English/French hymnal for use by the United Methodist Church in Cameroon. The hymnal is the result of a lot of work by Cameroonian, denominational, and individual partners and should be a great aid in worship in United Methodist churches in Cameroon.
To me, this hymnal represents a great example of the blending of universal United Methodist elements with local cultures. United Methodists have long been "a singing people," but so have many of the peoples of West Africa, Cameroonians included. Music therefore seems a perfect bridge between Methodist and Cameroonian traditions. Moreover, the hymnal includes a mix of Cameroonian songs and songs from elsewhere around the United Methodist (and broader Christian) world.
The title of the hymnal is O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing: Hymns and Praise of the United Methodist Mission in Cameroon, making reference to the classic Charles Wesley hymn that has graced the beginning of so many American Methodist hymnals. When Charles Wesley wrote the hymn, I suspect he meant tongues as in the body part, but this hymnal suggests that tongues could also be interpreted as languages. United Methodists may not quite be to the point of having a thousand languages in which to sing God's praise, but we're headed in that direction. In addition to the UMH and the Cameroonian hymnal, the denomination also has official hymnals in Spanish and Korean. While the addition of languages may challenge our desire for mutual intelligibility, we should remember that it also reflects the eschatological vision of universal praise that motivated the Wesleys and so many Methodists after them.