African bishops look to the future, commit to leading the church in the 21st century

August 29, 2010

As the All Africa Bishops Conference in Entebbe, Uganda, drew to a close Aug. 29, participants said they'd been encouraged by the bishops' determination "not to be distracted from the urgent business of leading the church in the 21st century," the Rev. Canon Petero Sabune, Africa partnerships officer for the Episcopal Church, told ENS.

"There was so much more to this conference than internal disagreements over certain issues," said Jan Butter, director of communications for the Anglican Communion, referring to the media's focus on human sexuality and other controversial topics. "All anyone needed to do was strike up a conversation with any bishop from any country and soon they would be marveling over what was happening in dioceses and parishes up and down the continent."

More than 400 Anglican bishops from Africa were joined by international partners, diplomats and representatives from relief and development organizations for the weeklong gathering, which focused on issues of conflict, poverty, corruption and disease. [A communiqué issued at the conclusion of the All Africa Bishops Conference is available here.]

The gathering brought together bishops from the 12 Anglican provinces in Africa -- Burundi, Central Africa, Congo, Indian Ocean, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Southern Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and West Africa -- as well as the Diocese of Egypt.

Sponsored by the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa (CAPA), the theme of the gathering was "Securing the Future: Unlocking our Potential," based on the biblical text from Hebrews 12:1-2.

For Sabune, the highlights were the "casual conversations carried over several days [with people] whose connection to each other was that they belong to the body of Christ called the Anglican Communion."

Sabune said he spent hours in dialogue "with Sudanese about peace, Rwandans about genocide, Nigerians on Islam, Congolese on sexual violence and Burundians on poverty ... I felt a sense of hope and determination -- African leaders tackling African challenges on African soil."

Butter, reflecting on the conference for the Anglican Communion News Service, noted that much of the good news about Anglicanism in Africa or the gathering was not covered in the press reports or on religious weblogs.

"Absent [from the media reports] was any mention of searching questions from the podium; questions such as 'if numbers of African Christians are soaring, why are several countries where they live still suffering from conflict, corruption and poverty?'" Butter said.

"Absent was mention of the commitment by one bishop to plant a million trees on his land before he dies in an effort to reverse deforestation and tackle climate change. Stories of hugely successful DIY community dam projects and of biogas schemes that provide villages with desperately needed water and fuel went largely unreported. Where were the newspaper articles or the blog entries describing the challenge to bishops to use their position and influence to help end the mutilation, rape and murder of African women?"

A five-page communiqué, issued on the final day of the conference, was "filled with commitments contesting the status quo in areas including politics, poverty reduction, violence against women, theological education and conflict," Butter said.

The bishops wrote in the communiqué that they "must be actively involved in working with partners at all levels to ensure equal access to medical care, food security and the promoting of good health practices to prevent the major causes of death on the continent, with particular attention to primary health care for African families, especially mothers, children and the elderly."

The bishops also had a message for other Anglican provinces. "While we will always be prepared to listen to voices from other parts of the global communion, it is pertinent that the rest of the world listens to the unique voice of the church in Africa," the bishops wrote. "The Anglican Church in Africa has continued to witness growth so that the center of gravity of Christianity today appears to be shifting to the continent. Nonetheless, the church's relevance and impact on global mission and to social, economic and political transformation of the continent remains a challenge."

While the bishops' communiqué largely focused on political and socio-economic challenges, another communiqué from some of the African primates, released Aug. 29, said they were "very saddened" by the recent consecration of Mary Douglas Glasspool, the Episcopal Church's second openly gay, partnered bishop.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, after returning from a three-day visit to Uganda, said Aug. 26 that the bishops' conference comes at a "significant moment ... with Anglican churches in Africa putting development issues at the top of their agenda."

Williams said that the bishops' desire to make development issues a priority "has been welcomed by other churches and politicians in the region and internationally, as they recognize that the African church has the willingness and the skills to make them best placed to set their development agenda. Their challenge will be in finding the imaginative opportunities for unlocking this potential."

In his sermon at the opening service Aug. 24, Williams told the bishops: "It has been said that this is going to be the African century of the Christian church in terms of energy and growth and vision … And if the churches of Africa are indeed going to be for this time a city set on a hill, how very important it will be for the health and growth of all God's churches throughout the world that this witness continues at its best and highest."

During his visit, Williams also met with Uganda President Yoweri Museveni and visited children at the Mildmay HIV Centre outside Kampala.

Museveni addressed the conference on Aug. 25, bringing a message that tolerance is a biblical imperative and that Christians should not "have one minute of time wasted" by those promoting prejudice.

Episcopal Relief & Development was represented by six staff members, who attended the gathering as observers and to connect with partners in Anglican dioceses and provinces throughout Africa. Trinity Church, Wall Street, which through its grants program supports projects throughout Africa, also was represented at the gathering.

On Aug. 27, the Church of Uganda circulated a letter from Indian Ocean Archbishop Ian Ernest to Uganda Archbishop Henry Orombi that apologized for any embarrassment caused by CAPA accepting a $25,000 grant from Trinity Church towards the bishops' conference.

"We recognize the great contribution you have made to the conference and regret that this grant created a taint in our otherwise healthy working relationship," Ernest, CAPA chairman, wrote to Orombi. In April, Ernest suspended all communication "both verbal and sacramental" with the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada "until such time as they reverse their theological innovations."

Earlier in the conference, Ernest underscored that the time had passed when Christian mission went from east to west, but that the church was now in a time when mission could go from anywhere to anywhere. Similarly, Orombi said that now was the time for African Anglicanism to "rise up," and for representatives of the continent to be able to go to other places in the communion with "fresh wine from new wine skins."

Also participating in the conference were members of the Anglican Church in North America, a coalition of breakaway groups, and its leader, deposed Diocese of Pittsburgh bishop Bob Duncan.

Throughout the week, presentations focused on nurturing family life, building healthy populations, securing an economic future, disempowering the powerful and empowering the vulnerable, and making leadership work to secure the future and unlock potential on the continent.

Sabune said he valued the everyday encounters with Dr. Nyambura Njoroge, who coordinates the ecumenical HIV/AIDS Initiative in Africa on behalf of the World Council of Churches. She "is determined to teach the church to talk about domestic violence and HIV/AIDS [and] is convinced that the more we talk about it openly the better it will be for our churches to be sanctuaries of healing and hope," Sabune said.

A session on leadership, moderated by Anglican Observer at the United Nations Hellen Wangusa, "brought us to our spiritual knees," Sabune said. "How can we lead society to fight corruption, when corruption is endemic within the churches? Why do we tolerate corrupt leaders in church and society and what is the connection between the two?"

Many of the questions raised during the sessions on issues such as conflict, hunger, poverty, climate change, disease and corruption, Sabune said, are to be addressed at provincial gatherings during the coming months and years.

The Entebbe conference is the second time that CAPA has hosted an All Africa Bishops Conference, the first being held in 2004 in Lagos, Nigeria.

Related Topics: