Malawi Mailing

From the days when I used to visit the Taizé Community in France, I recall the twin foci of their endeavours: contemplation and struggle. Certainly their mode of prayer and worship has retained its appeal for young people across the continents, but not, I think, divorced from a deep concern for a suffering world. If there was ever rapt attention in the many school assemblies I took in Somerset, it was when we reflected together on the way God himself is to be found in the pain and turmoil of his people. So to extract from Taizé simply its moving chants and melodies is a kind of modern docetism – a spiritual experience detached from its earthy context. In the same vein I sometimes wonder if the slum priests of earlier days would recognize us Anglo-Catholics today as blood brothers and sisters, if our very proper delight in orthodox teaching and liturgy reaches no further.

Liturgy and Life

Living in Malawi it is impossible to overlook that liturgy and life belong together. And we are fortunate here in having an excellent bi-monthly magazine The Lamp, produced by Montfort Media since 1995, which addresses the many social, cultural and political issues facing the country. It is of course a child of Malawi’s new democratic order: under Dr Banda there was firm separation of Church and State, when contemplation meant keeping one’s eyes raised to heaven, with never a downward nor a sideways glance.

It is the Church’s role not only to pray for secular authorities, but to be a partner in critical dialogue. Alas! The Lamp has too many instances of corruption and mismanagement on which to report. Jubilee supporters have rightly called for third-world debts to be cancelled, but fail too often to recognize that without justice and an ethos of public service the funds thus released will not enrich the poor, but will be quickly pocketed by those in power. So many articles in The Lamp focus on ways in which this happens. One story may suffice, related by Augustine Musopole, General Secretary of Malawi Council of Churches, in a recent edition:

A long-serving and loyal civil servant reached retirement age, and was entitled to claim a lump-sum gratuity. Weeks passed by as he wrote, phoned and called, with increasing desperation. Finally, he was offered an advance in return for a 10% ‘service charge’.

A prophetic voice

A new group of Christian laymen has emerged this year calling themselves The Voice of Micah. They too courageously detail some of the scams, great and small, that besmirch the name of this country. Yet, worryingly, members of the ruling party frequently allude to their intention to change the constitution so that their man can remain in office for a third term.

However, Church and State are not necessarily set on the collision course of 1992, which in the end brought down Dr Banda’s government. There is still sufficient goodwill to co-operate. A hopeful sign in February was the accord struck between the government and the ‘faith communities’ to collaborate more closely in the fight against HIV/AIDS, through programmes of prevention and care. Both sides will ‘continue to emphasize abstinence and mutual faithfulness as the best means of avoidance and prevention. However, the government will also promote condoms – a view not shared by the faith communities.’ The Vice-President, an Anglican, commented: ‘I am proud of the work by Malawian and other theologians in developing pastoral-theological texts, which emphasize tolerance, love and compassion. While AIDS has no cure, it is possible to heal the spirit of people suffering from AIDS. We must acknowledge how vulnerable people are when they are sick. Many cannot find meaning in their suffering and lapse into despair, feeling worthless and unloved. The faith communities can give hope through emphasising that they are loved, that the spirit transcends the body, and that God is ready to welcome them to eternal life.’

Contemplation in the struggle

The fact that a leading politician can speak in those terms here in Africa reminds us that Western benefactors, while rightly being appalled at the squandering of resources, nevertheless have something to receive in return. What British politician could readily make such a public profession? Africans may not be saints, but in their struggles the place of contemplation is admitted. The Churches are even invited to go to the heart of the matter, which politics and politicians alone cannot reach.

The motto of The Lamp is drawn from Proverbs: ‘It is better to light a lamp, than to curse the darkness.’ So in the edition marking the centenary of the Catholic Church’s presence in Malawi I was grateful to read the words of their retiring Archbishop: ‘I never wanted to be a bishop, and more than once refused. The one apostle that I admire most is Peter, a fisherman, a simple person who went as far as giving his life. We need to recapture the spirit of the first Christians. Let us be holy, let us love the faith like them, let us dedicate our life to the service of the Good News. Now I have reached the age when bishops retire from office. We have no pension, but I find myself completely free to do the pastoral work that was at the beginning of my vocation. I will live at the youth centre here in Blantyre, and I will continue serving the Church. That is what I love. Like the apostles I will be a pastor travelling from village to village, repeating the story of Jesus and his loving Mother.’ His words, the fruit of a lifetime’s contemplation, touched me, and will, I trust, remind us all of how we can serve the struggles of our time.

Footnote: in addition to The Lamp, Montfort Media are also the printers of Kachere Books, a series run by the Theology and Religious Studies Department within the university here. Just published is a text of mine entitled ‘Jubilee Reflections: Rich and Poor in Christian Perspective’. It started life as a short paper when I realized that those engaged in the ‘struggle’, namely, Jubilee 2000 supporters, whatever the merits of their case, were making wild assertions about Biblical passages – principally Leviticus 25 – which they had evidently never ‘contemplated’ or read! It then became an attempt to review other relevant texts from the Bible, from the Church Fathers, from later theologians and including Catholic social teaching of the past 100 years. Now there are also many websites on Jubilee issues – but again one needs to be discerning as there is much stereotyped misinformation included by people who have never visited the Third World. The last chapter therefore takes a close look at the economic history and circumstances of Malawi, noting a range of factors that have contributed to the huge differentials of wealth in the country. Not quite all Malawians are poor!

Hopefully Faith House bookshop will be stocking this book shortly (ISBN 99908-16-42-5).

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