Letter from Malawi

How different it all looks five thousand miles away

Every day of the week BBC World Service broadcasts ‘Focus on Africa’, a bulletin of news about African affairs, or issues relevant to this continent. At the height of the debate about the would-be Bishop of Reading, the Kenyan archbishop spoke clearly and urgently about the offence such a consecration would present to Anglican Christians in his province, warning that if it went ahead the bonds of communion with the Church of England would be ruptured. He said that his flock would if necessary be ready to forego any monetary assistance received from Britain, such was the strength of feeling that there was no biblical warrant for the proposed development.

Uncomprehension

Nonetheless, he stressed that this was not homophobia. Those who were homosexually orientated, whether by birth or by the effects of upbringing, would at all times be made welcome within the Anglican province of Kenya. Other primates have of course made similar observations, not least in Nigeria, home to the most numerous province of the Anglican Communion.

The BBC, ever-desirous to maintain proper balance in its coverage, then moved to a London studio where a suffragan from York province, newly returned from a visit to DR Congo, was interviewed. He took his stand, he said, not on the Bible, but on Issues in Human Sexuality (1991), copies of which were no doubt at that very moment being avidly thumbed by many of his listeners.

The problem was that in Africa there was ‘uncomprehension’ (sic) of the situation in the United Kingdom, adding that no doubt a similar ‘uncomprehension’ existed in the UK about African affairs. But by then, the damage had been done. Here, once again, was a westerner telling Africans they were behind the times, and ignorant of how more advanced societies lived. Yet, in comparison with the African archbishop, whose biblical convictions tempered with compassion were unequivocal, this English bishop was hesitant, repetitious, and seemingly both confused and embarrassed. There was no doubt in my mind (without intending any discourtesy to my fellow-countryman) where the average listener would have perceived moral authority to reside.

It is not as if Africans know little about homosexual practice. Sometimes it is claimed that this is quite foreign to African culture, but there is plenty of counter-evidence. Indeed, the BBC magazine of the same name, Focus on Africa, recently carried an article about gay communities in South Africa. Here in Zomba the evidence is of a different kind. In our vastly overcrowded prison, many who would otherwise be considered heterosexual men have no other outlet for their sexual energy but fellow inmates, alas! too often juveniles who are not adequately housed apart. And of course the Kenyan archbishop would himself have engaged in lengthy discussion and debate on the subject at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. He, unlike the Bishop of Oxford, was voicing the emphatic mind of the Lambeth fathers.

The role of a bishop

Perhaps too he was better fulfilling the proper role of a bishop. The document Bishops in Communion (2000) is commended to us by the House of Bishops in England, after ‘several years’ work’ in consultation with that House. On page after page it reiterates sentiments such as the following: ‘The bishop holds in unity the local church with every other local church with which it is in communion’ (p12); or again, ‘Those who represent the community have a duty … to discern the mind of Christ … in conversation with all local communities today and through the ages. They are called to seek always that which is in conformity with the normative witness of Holy Scripture’ (p16); or later, ‘While true conciliarity militates against short-term changes of policy, it ensures that when change is required, it will be well thought-out and enjoy widespread support’ (p26). And of course we are reminded (p31) that ‘the Resolutions of the Lambeth Conference carry a considerable moral authority by virtue of the office of oversight entrusted to those who gather to take counsel.’

Seen from afar, there are two Church of Englands. There is the one which is for ever producing agreed statements abounding in high-minded theological principles, usually (as above) following many protracted meetings with ecumenical partners. But is this all ‘spin’, put out to persuade others of our good intentions and to boost our ecclesial credibility?

For there is another Church of England which too often ignores or even contradicts the principles it has documented so carefully, which is apparently not interested in serving ‘the koinonia of the Church’, but prefers to manipulate and bully to achieve its own ends. At the same time as pursuing ARCIC conversations, it ignores the firm papal warnings about the consequences of ordaining women to the priesthood. Immediately after attending Lambeth 1998 scores of English and American bishops set to work to undo its measured words. In my own diocese at that time, the bishop refused to allow the Lambeth resolution to be discussed in the diocesan synod. Yet in The Gift of Authority (1999) we read how the bishop is ‘one through whom the local church learns from other churches’ (p28) – except, apparently, when he decides to veto what they wish to teach us.

Of course, in Malawi and other African countries this kind of phenomenon is quite familiar. ‘Democracy’ is what a president discusses with the World Bank and the IMF. Back home – as happened here last year – he puts a ban on public meetings to discuss changes to the constitution, such as allowing himself to be a Life President. Or, in response to AIDS, outside governments, international agencies, and even church bodies pour in money for seminars and conferences, immensely popular ‘talking shops’ held in congenial lake shore hotels, with per diem allowances to take home afterwards.

What is reception?

By the same logic, it would be better to call a halt to dialogues, committees, synods and the like if there is no serious intent to endorse their recommendations. Note here the theologically correct way of writing a let-out clause: the weasel word ‘reception’ is used. Generally speaking, the Bible prefers the word shema (Deuteronomy 6.4) – ‘Hear, O Israel’, listen, understand, reflect and respond to what God is calling us to do.

Indeed, Bishops in Communion successfully undermines its own lofty theology when it tells us on p43: ‘It is not a sign of weakness that, in the process of discernment, different – even opposing – views are held. The role of the bishops is to keep the discussion open until the consensus is formed.’ Fair enough, you may say? And has the Archbishop of Canterbury himself not observed, ‘There is still no theological consensus on same-sex unions’?

Dear gullible reader, let us return to BiC, p43: ‘Consensus does not necessarily mean coming to a single opinion. It may mean agreeing that for the foreseeable future different views may continue to be held with integrity until the mind of Christ becomes clear, not only for the Church of England, or indeed even the Anglican Communion, but for the whole Church.’ True Anglicanism indeed! But try explaining that in Malawi.

 

Rodney Schofield teaches at Zomba Theological College in Malawi.

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