Rodney Schofield asks What price an African Christianity?

YOU MAY, and you must, have an African Christianity.” Pope Paul VI urged this at the first Pan-African meeting of Roman Catholic Bishops held in Uganda in 1969. He was, of course, following the lead given in the second Vatican Council earlier in the same decade which stated “The Catholic Church … looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what she holds and sets forth, nevertheless reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” In the thirty years since then, inculturation, as it is now known, has been a major concern for African Christians.

For many, the mission churches emanating from Europe seemed not to respond very adequately, and so there are now thousands of African Initiated Churches which to a greater or lesser degree incorporate African beliefs and customs. Not all are recognisably Christian, nor would they all pretend to be: the Church of the Ancestors in Malawi being one such. But numerically they claim the allegiance of a significant proportion of the population, and so collectively are on a par with the mainstream Churches. Clearly they pose a challenge: what is the secret of their success? What are the needs that seem to be met more adequately by them rather than by (say) the Anglican Church?

In 1985, when I was working in Lesotho, I served as the secretary of a major consultation held at Rhodes University in Grahamstown on The Future of Christianity in Southern Africa. It was my particular task to summarise the conclusions that were reached, and they were certainly not what I had anticipated in a sub-continent ruled by an apartheid regime. Unbelievably, apartheid hardly gained a mention! Instead, there was unanimity that the nettle to be grasped most firmly by the Churches was Africanisation.

The Roman Catholics, in fact, were further ahead than most, perhaps because of the greater resources at their disposal (Lumko Institute, then in the Transkei, springs to mind), but also because of a more flexible theological approach. Father Kabasele Lumbala of Zaire has recently published a fascinating account of liturgical experimentation, mainly in his own country, but with passing reference to several other parts of Africa as well (for example, the Poor Clares at Lilongwe in Malawi). He admits that as yet they enjoy only a “modified tolerance” rather than full approval, which means that the process of reception is still underway. Aylward Shorter, the distinguished White Father from East Africa, wisely pointed out over twenty years ago, that “the most important thing that should be said about African Christianity is that it is Christian. It is not enough to be African.”

Where Roman Catholics have engaged readily with the local culture, sometimes even overstepping the mark (as famously Archbishop Milingo with his charismatic healings in Zambia), Anglicans have been generally more cautious. In Lesotho in the 1980s it was hard to wean the local congregations off their translated version of Hymns Ancient and Modern (Victorian edition), and even recently at the United College of the Ascension it has been surprising how often African students have launched into yet another rendering of Amazing Grace!

Such attachment to the cultural trappings of the “mother” Church is perhaps understandable: the emerging Church in Africa still needs and values its links with the wider world, and may not always have the confidence to jettison too much of its inheritance. On the whole, therefore, the Alcuin/Grove booklet which reported a few years ago on Anglican Liturgical Inculturation in Africa makes fairly timid reading. (Bishop Cohn Buchanan reckoned that in the mid 1980s the only rubrics to be found in Third World revised liturgies were the use of bells, drums and rattles in New Guinea, and a dignified bow – rather than a kiss, a handshake or other intrusion upon one’s person – at the Sharing of the Peace in Korea.) There is clearly plenty of scope to take things much further (as appropriate) in Anglican worship.

But whereas it is one thing to incorporate local styles of singing and dancing, of costume, gesture and ornament, into the sacred liturgy (readers may recall my encounter with Circle Dancing in the West Country, published in New Directions last year), it is obviously something different to introduce changes that touch more closely upon the heart of our faith: Father Shorter’s warning has, I believe, to be taken very seriously at this point. Two rather different issues are offered by way of illustration.

1) The role of the ancestors.

Many an African, faced with an important decision to make, with a problem to be handled, with an illness to face, with a setback to overcome, will want the strength and support of his ancestors, perhaps to guide him or to intercede for him, or otherwise to act for the benefit of his family. He may visit the place of his ancestors’ burial, possibly a message will come at night in a dream. Sometimes he may realise an offence has been done to an ancestor, who now needs appeasing with a symbolic offering.

In this context, the ancestor means not just any forebear, but one who has lived a worthy life, dying a natural death, who was blessed with offspring and was able to provide for them. Beyond death it is believed the ancestor is even richer in his desire and ability to help his kith and kin. He has been termed “the living dead”. Furthermore he is closer to God than those left on earth, and his supplication therefore considered to be more effective. All this is part of the African’s natural respect for those who are older and more senior. Thus, if a villager wanted to request something of his village chief, he would not approach the chief directly, but via his entourage of elders, beginning with the most junior, who would pass the request upwards through those of greater standing than himself.

“Honour thy father and thy mother” is one of those commandments western society has almost forgotten, so it is good to be reminded in Africa of family bonds of respect and affection. The danger, though, is of treating ancestors as entirely akin to those Christian saints whom we venerate, and whose intercession we ask. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he gave them the Our Father, a simple and direct prayer which he shares with us in the power of the Spirit. Because we are God’s children, we can speak to him directly, even though in our frailty we cannot always articulate what we need to say and so, relying on the Holy Spirit working within us. We turn to our Lord himself as our great high priest as well as to the saints who belong with us in Christ’s body, for their prayers. It is not true, however, that God is so utterly distant that the “living dead” necessarily have to approach him on our behalf: in Christ he came close to us so that in Christ we should become close also to him. Further, however much we respect and admire our ancestors, we know that they themselves need further purging and purification before being able to bear the full radiance of God’s presence, and that therefore we need to continue praying for them. Ancestor “veneration” should not blind the African Christian to our universal need of grace at all times and at all stages of our pilgrimage to heaven.

2) The eucharistic elements. In 1993 over forty representatives of the Anglican Church in Africa met to consider inculturation of the liturgy. The statement of this Kanamai Consultation included this conclusion: “Probably the time has come when local foods and drinks could be substituted for wafers and wine.” The Zairean Father Lumbala in the book previously mentioned, Celebrating Jesus Christ in Africa pursues the argument enthusiastically, with a learned summary of historical circumstances when alternatives received official sanction. A Russian Synod, for example, permitted cherry wine in the late 16th century, and a hundred years later the Copts were using unfermented raisin juice. He makes the obvious point that wheat flour and grape wine cannot be universally produced, and can be extremely expensive if imported. Does this mean, however, that the Scots must consecrate whisky, the Chinese tea, and the Eskimo melted snow? Christ’s incarnation surely locates some essential Christian symbolism in the particular circumstances of his life and death. We cannot dispense with the fact that he was actually a man and that he was born a Jew; nor that his advent was discerned to be “in the fullness of time”, that it accorded with God’s providential plan. Bread and wine are not to be seen as accidental features of Christ’s dispensation, but as crucial to our Christian identity and our sacramental unity. If they prove costly and scarce for some of our Christian brothers and sisters, is this not a spur to exercise greater charity, and to be more mindful of the life and struggles of the Church in other places? Millet bread and banana wine, or their local equivalents, represent a move towards congregationahism rather than inculturation. To emphasise the eucharist as a meal made of convenience foods detracts from that heavenly banquet Christ has ordained that we should share with him.

So proper inculturation requires discernment, to adapt and transform those elements of local practice that are compatible with Christianity, but also to reject those that are not. Missionaries from Europe have sometimes been too harsh and sweeping in their condemnation of “pagan” ways, but it must be remembered that others have laboured hard to appreciate the value of what already existed. The early Jesuits in China are the most memorable example of the latter, but in Malawi some of the pioneers were kindred spirits. Archdeacon William Johnson served the UMCA for 52 years, and received an Oxford D.D. for his efforts to translate the Bible into local languages. He also strove after the simple life, endeavouring to live as Africans did themslves, never really accepting the “cathedral culture”? of Likoma Island. He was acclaimed at his death as “Saint Johnson”.

On the other hand, it was very necessary in Malawi for slavery to be ended, and for harsh treatment of widows to be tempered with kindness and sympathy. When a man died, his widow used to be faced with seclusion and starvation for a week, with her husband’s sisters likely to beat her periodically. Then, after a year, she would be ritually cleansed by having intercourse with her brother-in-law. Amazingly, it was only last November that President Muluzi, faced with the reality of wide-spread AIDS, decided to outlaw this latter practice – despite some grumblings even from educated Malawians.

It is not only in Central Africa, of course, that the Gospel sheds its light upon prevailing customs. There is much on our own British scene that is unworthy, and not all who profess the name Christian stand out clearly from the prevailing mores. In the past, too, there was both an accommodation and a clash when the faith first reached these shores. Pope Gregory the Great who despatched Augustine here on his mission is sometimes acclaimed as the Apostle of Inculturation, with his famous letter urging the adaptation of existing customs. According to the Venerable Bede, this was not, however, the recognition of their inherent value, so much as a realistic accommodation to the pace of possible change. “It is doubtless impossible,” wrote Gregory, “to cut out everything at once from their stubborn minds.”? Indeed, the Latin tradition from the other Augustine (of Hippo) onwards tended to stress that even when false gods and pagan practices had been publicly overthrown, they lingered tenaciously in the hearts of all too many Christians. lnculturation is therefore not only an issue for Africa, it remains one in Britain, and it presents each individual Christian with the challenge of self-examination: how much is there of self (and the weighty baggage we each accumulate), and how much is there that serves the Gospel?

Rodney Schofield serves in Malawi at Zomba Theological College.