Rodney Schofield on keeping the faith once delivered to the saints

EACH WEEK THAT PASSES, we learn a little more about the country that is for the time being our home. Wednesday afternoon is a particularly valuable time when I listen to some of the practical experience gained by ordinands on placement. “Nyau” dancing featured this week, widespread especially in the central region. It is seen as a threat by all the Christian churches and by the Muslim community (10% of the population) as well.

If I have understood correctly, this type of dancing is a traditional feature of initiation ceremonies marking the transition from childhood to adulthood at the time of puberty. The dancers assemble under the authority of the local chief in the village burial ground. There, they assume disguises, for fear of being recognised, but also because they represent not themselves but the spirits of the ancestors. Hence their faces are covered by masks, often with animal features. When they emerge, it is also with words and gestures that are pointedly obscene, even by the standards of liberal western society.

To judge thus is not of course to condemn initiation ceremonies that take place in other African countries, which have sometimes been combined successfully with Christian training. In Malawi, however, it is otherwise, and Christians living in such a place will – with difficulty – distance themselves from the Nyau ritual. The risk they run is that, if the chief discovers they have not undergone the traditional initiation, they may well be attacked and driven from the village. There is a clear clash of cultures, in which the chief as guardian of local custom feels seriously threatened by Christian teaching.

It is hard to appreciate this very different rural world from a seat of learning like Zomba, where the theological college and the university are both prominent institutions. There is quite a divide between those few who have been able to pursue further studies, and so to be relatively at ease in the world of enlightened ideas and scientific analysis, and those many who are struggling at subsistence levels, for whom the spirit world is all too real and who live in fear of threatened reprisals. It takes some degree of education to reflect critically upon, and considerable self-confidence actually to challenge, the status quo.

It is noticeable that this applies in other walks of life as well. In the Church, for example, there is generally much greater respect for ordained ministers and leaders than obtains in Britain. A bishop here finds himself less readily challenged than in England. Indeed African Anglicans hold the Archbishop of Canterbury in vastly greater respect than many people in his own province. An overseas visit, one presumes, must be a most welcome break for him.

Malawians regard him as their Father-in-God, and so are deeply shocked to discover how little he is esteemed by those other bishops (or even primates) elsewhere who are determined to pursue their own agenda heedless of his advice. There is a sense here of privilege in having received the Gospel, together with a sense of duty to transmit it faithfully to the next generation. People do not want to tinker with what is tried and tested, nor does theological or liturgical innovation have much appeal. They see themselves as stewards of a precious inheritance, and are dumbfounded by those who treat it casually. (Of course, it is inevitable that if 600 Synod members are closeted together at frequent intervals they will be up to no good. The devil makes mischief for idle hands.)

However, as is evident from the last Lambeth Conference, African bishops have not gained their stripes in the struggle against dark forces for nothing. Having received the light and truth of the Gospel, they are not going to jettison it in favour of dim and dubious innovations whose only credential is political correctness.

This for them is no less a threat than Nyau dancing (which coincidentally also exalts sexual licence and treats its detractors with the same ruthlessness: I still find it incredible that a parish incited by their local bishop last year refused to contemplate my appointment on the sole ground that articles of mine appear in this journal!). Thank God for orthodox bishops, often in the Third World, who now safeguard the faith we once transmitted to them. Thank God that here in Zomba my academic colleagues are steeped in sound learning, and are not dallying with the latest fashions or fancies.

(I brought with me to Malawi quite a number of workbooks from one of our regional ordination courses, naively thinking that they might be of use. I was quite shocked on reading them to discover both how little ground they covered and also into what ideological mould the reader was being forced.)

We must not tamper with God’s word (wrote Pope John-Paul II). We must strive to apply the Good News to the ever-changing conditions of the world but, courageously and at all costs, we must resist the temptation to alter its content or reinterpret it in order to make it fit the spirit of the present age.

Rodney Schofield is a member of Forward in Faith teaching at Zomba Theological College, P.O. Box 130, Zomba Malawi (email: