Nicolas Stebbing CR remembers great Zimbabwean Anglicans


What is the value of history? It can be very interesting, very entertaining, or it can be an exercise in nostalgia or fantasy. It can teach us to be wise or it can lead us down false paths. New Directions has often been a place where history is written about. Does it simply entertain? Does it mislead? or does it inspire? We Anglicans living in the Catholic tradition have some great history. How can it take us into the future?

The Anglican Church in Zimbabwe is not well known in our Communion but it had some great missionary figures. Most of them stayed for decades walking thousands of miles before there were roads, sleeping in grass huts, teaching, celebrating the Eucharist, and starting small bush schools which have often grown into famous schools today. There were people like Archdeacon Upcher, who literally walked the length and breadth of Zimbabwe; there was tough little Bishop Billy Gaul, who once offered to fight a drunken miner. There was the great Bishop Edward Paget who was bishop for over thirty years. There were great missionaries from my own Community of the Resurrection. They built schools and hospitals, churches and community centres. In 1890 there was not a single Anglican in Zimbabwe. In 1990 there were hundreds of thousands! That was the fruit of their work. They were wonderful people who loved God, loved the Church, loved the people of Zimbabwe and spent their lives laying the foundations of the wonderful Church we have there today.

But there is more to the story than that. We often forget that the real work was done by Zimbabweans themselves – the Shona and Ndebele people of Zimbabwe and, let it not be forgotten, a lot of English speaking lay people as well. The lay people were the converts who built the first churches. They were the people who interpreted the sermons which the missionary fathers preached. They were teachers who acted also as catechists. Often they had a lonely job as the only teacher in a small school, telling people about Christianity, waiting patiently for the seeds they sowed to grow up into faithful Christians. Some got ordained. Some became nuns. Thousands joined the Mothers Union which has always been one of the most important parts of Anglican Christianity.

Who were these people? Berard Mizeki came from Mozambique to Cape Town as a teenager, was converted by the Cowley Fathers, and went to Mashonaland as a catechist. After five years he was martyred, refusing to leave his station because there were old people to care for. His shrine draws thousands of Anglicans in mid winter every year. There was Canon Sagonda who cycled all round Matabeleland, refusing to use a car; Fr Chipunza who said mass in bare feet because he was on holy ground. And there was Helen Mangwende who did great work for her fellow women. She was the wife of the chief whose uncle had had Bernard Mizeki killed!

These are the real heroes of Anglicans in Zimbabwe. One day soon their stories need to be written down and told. Here is a story I would like readers of New Directions to know and be inspired by.

Back in 1976 I was a young mission priest on a motor cycle serving an area with eight churches. At my best outstation I found a family called Doma who with other Anglicans walked eight miles to church each Sunday. I suggested they built their own church. I visited their home a couple of times and we agreed to dedicate it to St Stephen. Then the Liberation War got more rough. I had to leave the district and heard nothing more. I assumed our plan for St Stephen’s had disappeared into the war.

Thirty years later I had an email from one of Mrs Doma’s sons. “Father, we have now completed St Stephen’s Church. Would you like to come and say mass here?” I did and found Mrs Doma was the hero of the day. Throughout the years of war and the years of peace that followed she had given ten per cent of her crops towards buying bricks and cement for the church. She persuaded her friends to do the same. Slowly the walls grew. Then one of her sons became a priest and was able to get a church in England to pay for the roof. When, finally, the church was finished Mrs Doma was dying in hospital. Her sons went and said “Mother, we’ve finished the church.” She said “Good. Now I can die.” And she died a few days later. Her first time in the completed church was at her funeral!

I am sure many readers of New Directions can tell similar stories. These are the people who really matter in our church. Whether we talk about mission, growth, finances or deepening spiritual life these are the people who can make it happen. Where are they?


Fr Nicolas Stebbing is a member of 

the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield.