Posted by: Titus Presler | August 7, 2009

Discord saps mission energy of Zimbabwe’s Anglicans

Several vignettes from a July 2009 journey to Zimbabwe illustrate how the mission outreach of Zimbabwe’s Anglicans is being compromised by the fullscale ecclesial, legal and physical confrontations between rival factions.  One vignette is micro and personal, another is macro on the scale of the church as a whole, and the third illustrates the public profile of the conflict.

A family lost to Anglicanism: On my way out of the country, I got to chatting with the airport shop staffer, a woman in her mid-20s, from whom I bought several woven baskets.  She asked what had brought me to the country, and I responded that I’d been visiting with the Anglican Church on the occasion of the consecration of the new Bishop of the Diocese of Harare in the Church of the Province of Central Africa (CPCA).

Making a commiserating noise, she asked, “And what is going on with the Anglicans with all this disturbance?”  I noted some of the main features of the conflict.  “I used to enjoy going to the Bernard Mizeki Festival when I was young,” she said.  “Ah, it was so inspirational!”

“Oh, you’re an Anglican?” I asked.  “I used to be,” she responded, “but with all this trouble I’m no longer attending Anglican.  We were going, but then the police would come, and the Anglican leaders were fighting with each other.  Finally my husband said, ‘We can no longer attend that church.’  So now we go the Apostolic Faith Mission, which is the church of his parents.”

As the Shona would say, “Ndiyo nhamo” – that’s a misfortune.  This young woman would be part of the strength of any congregation and church body: young, energetic, intelligent, well educated, industrious, well spoken.  She is strong in the faith in which she intends to nurture her family.  She continues to love the Anglican Church, but it’s clear that she will be elsewhere unless resolution comes quickly, and that is hard to count on right now.

Festival split: The young woman’s mention of the Bernard Mizeki Festival highlights a truly heartbreaking sign of the church’s fissure.  Historically the festival of Bernard Mizeki, the first Anglican martyr in what is now Zimbabwe, has been the largest annual gathering of Anglicans in the world, drawing 15,000 to 30,000 people for several days of preaching, singing and praying at the outdoor shrine near Marondera where Mizeki was killed by the sons of Chief Mangwende on 18 June 1896.

The revival atmosphere of the camp meeting, with thousands of people staying up all night in the practice of pungwe, has been a magnet drawing people into evangelism and outreach. In 1996, 62 people from the Diocese of Massachusetts undertook a pilgrimage to the festival in a quest to experience God through the African experience.  In the late 1990s, the Mizeki Festival, held on the weekend closest to June 18, was striking for the AIDS awareness campaign held there by teachers and students of the nearby Bernard Mizeki College, an Anglican high school.

The Mizeki Festival has been a sign of the strength and unity of Zimbabwean Anglicanism during the independence period.  Regardless of governmental turmoil, people came together at Mizeki.  Regardless of turmoil in the church, people came together at Mizeki.

Now that has changed.  This year there were two separate Mizeki gatherings, for the polarization between two sides of the Anglican struggle has made it impossible for them to work together, even at Mizeki.  With his continued primary hold on church resources, Bp. Kunonga and his supporters had the prime spot, June 19-21, while the continuing Anglican Diocese of Harare, CPCA, celebrated on the following weekend, June 26-28.  Attendance figures could not be corroborated, but I heard that attendance at the first festival was in the hundreds, whereas estimates at the latter ranged from 7,000 to 15,000.  If true, this would echo other reports that Bp. Kunonga’s breakaway movement is losing steam.  Regardless, this fissure in the life of Zimbabwean Anglicanism is tragic.

Public profile of conflict: Going through border control at the airport, I was chatting with an immigration official.  Hearing me speak in Shona, he asked me what I’d been doing in the country.  When I mentioned visiting with the Anglican Church, he, like the shopkeeper, shook his head in sympathy and said something about disturbance and conflict.  That was it, an illustrative gesture and sentence.

So the strife is known to everyone.  It is frequently in the newspapers.  Press coverage of Anglicanism in Zimbabwe has always been prominent, perhaps because the presumed privilege of the church during the Rhodesian period has prompted the government-controlled media to delight in reporting Anglican squabbles with banner headlines.  So during the decades of Zimbabwe’s existence the problems especially of African Anglican bishops have received prominent coverage: one bishop’s conflict with a holdover British school head, another’s being on the payroll of a government commission, questions about another’s retirement age, yet another’s refusal to leave office upon retirement.

The current strife exceeds all previous conflicts, for it involves issues of schism that have drawn in many congregations and their members.  During ten days of travel in the dioceses of Harare and Manicaland, I heard horrifying stories of alienation, conflict and even violence among church leaders and ordinary members.  Moreover, many personal relationships have been disrupted as people have joined one side or the other and found that now former friends are on the other side.

Ordinary ecclesial nomenclature has had to be revised.  If the car or truck belonging to a parish or church district has painted on it something like “St. Swithen’s Church, Diocese of [Harare or Manicaland]” fullstop, it’s a good guess that the vehicle is associated with the breakaway movements of Bp. Kunonga or Bp. Jakazi, respectively.  If the lettering is, instead, “St. Swithen’s Church, Diocese of [Harare or Manicaland], CPCA,” then that identifies it with the diocesan structures that are continuing with the Church of the Province of Central Africa and hence with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion as a whole.  CPCA twenty years ago was a obscure acronym used only by church hierarchs, whereas now it is a crucial brand that rolls off the tongues of Anglicans in remote villages as a way of signifying their community with the rest of the Anglican Communion.

The attention of church leaders at all levels is inevitably preoccupied with the conflict.  Evangelism committees continue to meet, all night mapungwe continue to be held to the edification of many, and on a weekly basis the people of God are being nourished by word, often preached with great power, and sacrament.  Yet the dispute’s costs in missional vision and public witness are enormous.

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Responses

  1. Titus: Beautifully laid out blog. I love the landscape as the header.

    I recall during mission training watching videos you had recorded of the Bernard Mizeki Festival and you asking us to comment on what was striking. Our training group was taken with number of attendees and I was saddened to hear of its recent numbers.

    Indeed- “Ndiyo nhamo” !

    I look forward to reading more of your blog posts.

  2. Glad I came back to this site some new very interesting items which I wanted to know more about. Great work on your site.


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