Anglican Church in Zimbabwe: the challenges of transforming a colonial church to post-colonial relevance

Oct 14, 2011

The deep discord in Zimbabwe's Anglican Church continues in full public view. Whichever way the saga develops, it has touched on and affected many issues beyond the stated reasons for the split within the church.

Nobert Kunonga, the rebel bishop who was excommunicated by the mainstream camp of the church, is nevertheless now in defacto control over much of the physical church, even though the other faction maintains the loyalty of most of the membership. At some point in the fight between the two factions the matter went to court and Kunonga’s side was given custody of church properties until the matter is finally resolved.

Kunonga questions the competence of the competing faction to expel him, and instead says he separated from them because of their creeping tolerance of homosexuality. He bills himself as preserver of the original essence of the church against corrupting would-be-reformers, at least on this one issue of homosexuality.

Kunonga's critics charge that his actions are motivated by plain old power-lust and greed, rather than biblical principle over homosexuality or anything else. They also deny Kunonga’s accusation of supporting acceptance of homosexuality as some parts of the international Anglican Church are beginning to do.

The Anglican Church in particular has a poor colonial history in Zimbabwe, having been the ‘spiritual arm’ of Rhodesian racism. However, the church also earned a significant African following by its role in building and running schools and hospitals. After independence it fairly quickly separated from its pre-independence role and reputation.

The introduction of Christianity was one of the most astonishingly successful aspects of the colonial project. While the church as an institution is in severe decline in Britain, many Africans cling tightly to a literal, fundamentalist version of the imported religion that differs very little from the form introduced by missionaries more than a century ago.

The British originators of the church are moving to a point where they are increasingly tolerant of homosexuality. The Africans who were spoon-fed the religion as part of colonial conquest are largely not comfortable with that. And so we have a situation where the ex-communicated local Church of England bishop, an African, is claiming the mantle of ‘real keeper of the faith’ against the likes of ‘too liberal’ Rowan Williams, the British head of the church.

Effectively, the descendants of the African colonized are clinging tighter to the ‘original’ version of the church as it was brought by colonists than are the descendants of the conquering Britons who sold the religion to the Africans.

Of course, Christianity like most religions, has no nationality. To most (though not all) it is now irrelevant that it came to Zimbabwe through and as part of colonial conquest. But above and beyond this, the Anglican Church as a particular brand of Christianity is a British construct. The Church of England came about as an offshoot of the Church of Rome in response to social and political imperatives in England at the time. It is therefore odd that Africans, in Zimbabwe or anywhere else, have found it so easy to tightly claim as their own a branch of Christianity whose very reason for being was an ancient quarrel between the English people and the Roman Catholic church.

All these issues apply to all the other churches as well. But it applies particularly to the Church of England as an integral, even especially central part of the colonial project. It is an institution that defended Rhodesian racial privilege until the bitter end, even after some of the other prominent missionary-introduced western churches had long begun to speak for African rights.

Homosexuality is as socially and culturally frowned upon in Zimbabwe as in most African societies. But it is not the huge, over-riding concern Kunonga tries to make it. To the cultural taboos against it can now be added the injunctions against it in the bible brought by the Church of England and other European churches. There is no shortage of Africans who can now recite all the relevant biblical chapters and verses to make their arguments against homosexuality.

Yet differences over the very meaning of being an African and at the same time a member of the Church of England would seem to be much deeper and more legitimate ones to account for a split in an Anglican Church that now mainly ministers to Africans, rather than to colonial settlers. In the claim to be fighting against the encroachment of homosexuality, a minor concern in Zimbabwe compared to many other issues, an opportunity is lost to discuss these deeper issues of the role of a deeply colonial church in a post-colonial society.

One would particularly expect this discussion to be taking place in Zimbabwe for a number of reasons, perhaps more than in other countries where the Church of England has a presence. The political ruling authorities, with whom Kunonga is said to be closely allied, have spent a lot of time and energy casting themselves as a bulwark against re-colonization by Britain. Violent, controversial land reform is just the best known of many initiatives the government has explained as part of correcting the negatives of the colonial legacy. Kunonga has sought political cover for his ‘church grab’ by strongly supporting the political authority, and claiming that much of his troubles are for that support of the broad ‘anti-colonial’ fight.

But how can an African to whom it is obviously important to remain a Church of Englander/Anglican also claim to be fighting the colonial legacy? Is the Church of England, despite its now mostly black Zimbabwean face, not a deep, integral and inseparable part of the colonial legacy?

Africans have accepted and appropriated much of the package that came with colonialism, retaining what are considered positives and (mostly) rejecting the rest. If there are aspects of the Anglican Church with which Kunonga is now strongly uncomfortable, why not form his own church, as many other Zimbabwean religio-preneurs are doing? Yet we see an African man who spouts a strong rhetorical anti-colonialism, but who also wants to cling very tightly to the bosom of the thoroughly, purposefully colonial Church of England as its bishop!

When the English Roman Catholic church split from the main Roman Catholic church centuries ago, the understandable result was the Church of England. When Kunonga ‘splits’ from the Zimbabwean Church of England, it is not to form the ‘Church of Zimbabwe’ but to go only halfway; by instead attempting to take over and rename the church as the ‘Church of England in Zimbabwe.’

Kunonga wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to pose as an ultra-nationalist, anti-colonialist fighting homosexuality creeping into his church, but at the same time he wants to maintain close association with that church and all its trappings. The Church of England in the African context is undeniably a colonial construct, even if it has now been embraced by many Africans. A more consistent statement of repudiation of the direction the church has taken would be for Kunonga to form his own ‘Church of Zimbabwe’ in a similar fashion to the way the Englanders did after quitting the Church of Rome.

But no, Kunonga doesn’t have the guts to go that far. Besides, there are all those juicy church properties to get one’s hands on. Whereas the Church of England could count on the proceeds of colonial conquest to fund its worldwide property portfolio, Kunonga knows it would not be easy to build up such a potentially lucrative material profile from scratch. So ‘anti-colonialist’ Kunonga gets the brilliant idea to just take over the colonial church and simply re-brand it in his own image. It has all the exact same trappings of the church that he says has lost its way, but with two main differences: he is in charge, and the advertised main product is the gospel of anti-homosexuality

Of course there are inherent contradictions in how a colonized people relate to the culture of their colonizers. This is hardly unique to Africa or to Zimbabwe. Detesting the humiliations of colonization while aspiring to and adopting many of the ways of the colonizer is simply part and parcel of the colonial experience and the confused aftermath.

The Kunonga church property grab, and tolerance or the lack of it towards homosexuality may be the immediate stated issues in this particular church fight. But there is another reason directly missionary-derived churches like the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe (and probably every other African country the church has a presence) need to introspect and freshen up their role.

That reason is the considerable pressure from the mushrooming number of ‘indigenous churches.’ These have attracted huge segments of the ‘market share’ of the once dominant European-style missionary churches. The founders of the new churches, like good entrepreneurs in any area of business, found unmet needs in the religion market and aggressively set about filling them.

For a long time after colonization, the very ‘European-ness’ of missionary-derived churches like the Church of England or the Church of Rome was a strong source of their appeal to Africans. Becoming a member of these churches was not only to be spiritually ‘saved’ as taught by the missionaries, it was also to become socially ‘civilized’ as defined by the colonizers. For most Africans at the time (and for some today) that almost necessarily meant to become as ‘Europeanized’ as possible, and also to distance oneself from what was regarded as ‘primitive African-ness’ as much as possible.

The initial anti-Africanness of the Anglican Church may have even given it a special cachet when Africans were eventually allowed to be regarded as members on a par with the European settlers. The Africans at some level could say to themselves, ‘Phew, we have ‘made it; we have now been accepted by that most exclusive of clubs, the official church of the mighty colonizer.’

But with more African self-awareness and confidence in the post-colonial era, the entrenched European-ness of an institution like the Church of England begun to increasingly clash with African reality. While certain Africans wanted it to remain in its ‘original’ form as much as possible, others begun to be turned off by that, especially those ‘classes’ who were made to vaguely feel second-best to the more Europeanized African elites at the head of the church.

Many begun to yearn for less somber and ‘European’ styles of worship, and more lively and ‘African’ ways of worshiping, for example. The use of local musical instruments or languages in worship were all once controversial issues as the church (and not just the Anglican Church) struggled to adjust to a new age. Africans were no longer just passive recipients of styles of practicing the religion imported from England, even if the church itself was Anglican/English in origin, but these churches were reluctant to accept this.

Africans could now freely join even the Anglican Church and (gasp) become congregants and later even clergy of once all-white churches, but who did they think they were to want to change centuries-old (English cum Roman) ways of doing things?

‘‘Oh my God, they want to turn the Church of England African!’’

It was not necessarily just the old colonial priests and other church officials who were horrified at the prospect of an Africanizing of the church, but many of the Africans as well. How good would an Africanized Church of England be as a mark of their ‘sophistication,’ their ‘civilization,’ their being ‘almost’ like the Europeans?

Wanting to convert as many Africans as possible but also wanting to maintain the ‘European-ness’ of these missionary-derived churches, many of these old churches, Church of England included, had a very difficult time with these issues of transformation. Some of the churches made very grudging concessions to the growing demand for these European churches to become more Africanized.

Those Africans who felt the old style churches could not accommodate their needs gravitated to the many new local churches who understood this dynamic of change, at a time the missionary churches were still trying to resist it. Arguably this battle has been won by the ‘new’ churches, who now attract numbers that the old churches can only envy. Furthermore, the old churches have been forced by the keen competition to make internal changes and accommodations they would have rejected outright before.

These are the bigger challenges Anglican Church and other directly missionary-derived churches face in Zimbabwe (and elsewhere in Africa), not the peripheral issue of homosexuality. The missionary churches will retain their reduced but still significant influence partly because so many Zimbabweans depend on their hospitals and schools. The aggressive new crop of churches preach a popular ‘prosperity gospel’ (another way they differ from the old churches and have eaten into their market share.) They concentrate quite diligently on raising money, but building schools and hospitals has so far not been a major priority for them, although they often seem in competition for the size of their church buildings and in their general flashiness.

While the existence of the Church of England in Zimbabwe may not be immediately endangered, its relevance in ‘Europeanized’ form (and that of similar churches) is under attack from the Africanized new churches and the prosperity religio-preneurs. The civil war the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe is busy fighting can only make it weaker to withstand the many pressures of a post-colonial society in fast transition.

Chido Makunike

The Zimbabwe Review


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