On books, and on African books

Fr. James Amanze and I present commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew and Mark to our third-year ordinands.

We begin this last year, thanks to the initiative of Fr. Murdock Smith, who chairs the Diocese of North Carolina’s companion link committee with the Diocese of Botswana during the early years of our relationship. Then Fr. James and I present commentaries on the Gospel of Luke. Now we are completing the three-year cycle of the synoptic gospels in our lectionary.

The books are written by N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. They are thoughtful and readable and engaging.

They are also, well, very English, and the stories he sometimes tells to illustrate his points have little connection with the African context. But there we are.

‘There we are’ because of the dearth of literature on Christianity, the Bible and theology written by Africans. It is difficult to find suitable Bible commentaries or texts for use in our African theological schools written by African theologians and scholars.

One of the things that European missionaries get right, as they yield leadership of African Anglican churches to Africans in the 1950s and 1960s (a bit late, I know), is their conviction that the African churches will need African-based literature to proclaim the Good News to what are then called ‘Younger Churches.’ As a result, they help to establish local presses: Uzima Press in Kenya, Centenary Publishing House in Uganda, and the Central Tanganyika Press in Tanzania, to use East African examples.

These presses have done important work. But my concern here has to do with resources for African ordinands in African theological schools. And here, well, there is not much to see.

It’s not that there are not talented and engaged African theologians. Fr. James Amanze, our Principal here at St. Augustine Theological School and the chairperson of Botswana’s companion link with North Carolina, is a case in point. At the risk of turning this diary entry into a bibliography, Fr. James’ books African Christianity in Botswana, African Traditional Religion in Malawi, A History of the Ecumenical Movement in Africa, Ecumenism in Botswana, and African Traditional Religions and Cultures in Botswana remind me of the invaluable scholarship provided to Africa, and to world Christianity, by Africans.

The work of Prof. Jesse Mugambi, an Anglican layman and sometime chairperson of the Department of Religion at the University of Nairobi, also comes to mind.

Still, what do we put into the hands of our seminarians? Commentaries by Bishop Wright from the Church of England.

John Pobee, an Anglican priest from Ghana who serves on the World Council of Churches’ ecumenical theological education staff many years ago, is instrumental in producing a bibliography of essential books for African theological school libraries (and libraries elsewhere in the Two-Thirds World). The bibliography is filled by books by non-African authors.

Back when I am Dean of Studies at Trinity, the Diocese of Nairobi’s theological college, I visit him in his offices in Geneva. It is some two decades ago now. We talk about the need for African authors to come forth. Not concerned persons such as myself, an expatriate in Africa. Africans.

Recently I wrote a book, Toward an African Church in Mozambique. (Hard not to know if you have looked around this website.) In my unbiased judgment, it is a pretty good book, and for me the story of the key character, Kamba Simango, is fascinating. But it has the same flaw: Non-Africans writing about Africa. Of course we non-Africans can have something important and helpful to say about African affairs and about the African Church – if I did not believe that, I would not have followed the life journey I have followed – just as Africans have something important and helpful to say about what happens in North America and Europe, and in our churches there. But none of that changes the fact that we need people of a culture speaking and writing about their culture and their faith journeys within their world.

It really has not happened, at least not for appropriate works for Anglican Africans. The Roman Catholics maintain an active publications program: Paulines Publications in Nairobi is a case in point. And the evangelicals and fundamentalists and Pentecostals have theirs. We in what are once called the ‘mainline churches’ – the Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists – are largely silent.

This is little short of a tragedy.

I am somewhat amused (not all that much, but somewhat) with the preoccupation of the Episcopal Church in the United States with structuring itself to be more ‘efficient’ and ‘effective’ and ‘nimble.’ What matters is mission, God’s mission, and structure and efficiency are a minor part of that. And when it comes to mission, of course there are competing missiological priorities. But it is hard for me to see how far we as an Anglican Communion (or indeed the church universal) can go if we do not address the desperate need for ministerial formation, appropriate to the varying contexts within our world. And that requires meaningful resources written, in this case, by Africans for Africans.

The sad thing is: I could have written this reflection two decades ago, without changing a word.