By Matthew Davies, Episcopal News Service
A crippled nation at the mercy of tyrannical leaders, Zimbabwe is home to a persecuted yet resilient community of Anglicans who've been victimized, intimidated and run out of their own churches by a state-supported renegade bishop and his allies.
Yet, despite being excluded from all worship spaces in Harare, "the Anglican church is growing, filled with joy, and looking outward," Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told Episcopal News Service following a July 29-31 visit to Zimbabwe to show support and solidarity to its beleaguered Anglicans.
"They have experienced the same kind of thing as congregations in Fort Worth and San Joaquin," she noted, referring to attempts by former leaders in those places to take ownership of diocesan property and leave loyal Episcopalians without a spiritual home. "The church is more than a building, and has become stronger and more creative in exile."
Zimbabwe's Anglicans have faced repeated harassment and violence from President Robert Mugabe's police force since former bishop Nolbert Kunonga was excommunicated in May 2008 for attempting to remove the Diocese of Harare from the Church of the Province of Central Africa. Bishop Chad Gandiya was elected to lead the Harare diocese in May 2009.
A Mugabe ally, Kunonga still claims ownership of the diocese's Anglican churches despite court rulings saying that the property belongs to loyal Anglicans. Meanwhile, Mugabe continues to cling onto his 30-year rule as the country's infrastructure crumbles and its law and order deteriorates.
The intimidation is now spilling over into other Zimbabwe dioceses, Jefferts Schori said, noting that she'd heard of similar stories about incidents in the Diocese of Manicaland and that on July 31 a report had been received that Kunonga, seven police officers, and others had shown up at a Diocese of Masvingo boarding school to take over the service.
"The headmaster realized what was happening, and kept the children away," she said. "Parishioners also recognized the false bishop – that's what they call him -- and turned around and went home. We heard a little later that Kunonga had returned, and deposited one of his priests and his household goods in the church, with police looking on."
Kunonga now claims to be in charge of the Arthur Shearly Cripps Shrine and 78 Anglican churches in the Masvingo diocese, according to an August 2 article from the Anglican Communion News Service.
"Kunonga got wind of the diocesan preparations for commemoration of Arthur Shearly Cripps by pilgrims at the Arthur Shearly Cripps Shrine this month end, and he began to counter these efforts," a diocesan spokesperson told ACNS. Cripps (1869-1952) was an English Anglican priest, short story writer, and poet who spent most of his life in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
During her visit, Jefferts Schori met with Gandiya, the Standing Committee, trustees, and clergy of the Diocese of Harare, Bishop Julius Makoni of the Diocese of Manicaland, and U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe Charles Ray. There are four dioceses in the Anglican Church of Zimbabwe, which forms part of the Church of the Province of Central Africa.
Jefferts Schori preached for a confirmation service at St. Martin's Anglican Church on July 30 and for a Sunday Eucharist service on July 31 at St. Paul's Church, both of which are in the Diocese of Harare. The services ran peacefully and without an appearance from Kunonga's faction.
"I very much wanted to let the church in Zimbabwe know of our solidarity as they suffer through this harassment and victimization by the deposed former bishop and his thugs," said Jefferts Schori, the first Episcopal Church presiding bishop to visit the Central Africa province. "The police have power only because the government sanctions their behavior."
Zimbabwe has been described by Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town Desmond Tutu as a country that "used to be a bread basket" of Africa, but has since “become a basket case.”
Prior to visiting Zimbabwe, Jefferts Schori was hosted by the Anglican bishops in Zambia and Botswana -- also part of the Central Africa province -- where she experienced a very different story and political landscape.
Bishop William Mchombo of Eastern Zambia told ENS that the country's political leaders accept with grace the church's ongoing calls for accountability. "We will commend them for good work, but will not hesitate to criticize them if necessary," he said. "We are in a privileged position to speak for the less privileged."
It’s important for the church to hold political leaders accountable, he said. "Those elected into leadership should be credible people with the interests of the nation at heart."
During an October 2010 service celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Anglican Church in Zambia's founding, Mchombo preached in the presence of President Rupiah Banda and other government leaders, calling on them to reject an anti-corruption bill that would have removed "abuse of office" from the list of offences punishable by the Anti Corruption Commission Act. "The fight against corruption should not be compromised and neither should we relent," the bishop said during his sermon.
One early July morning, Mchombo returned home from church to find intelligence officers in his front yard and the message that the president would be visiting imminently. When Banda arrived, Mchombo made tea and used the opportunity to talk to the president about the church's role in development.
"Thank you for your boldness," Jefferts Schori told Mchombo. "If we cannot speak truth, we are not doing our jobs."
Asked about the disparities in the political landscape throughout the region, Mchombo said that the church in Africa needs to address the issue of governance. "We may talk about poverty and disease, but with poor governance comes anarchy or corruption," he said. "Poor governance leads to the failure to provide for local services, such as health and education, and leaves people in abject poverty."
In 1991, then-President Kenneth Kaunda, who'd led Zambia since its independence from the British Empire in 1964, bowed to pressure, called for multi-party elections and stepped down peacefully when the Movement for Multiparty Democracy was voted in. Since then, Zambia has "not seen a muzzling of the press or the voice of the people," Mchombo said, noting that clergy in the diocese are routinely trained as election monitors with support from the government.
The Rev. Canon Petero Sabune, the Episcopal Church's Africa partnerships officer, who was traveling with the presiding bishop, recalled that Kaunda had attended the independence celebrations in Juba, South Sudan, on July 9, as a witness to the new nation and as an example that good governance and democracy often results in peace and stability.
"Two Zambian presidents have since been elected and with significant support from the church," Sabune noted. "Zambia has been a model of democracy."
The Anglican Church in Zambia prides itself in its democratic and representative model. It includes the Zambian Anglican Council that represents its five dioceses, owns its property, and oversees all development, health and training programs throughout the country. ZAC includes three representatives from each diocese -- the bishop, one priest and one lay person -- and its presiding bishop is rotated each year. "It's a consultative process and no one person makes a decision," said Mchombo.
ZAC’s programs, some of which are supported by Episcopal Relief & Development, include adult illiteracy, food security, water sanitation, and education and prevention of HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases.
Jefferts Schori told all five Zambian bishops and other members of ZAC, including Director Grace Phiri, that she is grateful for their leadership. "You are transforming the world," she said.
Archbishop Albert Chama of the Church of the Province of Central Africa and bishop of Northern Zambia said, "It is our prayer that our partnership will go from strength to strength."
Close ties also exist between the church and the state in Botswana, where political leaders often attend Anglican church services and where Bishop Trevor Mwamba's father-in-law is a former president.
"Botswana is the least corrupt country in Africa," Mwamba told ENS, during a July 29 visit to his home in Gaborone, explaining that the government has incorporated into modern democracy the traditional Botswana kgotla system of governance, where everybody is informed and included in the decision-making process. "It is our custom to ensure that everyone has a voice and feels that they are a part of what is happening."
Botswana has conducted a general election every five years since 1966 when it gained independence from Britain, which had ruled it as a protectorate. The Botswana Democratic Party has since won all elections and today Botswana remains a member of the British Commonwealth.
"The church's role has been more about the spiritual growth of its people rather than trying to dictate to the government what it should be doing," Mwamba said.
"On the whole things have been done with ubuntu," he said, referring to an African philosophy that recognizes and values the importance of relationships and the whole community.
Yet Mwamba admitted that the church may have become complacent and that with a new generation of priests comes a new passion for liberation theology and social justice issues, as demonstrated through the church's role in brokering a deal between unions and government to end recent public service strikes.
"There was a stalemate so the church stepped in to act as a mediator and to proffer an amicable way forward," he said, noting that the accepted solution was to introduce a pyramid system of pay raise increments starting with the lowest-paid and ending when the available funds are exhausted. "It has demonstrated that there is openness and that the government is willing to listen … and it shows how the church can play a more active role."
Mwamba said the Diocese of Botswana is now exploring ways it can address other areas of potential conflict and issues of human rights. "How do we make our society better? How can we improve our democratic processes? This is where the church should be taking a more proactive role. All of this is undergirded in how we treat each other as children of God."
The presiding bishop also visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo for six days before traveling to Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. The trip was intended primarily as a way to deepen relationships and explore new partnerships, yet it also brought hope to many women who are waiting for the Central Africa province to open the ordination to them, and it served as "a reminder that Africa is not a country but a continent and there are distinct differences in how each country is governed," Sabune said.