By Jan Butter, Anglican Communion Office Director of Communications
I flew into Entebbe on Monday morning without map or compass; this was only the second gathering of bishops from across the continent of Africa. The first had been six years ago in Lagos, Nigeria, long before my time with the Anglican Communion Office.
As an invited guest I had received the conference agenda, but I was worried that disagreements between Provinces of the Anglican Communion -a perpetual topic for most bloggers and journalists -could overshadow the proceedings.
This concerned me because the official conference agenda appeared to be a genuine attempt to bring to the table those issues that hampered the mission of the Church in Africa: poverty, poor leadership, health inequalities, conflict and violence. In fact, many of the invited guests were from mission agencies such as CMS Africa and World Vision Uganda.
By the close of the first day, newspaper reports and online blogs were unsurprisingly filled with articles on topics that divide the Communion: human sexuality issues, bishops ordained in one Province ministering in another without permission; this, despite some genuinely important presentations and sermons on the role of Anglican bishops and the issues before conference delegates. Day two and three's coverage was sadly much of the same.
Absent was any mention of searching questions from the podium; questions such as 'if numbers of African Christians are soaring, why are several countries where they live still suffering from conflict, corruption and poverty?' Absent was mention of the commitment by one bishop to plant a million trees on his land before he dies in an effort to reverse deforestation and tackle climate change. Stories of hugely successful DIY community dam projects and of biogas schemes that provide villages with desperately needed water and fuel went largely unreported. Where were the newspaper articles or the blog entries describing the challenge to bishops to use their position and influence to help end the mutilation, rape and murder of African women?
As a former print journalist I know what sells newspapers, but there was so much more to this conference than internal disagreements over certain issues. All anyone needed to do was strike up a conversation with any bishop from any country and soon they would be marvelling over what was happening in dioceses and parishes up and down the continent.
There was the five-man ministry team that over two years has preached the Gospel to 15,000 soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has seen 13,000 of them repent of raping women and looting. There was the Sudanese bishop who produces and broadcasts a radio programme six days a week on a range of social issues that affect the community. There was the church-supported microcredit scheme, in one of the poorest rural Nigerian dioceses, that was so successful in helping women to capitalise on their own investments that the overseas donors sent auditors to the country to verify the claims.
On Saturday the bishops and other delegates were taken on a day-trip to one of three different sites. In Namugongo I stood with a large crowd of clergy from Malawi, Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa and other countries and listened as a Ugandan priest told us that where we stood, 25 of the country's first Protestant and Catholic converts were roasted alive because they had chosen Christianity. The sacrifice of these martyrs was foundational to the Church in Uganda and every year hundreds of thousands of pilgrims actually walk from across Uganda, as well as neighbouring countries, to Namugongo to remember them. Our group moved from shrine to shrine, chapel to chapel and we prayed together at each one. Before we left, all the bishops stood on the steps of a church for a group photo, eager to remember this collective moment.
Do all Provinces of the Anglican Communion agree on everything? No. Is there hurt and anger over actions taken by Provinces? Yes. But were 400 bishops from around 20 countries able to meet together, pray together and commit together to prevent violence against women and children; to work for poverty reduction; to help strengthen African identity and purpose; to call for strong, honest leadership for the continent; to promise to protect and nurture the next generation of African Anglicans; and to listen to the rest of the global Anglican Communion?
Yes they were.
Late one evening in Uganda I caught the end of a film in which a father tells his son: "the miracle of wood is not that it burns, but that it floats." After spending time with the bishops in Entebbe, I think the same could be said of the Anglican Communion.