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Setting the Scene: Becoming Church

The Revd Dr Zac Niringiye Director of African Region CMS

Let me share with you some tit-bits of my faith journey. I believe that in order for to appreciate one’s thinking you have to know something of their story.

I begin my story with that of my parents who, at the time I was born, were serving as ministers in the Church of Uganda, then called the Native Anglican Church (NAC). I am truly a rural boy, born in the church. I grew up in rural Uganda in the mountains and hills of Bufumbira, in south-western Uganda. Let me share a little bit of my rural-ness. In rural Bufumbira, electricity, was a novelty for me at the age of fifteen, the first time I ever switched on an electric bulb when I went to secondary school. When I got there, the older students recognised how green I was – the only way I knew how they turn out any light was to blow it. So these little naughty boys teased me. One of them went by the wall and the other went close by the bulb and to my real amazement he could blow and it just went off. So they asked me to blow out the light and I worked at it! As you can imagine to their joy!! Only later did I actually discover that there were other ways of turning out the light. But I am proud of that rural heritage!

My father was a senior catechist of Grade-III, a church planter and pastoral administrator over several congregations, a ministry he exercised without canonical ordination. So I grew up as child of the church, drinking of her milk and eating of her readily available bread, of which my father was a chief dispenser. Both my father and mother were deeply committed to Christ and His Church, something they had learned through the East African Revival movement, of which they were first generation adherents. I was therefore nurtured in the ways of Revival, from very early in my life. My father tells me how as early as at age six I used to sing with joyful faith-certainty the song: When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more¼ I will be there. My parent’s faith was truly mine. I grew up as a Christian, aware of the implications of my faith-life for worship and mission. For as early as at the age of six I gladly participated in ‘beating the drums’ as we called the people to worship on Sundays or on the mountain tops of Bufumbira as we called people to listen to the gospel.

However as a teenager, at the age of 15, I strayed from the Way as a result of peer pressure. For the next three years my life was characterised by rebellion against my parental heritage and against God, in pursuit of what I thought was ‘enjoying life’, through drunkenness and all manner of youthful carousing. It was in 1972, as a drunken secondary school student, that God restored me to a faith-life, which, by his grace, has been my lifestyle since then.

I finished school, proceeded to university and after completing my degree course in Physics and a teaching diploma joined graduate school, to pursue further studies in Physics. All my high school and University years were during the Idi Amin regime. I knew first hand fellow students whose parents were murdered. But the full impact on my life was as a Christian student leader, when informers always watched us, suspected to be agents of the West. I was one of those students who led an uprising against the regime – in 1977! I am sure that that uprising was one of the beginnings of the regime’s downfall two years later.

It was in the middle of my graduate studies, in 1980, that it became clear to me that my life-long commitment and service was not to be in the teaching of Physics. Through a process of reflection, self-searching, counsel from the Christian community and prayer it dawned on me that my life-long vocation was ‘to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ is built up’(Ephesians 4:11-13). The moment of reckoning for me was when I was confronted with Paul’s testimony of the vision of his life, as he enunciated it to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, and in particular verse 20. He stated: “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given to me –the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace”. Therefore at the invitation of the tertiary national student movement in Uganda, the Fellowship of Christian Unions (FOCUS) I quit graduate school and started a career as a students worker, a ministry that I was involved in for just over twenty years.

During those twenty years, I took breaks in between to study – an MA in Theological Studies at Wheaton College, in the United States and then later a PhD at New College, Edinburgh University in Scotland. In I995 I was ordained a minister in the Church of Uganda. Currently I serve with the Church Mission Society as Regional Director for the work in Africa. I can speak gladly indeed of being a fruit of a remarkable work of collaboration between those who came from Britain, under the auspices of CMS and African evangelists in preaching the gospel of Christ to us in Uganda. Unfortunately the latter are often not acknowledged in mission literature as missionary pioneers. There are lots of books that talk about British pioneers but hardly any about the African pioneers. I hope that as we gather here we shall appreciate more than those before us, that Christian mission is always through collaboration and partnership.

As is true of any pilgrim, I have had many doubts and questions on the way. Some I have resolved as I have reflected on God’s word and grown in Christ in the context of the faith-community. As I have reflected over my life, the nature and exercise of Christian Mission in a world of pain and injustices I have come to the conclusion that I can not live this life oblivious of the pain of the suffering millions. I have been drawn more to reflect on the cross of Christ and its implications for my life, the Church and its Mission and concluded that the Cross ought to be my paradigm for life and Mission. The apostle Paul’s words express my desire as I grow in Him in a context of much human suffering: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like him in his death’ (Philippians 3:10).

I have a wonderful wife, Theodora and a wonderful marriage; we have three children between us, and other children we look after, as many of the Africans will know. We have been married since 1983. As a by the way, I have discovered that the word extended family is not actually true to the African concept of family, extended is not important it is just a family, just a family – household. The notion of ‘nuclear family’ is foreign to Africa; there is no African language word that we could translate ‘family’ in the sense of ‘nuclear family’. It is either the household or clan, so the closest word we could use actually for family is clan. So I come from a huge clan and now I am so delighted to be part of this clan, a remarkable clan of the people of God.

Being part of the ‘clan of the people of God’ is important because as I have thought about setting the context for our time together in this conference, a people brought together to share ideas, to exchange stories and experiences, to reflect on strategies and pray together, to reflect on our past and move forward in mission, the question that has gripped me is: “What is the Church?” It is both a theological and practical question – not that the two are mutually exclusive. In fact they are interdependent. The question I ask is not: “Why is the Church?” but rather “What is the Church?” For the question “Why the Church?” seeks answers that reflect on doing and activism, a justification of being that is to be reflected in activities. The question “What is the Church?” challenges us to reflect on identity – being that is to reflected in ethos and substance.

I have actually discovered in life that it is not the right answers that count most, but the right questions. As a child I always wanted to know the answer but now growing older and hopefully wiser, I want to know the questions. I invite you then during this time to consider what questions we ask; it may require us to begin rephrasing them. For the way we ask our questions will determine the answers. I therefore hope that in the fellowship together, as we share stories and compare notes, that our questions will be rephrased and together we will be richer.

I am offering to you the question “What is the Church?” and would like to argue that it is the appropriate question to begin our consultation and also to guide our discussions. It is certainly a critical question for us to be asking here in Africa. Consider the recent happenings in the central African country of Rwanda, reckoned to have over 85 % of the population of eight million, who claim some church affiliation. We all know the story, the tragedy that has befallen that land – genocide in 1994 in which an estimated one million people died at the hands of fellow citizens. Or consider countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria, countries that pride themselves to have the majority of the citizens to belong to some Church. It is these same countries that over the last several years have been competing for the first slot of the most corrupt nations of the world, according to Transparency International corruption indices. What then is the Church, in the light of such statistics?

Consider another scenario: it is reckoned that less than one percent of the resources of the churches in North America and Europe, is spent on global mission, ie among the peoples of Asia, Latin America and Africa. And, yet consider again, the socio-economic disparity between the peoples of North America and Europe, and Latin America, Asia and Africa. The same economic disparity and inequality of the nations is evident between the churches as well, and yet we speak confidently of being ‘one Church of Christ’? What is that one Church? What is the church, in a context of global disparities? On the one hand extreme poverty of the Christians in sub Saharan nations; and on the other extreme affluence among Christian in the so-called Western Church. We can speak of the church not for the poor but of the poor but we can also talk about the church of the rich, for the rich.

The question: “What is the church?” then challenges us to truly inquire of the identity of this community in today’s multi-faceted context? What a joy it is to ask that question to people from all over the world. The relevance of this question is not simply because of the socio-economic context in which we are today but it also relates to the proliferation of churches. We certainly come from, a variety of churches although we all are part of the ‘Anglican Communion’, an identity label we carry. I grew up in the Church in Uganda. I have also had opportunity to visit various churches and congregations in the UK and the USA. But as I have travelled I sometimes wonder, when I step into some of these churches, whether we are in the same tradition – and I do not mean just form, but also content. Honestly, it is so different that I have had an identity crisis. There is a whole length and breadth about being ‘Anglican’ that one is not sure whether there is a common denominator. What then is the denominator that defines being Church and Anglican?

Then there is the proliferation of the churches in their shapes, sizes, architecture, doctrine or lack of it, paraphernalia and other forms, home-grown, imported and exported. Some of their number we are not sure whether we belong together so we label sects. This reminds me of the story of the East African Revival in the early 1930s and 1940s. Do you know that the leadership of the so-called mainstream Churches in East Africa (Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian) labelled and dispelled it as a sect? Sect is a label we give to the ‘other than us’; ‘Church’ is a name we call ourselves. What then is the church in the context of this proliferation, in this diversity, sometime a diversity that doesn’t seem to have much unity; so much that you could not recognise that which reflects the unity that we know ought to be manifested in this rich and glorious diversity.

As Anglicans the issue of identity is important, isn’t it? I do not know of any denomination or tradition that is often preoccupied with the question of identity as the Anglican tradition; may be we suffer from a perpetual identity crisis! But I think it is in our ethos to ask the question of identity for we are a ‘church in the middle’, the ‘via media’. That is who we are, always in search of our own identity. I must be honest that this is one of the main reason I am proud to be an Anglican. Always in search of our own identity, pilgrim on the way, yet to arrive. I have therefore chosen to entitle this setting the scene ‘Becoming church’.

We are becoming, in transition – provisional and tentative, and I think that this is sort of reflected in the very recent history of the Lambeth Conferences. Please bear with me in referring to that which sets the contemporary ecclesiastical context for our meeting together. Consider Lambeth 1988 in which, (I was not there and haven’t had time to study the reports, so can only go according to the popular version), the most significant outstanding issue discussed and given to the Anglican Communion from that Lambeth was the Decade of Evangelism. We say hooray, hallelujah, for those who use that language, as others kneel down quietly to thank God for a renewed vision of God for evangelism. Now what is the popular version of the Lambeth 1998. Your guess is as good as mine: it was the question of human sexuality. So critical and central this issue was to some that, I am told, alliances are being hammered out within the Communion depending on which side of the divide you fall on this ‘most’ important question! It is not mine to tell you which side of the divide I fall because I still want to be in fellowship with you all. But surely that does reflect this whole question on the way and the issue of identity becomes very, very, very crucial.

We ask the question ‘what is the Church?’ as we meet together, enthusiasts for mission and evangelism in the Anglican Communion. As we share our dreams and reflect on our stories and indeed our history, and as we strategize for the future, we want to admit, acknowledge and confess, that we are a fruit of mission and evangelism. The church becomes in mission. Praise the Lord! That is who we are, wherever. A church not in mission is not ‘becoming church’.

Sometimes, with my colleagues and brothers and sisters, now as a ‘British man’, I am amazed at how you get the feeling living with the British that they think of themselves are the initiators of mission, as though they have always been there. You get this disconcerting feeling some in the church do not recognise that the church only exists by and in mission. But actually not only is every Christian community, every Christian is the fruit of mission and evangelism but only continues its life in Mission. It is therefore possible to a community that has carries the label ‘church’ but has ceased being church because it has lost the becoming in losing its essential nature in Mission. In reflecting on mission and evangelism, we are here reflecting on issues of identity, that which forms, informs being and becoming church.

Anyway in the Church in Uganda it is very, very interesting the different traditions that form us and you can get a feel of them if you go to church on Sunday. In some you will be able to find that, you know, candles are very significant and very strategic and you get a real sense of aroma as you walk in and you are, I mean the scent is powerful. If you have a problem with breathing you may choose a different church, one that may have different kind of scent, if you go a particular part of the country where the thing that greets you is noise and drums and singing and the service may go on for ever. Still part of Church of Uganda and there is a way in which you can actually understand the forms of church by simply reflecting on forms of mission and forms of evangelism that has formed these perspectives of church.

So “What is the church?” I cannot therefore, claim to seek to bring an answer to this question. I have already said to you, hopefully the most import thing we can do during this time is framing the right questions for ourselves at this conference and for the Communion and the Churches we serve, so that we may leave Nairobi with the right questions, and also develop a framework that will help us continue to ask the right questions. Let me draw your attention Jesus’ vision of that community later called the Church. The passage that really has been gripping me lately is John chapter 17. There I think we can capture a bit of the vision of our Master, our Saviour, our lord and our King, of this community. I would like us to take note of the fact that of all the references to church in the New Testament it is only mentioned twice in the Gospels. Church, eclesia, is in Matthew chapter 16 verse 18 and Matthew chapter 18 verse 17. Curiously it is only Matthew who uses it. It is important for us to note Matthew gives it a very small section. The first reference to the church is in Matthew chapter 16 verse 18: ‘On this rock on I will build my church’. The second reference is about the discipline in the community: the brother who sins and doesn’t listen to the correction of another fellow Christian then eventually he is brought to the church. Those are the two references, the rest are in the beginning with the Acts and later in Epistles and Revelation.

Now, let me invite you to turn again to John 17. Recognising that the word church doesn’t appear there but certainly we can argue, that the community of which Jesus speaks in that which we know now as called Church. Let me draw your attention to verses 13 to 18. The context for that passage is the Upper Room discourse, Maundy Thursday as we have come to know it, and the Lord has said a lot, beginning with the washing of the disciples feet in chapter 13 and the discourse on the Holy Spirit in subsequent passages. Now in chapter 17 after Jesus says this he looked forward to heaven and prayed. He prays for himself verses 1-5 and then prays for his disciples in verses 6ff and so verse 13 he says:

“I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. (those who have believed in him). I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth: your word is truth. As you sent me into the world. I have sent them into the world.” (NIV)

In a word, in relationship to the world (and that is significant because of the context and our earlier conversation) we could say that Jesus’ vision, the portrait of this community is threefold: 1) in the world, 2) not of the world, 3) for the world. In the world. Not of the world. For the world. It is there in those verses. Jesus identifies himself with his followers, saying “As I am not of the world, they are not of the world, but they are in the world although I am no longer in the world”. Of course as the story continues, we know that he is present always in the world, not of the world, for the world. Hence Jesus proclaims to the Father: ‘As you sent me into the world’, verse 18 ‘I have sent them into the world’. Doesn’t that remind you of what Jesus said after the resurrection, one of the appearances in chapter 20 and verse 21, Jesus there says,

Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me I am sending you. As the Father has sent me I am sending you. Into the world, for the World, following Jesus, as the Father sent me I am sending you, then he said, receive the Holy Spirit.

While in the world, the community is continues, because he is still present with them, in the power of the Holy Spirit. What keeps the community from worldliness – not of the world – is the Holy Spirit and His word. His Spirit and His Word are what will sanctify them, keeping them separated form the World for Jesus; set apart to glorify, to honour, to do the will of God, not of the world. But they are in the world for the world: sent on a mission, to continue the Mission of the God in the Lord Jesus. It is a the mission of life, life in its fullness. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘I came into the world to give them eternal life’ (John 10:10).

The Gospel of John uses different expressions to characterise the quality of life that Jesus gives: ‘abundant’ life; or ‘eternal’ life. Refer to John chapter 17 where Jesus again says: “This is eternal life that they may know you the one true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”. Eternal life is only possible in knowing God and Jesus Christ is he who makes that reality possible to us. So, Jesus’ people must be a sign of that life; while in the world they manifest the reality of eternal life; the abundant life that He gives.

I come from a tradition that has emphasised preaching about life after death; that eternal life is life after death. But that is only part of the truth. Eternal life is while in the world. Let me share with you a story. In 1993, while pursuing graduate studies in Scotland, I was invited to preach during the Christian Aid Week. I was very delighted when I learnt that the theme for that week was: “I believe in life before death”. I thought wow! Eternal life is already here; we don’t have to wait for life after death. That eternal life, the abundant life he gives, is what the church is about; the embodiment of the reality of abundant life in Christ.

What is the shape of the church today? Is it a reflection of that life? Is it becoming, indeed embodying that reality, continually, bringing the hope? In reflecting on issues of mission these are questions that we really must grapple with.

The other phrase that was always on the lips of the Lord Jesus is the Kingdom of God. Friends, as you know, I now live in the United Kingdom, a country, a people and a tradition that take kingdoms seriously; so seriously that the Sovereign is called ‘the defender of the faith’. This is also the country that has shaped much of the ‘Anglican tradition’. Hierarchy is such a dominant ethos in the Anglican tradition, so dominant that it has become a major (and sometimes I think the most) mark of being church for us. I wonder whether this is the stamp of our historical heritage, from the ‘kingdoms of this world’. My ‘Lord Bishops’ I beg your pardon when I refer to you with all humility and all other things that I must do as a clergyman. Sometimes I wonder, looking at you with your regalia, all your might and power, as to whether by that you negate the very ethos of being church, negating the ethos of the Kingdom of God. I can talk more confidently about the Anglican Churches in Africa. The way that holy office of the bishop has been captivated by hierarchy is manifested during transitions of leadership, from one bishop to the other. You know as well as I do that each diocese now approaches such a time with fear, due to the chaos and infighting that has wrecked churches. This is not becoming a sign of the Kingdom of God but clearly of the world. May the Lord have mercy upon us!

Now please bear with me, these are questions. And I don’t think we should shy away from asking difficult questions – questions of us, of our mission, in order that we may become what Jesus would want us to become, in all aspects of becoming church. I have already referred to the disparities that exist within the world; we want to ask ourselves honestly and ruthlessly, whether we reflect the oneness Jesus spoke about, which is the evidence of our apartness from the world. It is this oneness that is to reflect our distinctiveness in the world. What characterises our world and our Church? Is it possible that what is being reinforced and emphasised in the Church is what we see in the world. What does globalisation mean in the light of Jesus call to be one? What does ‘being and becoming church’ mean to us in the Anglican Communion? Maybe Marjorie Murphy will help us to check how resources are moving within the Communion and maybe that will cause us to ask and think, maybe we could have a study on how resources and oneness is truly effective. And what then is mission and evangelism in that context? I call on us to be bold; not to shy away from asking the hard questions. Jesus calls us to the fullness of life in him; life in the Kingdom of God, life that is eternal. Let us be bold in His Name.

There is a popular songwriter and singer, I don’t know actually know his name, but one line that has stayed with me is “Its all about Jesus”. That sounds too easy and simplistic; but it is the simple truth of the Gospel. It is all about Jesus. It is all about Jesus. All about Jesus. But the question is then, is the church becoming the body of Christ. Are we as truly the Church of Christ, a sign of the Kingdom of God? Are we the presence of the Holy Spirit in our communities, becoming hope of eternal life, becoming signs of the Kingdom of God abundant life, transforming lives and our communities?

This week through the talks and seminars, let us reflect on what does it means to be and become His Church. Let us not be afraid to ask the tough questions. I hope we can in the process make choices, radical decisions, to become what God wants us to be. This will entail engaging with the issues of mission and ministry and ministry orders. I have personally asked questions of the ‘sanctity’ of the canonical threefold order of ministry handed to us by our ecclesiastical ancestors. Have these orders served God’s Mission? Could this be the hour that faithfulness to God’s mission requires us to rethink orders of ministry? For my doctoral studies, I did my research among traumatised communities in Uganda during the several civil wars. Some of you might know the Idi Amin years, the people that were killed in large numbers. And then later during the Obote era, in an area called Luwero where there are massacres in their numbers, and massive people movements. One of the questions I asked in that research was who the most significant order of ministry within the Anglican Church of Uganda. Surprise, surprise! It was not the bishop, because the bishop couldn’t be present because he was too powerful. A visit from a Bishop was too high profile an event, clouded with a lot of politics. It was not even the clergy, because the clergy are too few, they are not present in all the communities. It was actually the catechists! It was these catechists who were displaced with the people; they were present in the community wherever the people were. These catechists were the ‘sacraments’ for the people. They embodied grace as they preached the Word of God. So I plead with you, let us be bold. We need to remember that the orders of ministry have when the church is in mission, the church is becoming. Is it possible that we have got stuck to what we were there?

Mission invites us on a journey of becoming. Those who have and those who have not; those who speak Scottish, Welsh, French, English, Luganda and Swahili. This is the opportunity for us together. May I invite you to be bold.

The Inter Anglican Provincial Mission and Evangelism Co-ordinators Consultation
Encounters on the Road
Resurrection Gardens, Nairobi, Kenya May 2002