By Ian Ernest
In early February I preached my final sermon as chairman of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa. The Gospel text was Mark 1:29-39, about the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and the great evening healings as the whole town gathers before the house.
It is a very African scene. Indeed, the Bible is a very African book: the people wait for sunset before they walk and gather with Jesus, just as everyone still does today in Africa, for it is too hot otherwise. It is a feeling, an experience, which needs no explanation on our continent.
This waiting for the cool of the evening is the same experience that we find in Genesis 3:8, where God walks after the sun has gone down, looking for us, his companions. And I am certain that St. Mark had Genesis in mind when he wrote this passage, early in the Gospel. The contrast between our first sin, encountered by God in the garden, and the forgiveness of our sins, received as Jesus’ gift to the multitude, is central to the Christian faith. God becomes incarnate as Son so that his goodness might be received, and shared, by all of us.
Meeting in Bujumbura, Burundi, we had an African sermon about an African text, and a great meeting of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa addressing the problems of our churches in Africa. We gathered together before Jesus Christ, our unity established in his sacrifice to take away the sins of the world. And as we wrote from Burundi, as the body of Christ in unity we must all reflect Christ in word and actions, through prayer and obedience as we proclaim the gospel and reach out in service to the world.
Such is the joy of being part of CAPA and its work, but also the sadness and hardship of addressing these questions on this continent. The difficulties our provinces face as churches in Africa — political violence and corruption, tension between Muslims and Christians, persecution, the too-easy availability of weapons, famine, HIV/AIDS, and others — are some of the deepest challenges confronting any human beings in this world. These are the issues we face; this crisis is our daily experience as Christians in Africa.
There is no future in pretending that these issues are somehow minor or temporary, that solely through kind words and thoughts we will heal the destruction of the last century and more. We must do something. We must act. We must meet the cost of discipleship. The gospel is not a call to leave the world to its fate. It is a call to new creation, to be the world as God always intended it to be.
The deepest motivation for that identity is theological: because God wills it. During my four years as CAPA chairman I have tried to call people back to this insight, which is not mine but is rather the simple faith that we are all taught in our first days as Christians.
“As I look back on the past years and ponder over the future, I have learned that without a spirit of trust and brotherly love amongst ourselves we cannot go very far and as church leaders we are called to rely on God’s strength and not on our own,” I said in welcoming CAPA to Burundi. “It is thus important that we, who have been delegated to represent our respective provinces, recognize that in any way which we will decide here, it must be done in God’s way and in his power.”
These words are pivotal to my experience with CAPA. Of course the council is in some ways a political organization. Of course we have our arguments and disagreements, often spirited ones. And of course, when one looks at the list of problems we face as Anglican churches in Africa, it reads like a perfect description of the political problems of our continent.
I must insist, however, upon the integrity of our vision and our call to action on these same questions. The All African Bishops’ Conference that met in August 2010 in Entebbe, Uganda, gave CAPA a very specific mandate: in the name of Christ, and in his body torn apart and made whole again by the power of God’s loving forgiveness, identify a strategy that can bring hope and healing to the ravaged peoples of our nations and churches. It is that very particular reality, of God Incarnate dying and rising, which offers the only real power for the salvation of our peoples.
We have tried to capture this vision in our present strategy: “Harnessing our unity to unlock our potential and secure our future.” It might sound banal out of context, but remember, it means nothing without that context of being a Christian in Africa. To me it is really a theology of the Holy Spirit: an understanding of what we must do, as disciples of Christ, in the power of the Spirit and in the midst of God’s creation. It is, after all, the same message the prophet Micah gave us more than 2,500 years ago: “For what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8-9).
CAPA’s next five years, therefore, must constitute a response to the challenge of Entebbe, and a response to the strategic vision that we have worked out together as bishops within the body of Christ. I do not hesitate to write must, because the situations we face are desperate and our remaining opportunities limited. It is a time for leadership, for rising to the challenge of the gifts of the Spirit, and for delivering people unto God in the same way, and with the same integrity, as such great African Christians as Janani Luwum, Bernard Mizeki, Joost de Blank and, more recently, Desmond Tutu.
As I leave the chairmanship of CAPA, I am absolutely convinced that this same leadership, and this same integrity, is alive today in our provinces and in our churches and our peoples. I believe very deeply that this same witness to God’s saving work in Christ will now lead the African churches toward real and genuine accomplishments in the next few years. And I believe that this same God, Jesus Christ our Lord, will deliver us from the evils that afflict us in Africa.
That, finally, is the heart of our work together on CAPA, just as it is the heart of Mark’s Gospel, the Gospel for my sermon in Bujumbura. If we can be part of God’s work in Africa, then we will truly be servants of the Lord, gathered before his house, calling upon his name.
The Most Rev. Ian Ernest, who has completed four years as chairman of CAPA, is Archbishop, Province of the Indian Ocean, and Bishop of Mauritius.