Letter from Malawi

It is the biblical understanding of persons that is at issue

Before the gathering of Primates in October the Archbishop of Central Africa (who generally refers to the goings-on in New Hampshire as ‘all this nonsense’) estimated that of the 38 bishops entitled to attend some 23 of them could be regarded as essentially ‘sound’. There thus appears to be a slender majority ready to maintain orthodoxy in the Anglican Communion. However, it is clear that the numbers of practising Anglicans represented by each of them varies considerably, and much has been made of this in the secular media.

In America there are actually very few Episcopalians, and hardly any at all in Scotland, whereas in some of the African provinces such as Nigeria the numbers are huge. The total number of Anglicans worldwide is generally estimated at around 70 million; but if the BBC News website is to be believed something over one-third of these are reckoned as belonging to the Church of England. A truer picture would scale this contribution down to at most 2 million, with the Anglican Communion more realistically numbered at perhaps 50 million – with an overwhelming (and rising) proportion in Africa.

Let it be firmly stated then that recent developments such as the ordination of women or of practising homosexuals are quite atypical of the Anglican Church; a fact of which blinkered liberals within Britain should frequently be reminded. In passing, one may note how in the heated debates of General Synod rarely is there any appreciation of how decisions taken there may impact upon Anglicans elsewhere in the world (the CofE can abuse its ‘autonomy’ as much as any other province).

Person-in-community

Truth of course is not wholly determined by a head count or a show of hands. African Christians point beyond their numerical superiority to their reliance not merely upon tradition but also upon reason and scriptural revelation. Perhaps the key to this is the importance for them of the human being, not as an autonomous individual, standing upon his or her right to self-determination in whatever sphere (not excluding the sexual), but as a ‘person-in-community’.

The clearest recent exposition is to be found in Benezet Bujo’s The Ethical Dimension of Community (Paulines Publications, Nairobi, 1998). Fr Bujo hails from the Diocese of Bunia in DR Congo, but holds the chair of Moral Theology and Social Ethics at the University of Fribourg. Perhaps I may be allowed the luxury of a substantial quotation:

There is a large consensus that the strengthening and the growth of life are the fundamental criteria [also] in the realm of ethics. The members of a clan share the obligation to contribute to the growth of life of the whole community by their moral action. Usually, only that kind of behaviour which leads to the building up of the community is morally good.

To guard the common welfare and to promote the growth of life are the responsibility first of the community leaders. Yet, the people as a whole are co-responsible, because the fate of the leaders essentially depends on every single community member … the life-strength, coming from God, gets new vitality not only from above but also in the way that all the members reinforce one another …

It is obvious how, in such a perspective, every action must be considered evil which prevents the fulfilment of the common, and also of the individual life. It is important to consider that this African ‘ethical community’ is not restricted to the earthly community; it also includes the invisible world of the living-dead. (p27)

Within this perspective it is plain why the emphasis upon human solidarity, in both Old and New Testaments, has its appeal to the African Christian.

In the priestly tradition of Leviticus, while the details of ritual purity need not be endorsed in their entirety, what is of lasting significance is the awareness that the health (or holiness) of God’s people can be seriously infringed by the conscious or unconscious actions of the individual. Or again, in the Deuteronomic history there is an ongoing narrative ethics which illuminates how both the achievements and failures of particular dramatis personae impact far beyond what was ever envisaged at the time: the moral consequences belong to an unfolding divine and not merely human saga. Thus, David’s adultery with Bathsheba is then compounded by the murder of Uriah her husband, and followed by the death of their child, Amnon’s incest with Tamar, his murder at the instigation of Absalom, and the latter’s own eventual rebellion and death.

Circles of influence

The point is forcibly made that actions both reflect and influence a person’s character; and while the action may be ‘private’, one’s character cannot be concealed and may be more potent for good or ill in its social impact than is commonly allowed. We are entitled to speculate, ‘Suppose David had been a different kind of father?’ (Essentially the same issue arises in the African context of witchcraft accusations; one can be a ‘witch’ – namely, someone who harms the community – without necessarily being personally aware of that fact. Although injustice may occur in actual practice, with an unhealthy degree of victimization, nevertheless there is here a biblically sound conviction that ‘no man is an island’.)

It hardly needs pointing out how important is the communal dimension of faith and Christian living in the New Testament. Sufficient to cite some of Paul’s comments in 1 and 2 Corinthians, how the joys and sufferings of the individual are shared by the whole body, how his behaviour may be offensive to at least some, and how his downfall or sin is also injurious to the common good.

Here we may note Paul’s own self-restraint: ‘Am I not free? … Do we not have the right? … nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 9.1, 4, 12). The bishop under whom I served for over ten years in the Diocese of Peterborough, Douglas Feaver, put it tersely when he explained why one sometimes has to say a pastoral No. It is, he said, ‘for the sake of the others’. Perhaps one arguably has some kind of right (for example, to the church’s blessing on some new – and possibly ‘fulfilling’ – undertaking), but what of one’s responsibilities, inseparable from one’s rights? How far in the present discussion does a same-sex ‘marriage’ give life and strength to the whole community? How far does it cause confusion to at least some?

We recall here the example of Christ himself, who like all human beings surely had a right to life, yet sacrificed this on the cross ‘for the sake of the others’. It disturbs me to see campaigning for whatever cause that overlooks this foundational Christian truth. I believe it is imbued more naturally within the African church than within the strident individualism of modern western culture.

Rodney Schofield is Commissary to the Archbishop of Central Africa.

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