May 16, 2013, 12:06 PM
In my Presidential Address in June, I mentioned that I would speak about relations with our Sister Churches (Anglican and Roman Catholic), with the Muslim community, and with government. Discovering and maintaining the right relationship with each of these is of fundamental importance to the mission of the church in The Gambia, and in particular the mission of the
1. Relations with our Sister Churches
It is easy to assume, because relations with Anglicans and Roman Catholics are good now, that they have always been good. If I remind you of our past failings, it will, I hope, deepen our commitment to be together and to work together.
Anglican - Methodist relations got off to a brilliant start. The Anglican chaplain at the fort, James Horton and John Morgan, the first Methodist missionary worked together. They even took each other’s services when one of them was ill or absent. But Horton was followed by Blenkarne. He by contrast preened himself on his opposition to the Methodist Mission. He noted that the Methodists had two well-attended schools, adding 'but that is not to be wondered at as they had no opposition'! He observed that their place of worship and school were superior and that they had the advantage of a woman teacher. He added, however, 'I have not been deterred by all these obstacles from opposing them ... for I do assure you I have no common opponents to deal with.' Half a century later when a Methodist school closed, the Anglican chaplain, who was a strong opponent, sent the constable round to the children's houses to tell the parents that they must now send them to the Anglican school. There were good relations, however, with some Anglicans, notably CMS missionaries. When their boat stopped at
Relations in the past with Roman Catholics were also not good. In the 1850s Henry Badger referred to Roman Catholics as 'storming the place'. However, he visited their church and catechism classes several times and read books given to him by the priest. On his part he gave the priest a book to read, as he put it, on 'the errors of popery'. The synod report in 1857 stated, 'The popish priest and his assistants at Bathurst (Banjul) have been making extraordinary efforts amongst our people to subvert their faith, but thank God without success ... Frequently a poor liberated African with nothing but a Bible in his hands and just learning enough to read, has put the Popish priests to confusion. A few years later James Peet spoke of them as 'enemies of the cross propagating a false faith', and observed that the 'parade and gorgeousnness of their worship is just the thing to attract the thoughtless negro'. In death a different spirit might prevail and we know that in
Yet the good relations we now have did not begin with the founding of the Christian Council. Before that there were co-operative ventures. In 1929 our synod approached the Reverend L Humphrey asking if they could not undertake some co-operative work. In the 1920s in Kuntaur Methodists, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics joined in planning an interdenominational church. Progress in working together was not guaranteed, as church leaders did not always follow the policy of their predecessors. In 1946 Ralph Ladlay was eager to increase co-operation with the Anglicans and services were started in Lamin in a joint building, with Methodist and Anglican services on alternative Sundays. A year or so later unfortunately they were stopped by the bishop. These examples show us how much we have to thank God for and how important it is for us all (members and ministers) to pursue that unity for which Christ prayed that the world may believe.
There are many challenges facing us, quite apart from the fact that serving the council as well as one’s own church makes heavy demands on people's time. Let me mention three.
(1) We may be on the verge of an important new stage of co-operation in the programmes for Christian Studies at the university. It is but one example of what we can do, only if we do it together. What else could we do better if we acted together? Some common preparation of our priests and ministers and some joint post-ordination courses could lead to significant progress in our common mission. It is a challenge to the churches and the bishops to seize such opportunities for the sake of the mission committed to us in The Gambia.
(2) There is the challenge posed by the very large number of Christian groups and congregations in The Gambia. It is an area which needs further reflection. At some stage we must consider what further steps, if any, there should be in recognition or cooperation in any given case and what the criteria should be?
(3) There is also the prophetic role of our churches which we appear to have let slip. I will comment on that when I speak of our relations with government.
2. Relations with the Muslim Community
Methodist comments on Muslims and Islam have varied enormously over the years, as of course Muslim comments on Christians and Christianity. In the 1830s Moister wrote of Muslims and pagans, 'They may differ in some of their religious rites and ceremonies but they are alike ignorant, debased, earthy, sensual, devilish, without God, without hope in the world... Moslems may have a rudimentary idea of God but their religion chiefly consists of muttering prayers they don't understand and observing feasts and fasts.' He was equally critical of polygamy, 'The men look upon their wives, not as their companions, but as an inferior race of beings, and employ them as slaves and beasts of burden.'
Of course good relations depend on both Christians and Muslims. In the jihads in the nineteenth century churches were burned down. In 1855 George Meadows wrote, 'Mohammedanism in a more bigoted and cruel form than it has hitherto shown, appears to be fast gaining ascendancy in this part of
Just a century ago, William Maude, who had been a decade and a half in The Gambia wrote very differently of Islam and Muslims. His picture is more understanding, though not uncritical. He credited Islam as likely to 'save the peoples of interior
Christianity and Islam are both missionary faiths. It is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. This does not stand in the way of our regard for Muslims and our recognition of much that we have in common and of course of the way that they honour Jesus as a prophet. We naturally long to share with them our faith in Him as Son of God and Saviour and all the riches of God’s love which are expressed in the birth, life, death, resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Spirit.
We are blessed in The Gambia with an almost unique inheritance - a freedom for Christians and Muslims to practise and share their faith and the privilege of doing so in a community of mutual respect and understanding. We can see others at their best not at their worst. We can work together on building an ever more just and harmonious society. We can also learn from Muslims how better to practise our own faith. Thus our contact with Muslims and our knowledge of Islam may enable us to discover afresh elements of the Christian faith we have neglected - such as the majesty and transcendence of God, the rhythm of a daily life punctuated by times of prayer, and the sense that the whole life of society (political, social, economic) as well as our personal life as under the sovereign rule of God.
There is a danger that we shall take the harmonious and fruitful relations of Christians and Muslims for granted, as if they are a given which nothing can threaten. But in the last twenty years we have seen examples of countries where the peaceful relations of Christians and Muslims have been destroyed. In Africa, Asia, and
3. Relations with Government
The Christian church has a high doctrine of government and therefore also high expectations of government. In the letter to the Romans, Paul refers to secular government as ‘a servant of God for good’. (The word diakonos is the word also translated as deacon.) It is the servant of God as its task is the God-given one of furthering what is good and punishing those who do wrong (Romans 13:4 and 1 Peter 2:14). From the earliest days Christians have prayed for those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2). But prayer for those in authority does not necessarily mean always agreeing with those in authority. The bible is full of examples in which God's ministers challenge those in power. A roll call of names such as Nathan, Elijah, Amos, and John the Baptist shows the prophets speaking to those in power in the name of God.
The Christian message is intensely political, for God is concerned not just with our personal lives, but also with the political, social, and economic life of the country. The church’s message is therefore not only personal but also political, though not party political. Christians will be found supporting a variety of parties. We can see examples of leading Methodists supporting different parties in countries as different as
Think of Nelson Mandela leading the ANC opposed by a fellow prisoner on
I recall a conversation over 20 years ago with Bishop Werner Krusche of
Let me give an example from my experience of constructive dialogue with government or what we might call being a 'critical friend'. In 1998 the Conservative Party in
Our history shows the church's political involvement in The Gambia - from its consistent opposition to slavery and the slave trade to its criticism as early as 1835 of those doing forced labour. Besides our concern for slavery and justice, what we say is related to what we do. We speak, for example, about prisons, because we know about them. We have been visiting prisons for almost 200 years and have been holding services in them for over 150 years. We opposed slavery and the slave trade, but we also raised money to buy slaves their freedom. With the wide involvement of the churches in active service in the nation there is a God given task for the churches to engage in constructive dialogue with those who have the responsibility of leading us in the many diverse areas of our national life.
Let me give one example arising from a speech of the Presidentlast week at the Launching of the Revised Laws of The Gambia. The President said, 'Justice delayed is justice denied.' The appointment of more judges and the revising of the laws are an important contribution to seeing that justice is not delayed or denied. In the light of this important maxim, some will ask about the delay caused by the number of times cases before the courts are adjourned. Adjournment puts huge and extended personal pressure on defendants, not least those who are innocent. It also risks repudiating the statement that 'Justice delayed is justice denied'. This may be an issue for us to consider carefully as churches in a constructive dialogue with lawyers and judges. The administration of justice is a proper concern of all citizens and therefore of Christian citizens, but it is also an obligation placed by God on the leaders of His people.
The church also has a proper concern for its God given ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing. To take but one example, the
Finally a word of thanks to all three - to our sister churches (Anglican and Roman Catholic) for the privilege we have of working together, to the leaders and members of the Muslim community for the harmonious and friendly relations we enjoy with them and the Muslim community as a whole, and to the government which places a high value on the contribution of the churches to the life of The Gambia and the support we receive in some of the varied work we do for the good of the whole community.