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Presidential/Episcopal address by the Bishop, Professor the Right Reverend Dr William Peter Stephens, Bishop of The Gambia

Feb 28, 2011, 1:10 PM | Article By: The Right Reverend Professor W. P. Stephens

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 Methodist Church. In each of these cases the history of our church in the past throws light on our present and our future.

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 Banjul on their way to Sierra Leone they would regularly preach at Wesley.

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 Sierra Leone in the 1850s the first seven Roman Catholic missionary priests died within a few months - and the last two were buried by a Protestant missionary. And in 1872 in The Gambia the churches together purchased a Christian burial place.  Perhaps most impressive is a story from the revival in 1889. Among the converts were members of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. They were told, however, to go back to their own churches as the concern was to make Christians not to make Methodists.

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 Africa.' Also in August 1855 John Bridgart wrote, 'It is well for the native Christians that we are under the protection of the British government. If it were not so I doubt (humanly speaking) whether Christianity would long be permitted to exist here.'

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 Africa' 'from the curse' of intoxicants. He recognized that 'force and cruelty are no longer being used to spread Islam'. Rather he saw the Muslim teacher as 'everywhere' and 'everywhere welcomed', though, he adds, 'perhaps not more freely than the Christian teacher would be. Both have the prestige of being Book men and God men'. He is critical of the approach of Christians who begin 'by disputing instead of trying to conciliate and understand'. 'Even the native ministers and European missionaries show not only lack of special training but want of sympathy and local knowledge... a certain aloofness and assumption of superiority... "I belong to a superior race. I condescend to come among you but should never think of living with you or even eating with you." By contrast ‘the Arabic teacher will squat round some calabash and dip his hand in the same dish...’ Perhaps most critical of all, he states ‘Christians of the coast too often (with honourable exceptions) leave their Christianity behind them - if they ever had any - when going to live among Muslims.' Moreover, work among Muslims suffered in The Gambia as in Sierra Leone because almost all the time and resources of the church were given to Akus.

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 Europe, the peaceful coexistence of communities has been undermined by individuals, and groups, and sometimes by political parties using religion for political purposes.  There is a role for every part of our society in sustaining good relations- for government, the judiciary, the police and the armed forces, but also for teachers and religious leaders. Good personal relations, for example, between religious leaders are important, but are not sufficient. There need to be regular meetings which will enable us to guard against any breakdown in relations but which will also enable us to consider how to develop our relations and to make our unique contribution to the life of the nation.

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 America and South Africa. Think of George W. Bush a Republican President and Hillary Clinton a Democratic Secretary of State. 
Think of Nelson Mandela leading the ANC opposed by a fellow prisoner on Robben Island, Stanley Moghobe, a Methodist minister, or more recently the former Presiding Bishop Mvume Dandala, who solemnized Mandela’s marriage, leading a party in opposition to Mandela's ANC.  

I recall a conversation over 20 years ago with Bishop Werner Krusche of Magdeburg in East Germany. He was often a critic of the East German government, so that the Secretary of State for Religious Affairs said to him on one occasion, 'We regard you as a fair opponent'. He replied, 'No, a critical friend.' He expressed succinctly the church’s proper relationship with government, even a government which all  its members  supported. It is that of a friend, but a critical friend - in other words it is a relationship of constructive dialogue.

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 Britain invited leaders of the Methodist, Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches to meet regularly with Members of Parliament and the Shadow Cabinet to share the churches' concerns. I did this myself for several  years until I came last time to The Gambia. I therefore felt free a few weeks before the General Election last year to write to David Cameron of my concern about two areas of policy (social justice and aid to the developing world) which I was concerned to see that the Conservative Party would honour if it became the government.  He wrote to assure me on both issues.  You may know, for example that his government will be the first British  government to reach the United Nations target for development aid.

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 Methodist Church pioneered education in The Gambia, educating boys from 1821 and girls from 1823. The church has demonstrated over the years the quality of its education, especially those schools for which we are wholly responsible, such as GMA. We are glad to contribute to the life of The Gambia through our schools and we appreciate the support of the government in what we do. We recall that many years ago the then government took over the schools Many people ask whether the quality of education in these schools - however good they are and they are good - would be better if the church were wholly responsible for them and therefore able to provide some of the facilities they lack.

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.