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Lowering the flag, lifting the cross

10 April 2012

This study sheds light on today’s wrangles, says William Jacob

Central Africa man: Bishop Donald Arden in his Nyasaland/Malawi days CIO

Central Africa man: Bishop Donald Arden in his Nyasaland/Malawi days CIO

British Missionaries and the End of Empire: East Central and Southern Africa, 1939-64
John Stuart

Eerdmans £26.99
Church Times Bookshop £24.30

DONALD ARDEN, a former missionary with the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa, celebrated the golden jubilee of his consecration last year. When he was appointed Bishop of Nyasaland in 1961, a century of extraordinarily dynamic missionary activity by British churches in sub-Saharan Africa was drawing to a close. A new era was dawning amid much anxiety about the future of the Church in Africa.

Dr John Stuart describes, with special reference to what are now Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Kenya, the last quarter-century of the great British adventure for Christ in Africa, against the context of the devastating blow to the British Empire’s prestige of the fall of Singapore in 1942. This stimu­lated nationalist movements in the African colonies, amid fears that segregationalist and exploitative policies would be adopted by white minority governments in Southern and Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, and Kenya, on the model of apart­heid, which was enforced in South Africa after 1948.

Missionaries found African nationalism difficult. They feared that post-independence govern­ments would follow China’s ex­ample in 1949, and expel mission­aries. Some missionaries found it easier to minister to white settler congregations than to develop African leadership in their churches. There were uneasy relationships between Colonial Office ministers and officials, colonial adminis­trators, the declining number of missionaries, and the missionary societies, whose resources were being eroded by post-war inflation and devaluation.

In the 1950s, expatriate missionaries — despite outspoken criticism by some, such as Cecil Bewes of CMS, of government policies and police behaviour — were comprom­ised by colonial governments’ brutal repression of African nationalist movements and the imprisonment of their leaders. Against this back­ground, however, Archbishop Fisher, despite the reluctance of missionaries, conse­crated the first African bishops since 1864, and drafted constitu­tions for new inde­pendent provinces, thus inaugurat­ing the Africanisation of Anglican­ism.

In the early 1960s, Stuart sug­gests, aid agencies such as Voluntary Service Overseas and Christian Aid caught the popular imagination of Christians (and non-Christians), and aid quickly re­placed missionary work in the inter­est and fund-raising of British churches.

Donald Arden, as subsequently Bishop of South Malawi and Archbishop of Central Africa, led the new province through the challenging years of decolonisation and the withdrawal of missionaries. Little could the departing mis­sionaries have known that there would be a rapid resurgence in African Churches under African leadership.

Stuart’s well-researched and well-written book throws much light on the background of the current ten­sions and suspicions in the Anglican Communion between post-colonial African Churches and the Churches of the former colonial powers.

The Ven. William Jacob is the Archdeacon of Charing Cross, in London.

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