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18 October 2013

Respected leader: Dr Gitari with Archbishop Robert Runcie in the 1980s

Respected leader: Dr Gitari with Archbishop Robert Runcie in the 1980s

The Bishop of Sherborne writes:

"DIVIDE and conquer" was too often the colonial ruling myth in Kenya, playing one ethnic group against another. "Divide and grow" was the mission strategy of Dr David Gitari. He was the first Bishop of Mount Kenya East (1975-90), first Bishop of Kirinyaga (1990-97), and third Archbishop of Kenya (1997-2002). He married Grace Wanjiru in 1966, and they had three children. He died after a short illness, aged 76, on 30 September, and was buried on Thursday of last week.

Before consecration as a bishop, he was a student evangelist, leading missions in universities throughout Africa, and General Secretary of the Kenyan Bible Society. Both posts influenced his style of being a bishop: evangelism was central, and the Bible was foundational.

With the help of neighbouring observers, specific targets for growth were set by the parishes of Mount Kenya East. These were agreed by the diocesan synod, and the international Partnership in Mission consultation, which included people from the diocese of Chelmsford. In many cases, the aim was to double the number of congregations in five years, and build new churches and vicarages.

The growth in the Church was extraordinary. Between 1975 and 1990, the number of parishes in his diocese rose from 19 to 93; vicars from 30 to 120. Two missionaries were sent to other countries, to Zaire and West Germany. Such growth culminated, logically, after 15 years, in dividing the diocese into two in 1990: Kirinyaga and Embu. Gitari chose the former diocese to serve, thereby giving up the newly constructed stone cathedral in Embu and starting his administration in wooden offices in Kutus.

After a moving farewell service in Embu Cathedral, he was escorted down the steep valley by thousands of Christians to the bridge over the Rupingazi, the boundary river. Down the other side of the valley, thousands of Christians from Kirinyaga had gathered to welcome him as he was handed over.

This planning, growing, sacrifice, risk, and engagement were all undergirded by his expository preaching from the scriptures, in villages and in clergy chapters. Entrepreneurially, in 1978, he founded a theological and development college, St Andrew's, Kabare, for the training of priests, community health workers, and secretaries; and a diocesan development agency, Christian Community Services, at Kerugoya, which was replicated by other Bishops.

Gitari preached against social injustice locally and nationally. He held a high doctrine of the authority and power of the Word of God in the Bible, and applied it with shrewd and brave political acumen In a series of sermons in 1986, he led the opposition to "voting by queuing" behind photos of MP candidates. This was imposed by the Government, infamously in the Kiswahili phrase of one minister, "wapende wasipende" - "whether the people like it or not". Imaginatively, Gitari arranged for his communications secretary quietly to video the queues, which provided hard evidence of election rigging.

This produced opposition, and in April 1989 thugs tried to kill him at his home in Kirinyaga. Neighbours rescued him. Later, the secret ballot was reinstated. In retirement, he served on the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission.

As Bishop and Archbishop, he continued to champion further theological studies by priests. This has borne fruit in the high calibre of theological staff at St Paul's University, Limuru, near Nairobi, and various theological colleges. His chairing of the Liturgical Commission produced the Kenyan Service of Holy Communion in 1989, and a new prayer book in 2002. Internationally, he was a bridge-builder, serving on both Evangelical and ecumenical committees, including the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. He published three books, and was honoured by a festschrift in 2009.

At the 1988 Lambeth Conference, he chaired the resolutions committee and gave a paper on "Evangelization and Culture"; just before the 1998 Conference, he received an honorary DD from the University of Kent, and the opening eucharist of the conference was celebrated according to the Kenyan communion service that he had inspired and shaped.

At his death, there was mourning in the nation and Church of Kenya and the wider Anglican Communion. In stature, influence, and astute theological acumen, he was one of the most significant Anglican archbishops of recent times.

Dr Graham Kings was on the staff of St Andrew's College, Kabare, 1985-91.

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