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Sowing the seeds of the Church

03 June 2016

Peter Townley marks Ugandan Martyrs’ Day


Witness: the Bishop Hannington Memorial Site in Uganda

Witness: the Bishop Hannington Memorial Site in Uganda

ABOVE the teeming and dusty city of Kampala, on Namirembe Hill, the red-brick Anglican cathedral, St Paul’s, stands and, in its shadow, the red-earthed churchyard. Many of the graves in that churchyard and the plaques in the cathedral tell the story of the early days of the Anglican Church of Uganda, and the determination of the first missionaries.

“Tell the Kabaka, I die for Uganda.” These words, referring to the king, were the last spoken by the first Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, James Hannington, and are engraved on his headstone in the churchyard. He was martyred at Busoga on 29 October 1885.

There are also the graves of Alexander MacKay, the founder of education in Uganda; Sir Albert and Lady Katharine Cook, who started the Mengo Hospital, and who gave their lives to the Medical Mission to Uganda; and Mary Susannah Thomsett, one of the first party of women missionaries to reach that country, who died there after 25 years of devoted service.

It was the North African early Christian theologian Tertullian who wrote that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church.” Suffering and persecution have never been far from the Church of Uganda.

On this day, 130 years ago, just outside Kampala, at Namugongo, 32 Anglican and Roman Catholic Christians were burnt on a great pyre. It was Ascension Day. Led to their deaths chained neck to neck and laid on the pyre, each bound by elephant grass, many of them were young Ugandan pages at the court of the Kabaka.

Part of a much wider persecution at the time, their martyrdom was for several reasons, including the new Kabaka’s wish to assert his authority; but not least was their refusal of this young and inexperienced king’s homosexual advances.

The Martyrs Memorial at Namugongo and the Anglican and Roman Catholic shrines remain as a place of pilgrimage for thousands of visitors from around the world. Earlier this year, Pope Francis visited the RC shrine, as did two of his predecessors.

On this day, we remember also those martyred during General Idi Amin’s reign of terror — not least Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was murdered in 1977. Luwum was once an assistant curate in Bushbury, near Wolverhampton, and was identified then as a future leader of his Church at home. An eyewitness at the Archbishop’s trial at the Nile Mansions Hotel, Kampala, likened it to the trial of Jesus: the thousands of soldiers were chanting not “Crucify him! Crucify him!” but “Firing squad! Firing squad!”

Leslie Brown, the first Archbishop of the Province of Uganda, told the story how, on the Sunday after Archbishop Luwum’s murder, a grave had been dug for him, appropriately next to that of the martyred Bishop Hannington. The authorities, however, refused to hand over his body. A great crowd filled the cathedral, and, at the end of their eucharist, filed out to gather around the empty grave and sing Easter hymns.

Now, Luwum’s statue stands as one of ten modern martyrs on the west front of Westminster Abbey.

In January 1984, Archbishop Robert Runcie visited Uganda. Seeing for himself something of the horror of Amin’s regime, he was taken to a point on Lake Victoria spanned by a bridge. So many bodies had been thrown from the bridge that the lake below, deep as it was, had dammed up.

In his sermon at the enthronement of their new Archbishop, the Most Revd Yona Okoth, at Namirembe Cathedral, Dr Runcie said that Uganda, of all places, deserved a new beginning. “In these dark days, you have suffered the violation of every human right. . . You have been driven to terror and despair by the tyranny of ruthless and inhuman oppression. Church and nation alike have suffered the cruellest persecution, and you still live with some of the human wreckage which violence always creates.”

Recently, the Church of Uganda marked the centenary of the building of Namirembe Cathedral, and the 55th anniversary of the Province of Uganda. There is plenty to celebrate there — not least the full churches and their vibrant worship, and the enterprise with which the churches are reaching out in service to their communities, particularly the many orphans and street children.

It is a Church like our own, however, where issues of sexuality figure, and this will be a recurrent issue for the future shape of the Anglican Communion. As we are benefiting from the Shared Conversations, and what it means to disagree well, I wonder whether something similar might prepare the Church of Uganda, and others in East Africa, for the future.

As attitudes have changed in our own society, the world of Uganda today, and its present Kabaka, Ronald Mutebi, who was educated in England, is a world away from the despotic Kabaka Mwanga, and the persecution at Namugongo.

Today, Uganda celebrates Martyrs’ Day as a public holiday. In a Church that has known so much persecution, and some of whose leaders have supported the criminalisation of homosexuality, we look to them to give a lead, not only for Uganda but for the Global South; so that the persecuted do not become, by default, the persecutors.


The Ven. Peter Townley is the Archdeacon of Pontefract, in the diocese of Leeds.

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