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Idiosyncrasies evolving in isolation

07 August 2020

Lockdown prompted Simon Stubbings to draw some unexpected parallels

The Reading Room/Alamy

Theological students at the Lovedale Institution, Kiungani, Zanzibar (Bishop Smythies and UMCA missionaries in the centre)

Theological students at the Lovedale Institution, Kiungani, Zanzibar (Bishop Smythies and UMCA missionaries in the centre)

AS CHARLES DARWIN famously discovered, isolation caused finches in the Galapagos to take on distinctive appearances and characteristics to conform to their environment. Theology transplanted abroad may display similar traits.

Isolation was a feature of life for 19th-century missionaries — indeed, an isolated sanctuary in which to practise their religion was sometimes actively sought. Anglo-Catholics in England suffered under measures such as the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874, whose purpose, as described by the Prime Minister Disraeli, was to “put down Ritualism”. Several clergy who defied it were imprisoned. This may have enhanced the appeal of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA).

Once abroad, UMCA missionaries were determined that the Anglican Church should conform to Catholicism. They took steps to protect their practices from taint by both “liberal” trends in Britain and local influences abroad. They aspired to an entity that would embody the characteristics that they looked for in the Church of England while also conforming to an African environment; but attempts to create such theological finches were frustrated by contradictions in their backgrounds.

Although the UMCA was generally racially tolerant, racial attitudes may have played a part. The UMCA held that “Africa could be converted only by Africans,” and it trained priests and teachers for that purpose. One of its bishops, William Lucas, was concerned not to challenge other non-Christian customs, lest “while seeking to win souls for Christ we denationalise them”.

He went to some lengths to adapt Christianity to local conditions. Confirmation became entwined with indigenous initiation ceremonies. Yet a Catholic hierarchical structure — arguably tinged by feelings of racial superiority — made the UMCA reluctant to entrust its cause entirely to local control.

Driven from its mission station during the Maji Maji rebellion (1905-07), the UMCA’s offices were undertaken by an African priest who appears to have conducted them in an exemplary fashion. Once the revolt was suppressed, however, he was replaced by a white UMCA missionary. The African became disgruntled. He was suspended from his ministry for “immorality”. Enforced isolation might have to be accepted, but was to be ended as soon as practicable.

Such attitudes were slow to change. No African bishops had been appointed to UMCA dioceses by the time of Tanganyika’s independence in 1961. The UMCA did not create an African archdeacon until 1959. Racial prejudice impeded progress. The UMCA, nevertheless, strove to Catholicise Anglicanism elsewhere.

The 1913 Kikuyu Crisis threatened church unity. A conference had been convened in what became Kenya. Participants included leaders of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and Evangelical missionary bodies of other denominations working in the area. The purpose was to discuss a united Protestant front in the face of “the strong and consistent policy of the Roman missions and the aggressive unity of Islam”.

The gathering ended with a service at which all were invited to receive communion. Frank Weston, the UMCA Bishop of Zanzibar, who had not been present, considered the administration of the sacrament to members of “non-episcopal societies” an unacceptable breach of principle, because he regarded the historic episcopate as of Christ’s own institution. He argued that the CMS was perpetrating a schism.

Weston’s demand that the Archbishop of Canterbury adjudicate forced the Church’s ambiguities into the open. Anglo-Catholics in England rallied in support. The Church seemed on the brink of tearing itself apart. Battle lines had scarcely been drawn, however, before they were dispersed by the outbreak of the First World War.

The incident showed how the UMCA was prepared to jeopardise church unity in advancing the cause of Catholicism. While it may have averted one crisis, the outbreak of the First World War nearly precipitated another, in which Catholic principles were counter-posed with patriotism.

The UMCA combined a belief in global Catholicism with concern for its local followers. The two were sometimes in conflict. The British Empire seemed to offer a solution by providing a vehicle through which Catholicism’s global reach could be extended. Alarmed at European encroachment during the Scramble for Africa, Charles Smythies — the UMCA’s missionary bishop in 1890, when Germany’s influence over Tanganyika (present day Tanzania) was recognised — had been unenthusiastic about colonisation. Fearful of the consequences of German rule for the UMCA’s missions, Smythies had argued for Britain’s control, at least to the extent of the land opposite Zanzibar, where the UMCA had a mission.

In the event, the division of the continent between European states found UMCA missions in areas governed by both Germany and Portugal, as well as Britain. Speculating whether it was possible for the UMCA, representing England’s Established Church, to work “outside the sphere of British influence”, Smythies was to wonder whether, in finding itself under the jurisdiction of a foreign European state, the UMCA had not drawn the worst of all worlds. In words that were to haunt the UMCA, he proclaimed that, once they had settled in a country, missionaries of a Catholic Church should never — whatever other missionaries might do — abandon it.


THE outbreak of the First World War placed the UMCA in a dilemma. For some, national loyalties were of little concern. The Smythies formula forbade any taking of sides which would result in forsaking the UMCA’s flock. From his retirement in Britain, Bishop Hine proposed that UMCA missionaries become naturalised German subjects to allow them to continue to tend their Tanganyikan flock. Closer to hand, Bishop Fisher, from the security of Britain’s Nyasaland protectorate, dismissed the Smythies dictum as inapplicable to a global conflict.

Ultimately, German officials resolved the UMCA’s difficulty by interning its missionaries and putting their followers to work in support of their troops. The debate highlighted tensions between missionary duty and national loyalty; some, though, were untroubled by such contradictions.

In Britain when the war broke out, Bishop Weston hurried back to Zanzibar. Although considering the war the result of European sins, he harboured few doubts about the justice of the English cause”. Weston raised and led a carrier corps to supply the Allied Forces during the East African campaign — a feat for which he was decorated. UMCA priests acted as chaplains and assisted the incoming regime, helping with the country’s administration in the wake of the retreating German forces. Isolation became a casualty of the war.

Unlike the case of the Galapagos flora and fauna, the UMCA’s antecedents got in the way of isolation in Tanganyika. Catholic characteristics, tinged by racism and nationality, caused the distinctive culture that the UMCA had aimed for through isolation to be compromised.


Simon Stubbings is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford.

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