Last Saturday I attended two weddings in Harare. They were the weddings of two clergy, one a parish priest and one retired, and so I accompanied Bishop Chad of Harare who officiated. They were wonderful occasions, full of joy and celebration as any wedding should be: at the same time they were distinctively Zimbabwean occasions with, among other traditions, the blessing of the wedding cake and the rhythmic entry of bridesmaids and groomsmen which would add style to any wedding. The main difference from weddings I have attended elsewhere, is that they could not take place in the clergys’ churches because Anglicans in the diocese of Harare (and indeed in other dioceses of Zimbabwe) have been banned from using their own churches. The reading at the weddings was Isaiah 43.1-7 where the prophet assures God’s people that God loves them and that he will be with them and even though they may passing be through all kinds of trials and dangers, God will bring them through. This is a great text for marriage: but the people will also be taking to heart the way it brings assurance in their current difficulties.
Despite congregations being evicted from their churches and priests forced from their homes by the activities of former bishop Kunonga, usually supported by the state police, the people are in remarkably good heart and their strong faith is apparent. One priest said to me that in one sense, not living in their rectories has taken away the worry about what may be happening to their families when the priests are away from their clergy homes. Parishes have found alternative accommodation for their priests. The people are planning for a future, regardless of what happens to their buildings. There are reports that church numbers are growing and some are concerned that their churches may now be too small for their enlarged congregations.
But alongside this positive attitude, there are storm clouds gathering. In the coming months the high court is due to come to decide about who leads the rightful Anglican Church in the diocese: is it Kunonga who describes himself as Archbishop of Zimbabwe or is it the Bishop of Harare elected by his diocese and approved by the Anglican Province in which he is located? In reality, the courts should have no say over the Christian church and even if the decision went against the thousands of Anglicans who worship so faithfully, they will continue to worship and grow, regardless of the opposition. But the decision is important as it affects less publicised situations. Anglican schools (19 of them with around 14,000 children) have already been taken over by Kunonga’s group and the head teachers effectively running the schools have been dismissed and replaced by people with little or no experience. The Church’s orphanage with around 80 children has been similarly taken over and the nuns who were the caregivers have been chased away. The authorities have not enabled newly appointed clergy to be registered for conducting marriages. Finally, a memo, purporting to come from the police officers commanding the Mashonaland West Province, has been circulated to their officers telling them to charge with contempt of court any people gathering in the name of the Anglican Church unless it has been approved by the ‘incumbent bishop’ Kunonga. The diocese of Harare’s lawyers are challenging this document. So, on the outcome of this high court case rests whether or not the Church will continue to be a persecuted Church where the most vulnerable, for whom the Church has a particular responsibility, will suffer. This case will have ramifications not just for Harare, but for all Anglicans in Zimbabwe. If the case goes against the Bishop of Harare, indications are that persecution and harassment will increase.
Rt.Revd.Dr.Brian Castle is Bishop of Tonbridge. The diocese of Rochester has a companion link with Harare.
Church Times, 20 February 2012