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Book review: Are Ugandan churches co-opted by political power?

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Added 22nd September 2017 12:07 PM

What do you make of the fact that the Church, in its broadness, for a while seemed silent on ongoing constitutional debate?

Book review: Are Ugandan churches co-opted by political power?

What do you make of the fact that the Church, in its broadness, for a while seemed silent on ongoing constitutional debate?


Title: The Ugandan Churches and the Political Centre

Editors: Paddy Musana, Angus Crichton, Caroline Howell

Publisher: Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide, and Ngoma Ecumenical Publishing Consortium

Reviewer: David Sseppuuya

Available at major bookshops and on order 0772302825/ 0752302825

What do you make of the fact that the Church, in its broadness, for a while seemed silent on ongoing constitutional debate? How about its muteness when a local king bore a child out of wedlock, yet besides preaching the sanctity of marriage, it actually wedded the royal couple? And what of the historical fact that the expansion of colonial political power in some parts of Uganda went hand-in-glove (or gun-in-hand) with the spread of the faith? Are churches and political power canoodling?

Too close is the broad conclusion of this intriguing and insightful compilation of essays. How, then, do you tell the Ugandan Christian story? By examining the political imperative in the past and the present, and digging up what look like patterns. The essays are by writers ranging from a Cambridge don to a Ugandan political ideologue to a vocal Kampala bishop and much more intellectual and ecclesiastical authority, each committed to telling the narrative of faith and nation in its respective dimensions and divergent expressions.

This, the first installment in the Ngoma Series, examines how the Church has always struggled to develop a political theology principally because of "proximity" to the centre, which consequently dulls any prophetic obligations.

All but two of the writers are Ugandans and each takes an area of specialty and enquiry to provide what are convincing answers to the old challenge of how Ugandan Christians have perpetually wrestled with how their faith interacts with the political centre.

Flitting back and forth between history and contemporary Uganda, the book makes an expose´ of how the faith, across its main denominations - Anglican, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal - has struggled to produce a Nathan who can confront King David with truth, Janani Luwum and Festo Kivengere excepted, with Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga a standout for some quiet activism.

Could the Church's quiescent character be a foundational consequence of the first Christians, the missionaries, being restricted to the Kabaka's court and the capital upon the faith's advent in the 1870s? The reader is shown how the Church's failure to censure the State on certain national issues today has precedence in one specific passage of history: Bishop Brown, the head of the Anglican Church, failed to take any meaningful position on the government policy that culminated in the crisis that saw the exiling of the Kabaka in the 1950s, partly because the then Governor of Uganda, Sir Frederick Crawford, was a "very enthusiastic" Christian.

This has ripples in the contemporary Church-State relationship that sees the denominations still jockey for influence - the Anglicans have dominated the highest political positions for well over 100 years (witness the fact that the 1900 B/Uganda Agreement, a quasi-constitution whose influence still reverberates in today's Land Question, was signed by the Anglican bishop [Stuart] and the archdeacon, among a handful). The Roman Catholic Church is shown to be a regular lobbyist for the seat of Vice President in today's Uganda, to which political power cheerfully plays along. Meanwhile the relatively new Pentecostal movement has shed the old philosophy of "politics is a dirty game" to embrace opportunities to influence governance through placements, or as hands-off "watchmen", or through direct interventions such as prayer breakfasts, all the while also protecting its perilous NGO status, subject as it is to regular license renewals.

The NRM Government defends, as it were, its insistence that while they play a broadly useful role in society, religious leaders need to stay out of politics when in ministry and "should not be partisan, particularly if they use the pulpit to speak on political issues when other people don't have a right of reply", an injunction couched, as it were, in government donations of vehicles to clergy. Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga has been cast as one who "at times sees himself more as a Muganda than as a Catholic".

Questions abound: The vehicles; the treatment by the Church of the insurgency (resistance) in Luwero 1981-86 as a local issue, while the rebellion in Teso 1988-90 was deemed a national problem.

One positive, given the religio-politico stranglehold of UPC-Protestant/DP-Catholic dimensions of national history, is that that duopoly was neutralised by an ascendant Pentecostal thrust, its numerous weaknesses notwithstanding. Earlier encouragement was drawn from a charge, made by Bishop Brown, the Anglican head in the 1950s, that "though the Church should serve the State, it should not ‘say yes to everything the Government says …. If Caesar demands the things of God, then the Church may have to defy Caesar in the name of God'."

The broad message in this excellent compilation is that the Ugandan Church needs to develop a coherent and consistent political theology for flock, institution and country. It links the Church and politics in vigorous analysis. Its message is one that should not be undermined by the rather underwhelming cover, so reminiscent of the long-gone 1970s' East African Publishing House and African Writers Series wraps. It is a publication that authenticates the old adage: "Do not judge a book by its cover."

The A to Z of the writers runs from Alex Kagume Mugisha to Zac Niringiye, respectively Deputy ED of the National Council for Higher Education and retired (really?) Bishop of Kampala. It runs through Alfred Olwa, newly installed Bishop of Lira; Angus Crichton, an old Uganda hand at Cambridge; Caroline Howell, a secondary school teacher in Oxford; Christine Mbabazi Mpyangu, a Makerere lecturer; Edison Kalengyo of the All Africa Council of Churches in Nairobi; Ofwono Opondo, ED of Uganda Media Centre and spokesman for the Government of Uganda; Paddy Musana, head of the Religion and Peace Studies department at Makerere; Rosette Muzigo-Morrison, a human rights lawyer with the United Nations; up to Wilson Muyinda Mande, of Nkumba University.

(Uganda Launch: 2pm Friday 22nd September: Makerere University, Senate Building, Upper Conference Hall - Guest of Honour: Rt. Hon. Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, Prime Minister of Uganda.

Discussants: Brig. Henry Masiko, UPDF Chief Political Commissar; Prof. J. Barya, School of Law, Makerere; Rt. Rev. Dr. Joel Obetia, retired bishop Church of Uganda.


UK Launch: 4.30pm Wednesday 18th October: Lightfoot Rm, Divinity Faculty, West Rd, Cambridge, CB3 9BS.

Available in major bookshops and on order: 0772302825 or 0752302825)

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