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Africa Matters Book Discussion: The Church We Want

Book info

By Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, editor

Call Number: BX1746 C5153 2016

Location: 3rd Floor

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Publisher website

Africa continues to experience great religious ferment, not only in the enormous growth of Christianity over the past century but also in the robust intellectual output of African theologians all over the continent. This volume brings together Africa’s theological elders with new and emerging voices to bring analysis and reflection on what John L. Allen Jr. has called “the most dynamic corner of the Christian map.”

The volume is a treasure for anyone with an interest in theological reflection from an African perspective, and a necessary resource for theologians and scholars working in a church that is steadily moving its center to the Global South.

A. E. Orobator, SJ, is the University College Principal at Hekima University College Jesuit School of Theology in Nairobi, Kenya. He is the author of four books, including Theology Brewed in an African Pot (Orbis).

Text above from the Orbis books website

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Joseph G. Healey, MM

I am delighted to be here at Duquesne University this morning. I bring warm African greetings from our two editors Emmanuel Orobator in Nairobi, Kenya who likes to be called “Bator” and Jacquineau Azetsop in Rome, Italy. They are deeply with us in spirit.

I am an ordinary and regular member of St. Kizito Small Christian Community (in short, SCC) in the Waruku Section of St. Austin’s Parish, Archdiocese of Nairobi, Country of Kenya, Continent of Africa, world. I like to begin this way. To be faithful to this new way of being church, my main credibility is that as a priest I have no special responsibilities in our SCC. The lay people are the leaders of our SCC. I am happy to be a student, a learner. As we say in Swahili: “Mimi ni mwanafunzi” (“I am a student”).

  I recall my long and meaningful friendship and pastoral activities with many Spiritan missionaries in both Tanzania and Kenya going back to 1968 – that is 48 years ago, long before some of you were born. The present Pastor of St. Austin’s Parish is a Kenyan Spiritan – and my former student at Tangaza University College in Nairobi that is like the Kenyan mini-version of the Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago.

I teach a course on "Small Christian Communities (SCCs) as a New Model of Church in Africa Today." I am 78 years old. In our first class the students who are in their 20s started calling me Mzee, the Swahili word for "elder," as a title of respect. But I said, "No. Not yet. Not yet. Please give me another name." So the next day they started calling me "a youth from a long time ago." I like that a lot better.

For many years African theologians have searched for a genuine, authentic African method of theology. At the Padua Conference on Theological Ethics in Padua, Italy in July, 2006 the Ugandan theologian and historian John Waliggo emphasized the importance of African narrative theology and said:

Africans can now stimulate theological development. We refuse to leave our cultures and traditions behind. We have much to say about inculturation, offering new models for theological reflection. Our theological style is very concerned with narrative, expressing teachings in story. Our people listen better when you give them a story. This means using local expressions and rituals, linking the Gospel to their story.

Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole emphasizes that African theologians listen to the real life stories of the African people. Stories are not just anecdotal. African Storytelling is a way of living, a way of listening, a way of being theologian. It includes oral theological conversation and importantly, it honors women’s stories and experiences. Stories give texture to theology. They illustrate the lives of people living the theology, preventing theology from being just a series of propositions. Importantly, storytelling honors women’s stories and experiences.

African theologians are developing African Conversation Theology, or more specifically African Christian Conversation Theology, as a “New Way of Doing Theology.” In Africa we prefer the term African Palaver Theology, but we realize that the word palaver carries a lot of negative baggage in the Western world. For us it is both the name of a method or process of theology and the name of a type of content of theology (much like Liberation Theology).  Method heavily influences and determines content and vice versa. It is a two-way process that illuminates and enriches African values and Christian values. It is similar to Mango Tree Theology and Storytelling Theology.

Bator describes this distinctive method or process very clearly in the “Preface” in our new book. This is African Theology as Conversation, Active Dialog, Intensive Listening and Learning from Each Other (described as “listening in conversation”) and Consensus. This new way of doing African Christian Theology is participatory, collaborative, democratic, cross-disciplinary and multigenerational.

Bator expands this conversational theological methodology by saying:

Strong, dynamic currents are shaping the flow of theological discourse in Africa. A unique characteristic of this discourse is the widening circle of conversation partners. African theologians are no longer content with talking to like-minded theologians; they engage bishops, civil society groups and government representatives as conversational partners in a rational dialogue and critical analysis within society and in the [Catholic] Church. This conversational methodology breaks new ground in theological scholarship in Africa and represents a new way of doing theology in which collaboration and conversation win over confrontation and adversarial positions. The result is a process of mutual listening and learning, a vital ingredient for constructing what veteran African theologian Elochukwu Uzukwu designates “the listening church.”

Elochukwu Uzukwu, who likes to be called Elo, published his important Orbis book A Listening Church, Autonomy and Communion in African Churches in 1996. To use a play on words perhaps Pope Francis “listened” to him when the pope emphasizes that the Catholic bishops and other leaders today must be a Listening Church first and a Teaching Church second.

The starting point of this kind of African Christian Theology is both context and experience. Many of the essays in this book draw on grassroots experiences and practical “on the ground” research. In the spirit of Pope Francis African theologians try to listen to the cries of the poor, the marginated and those on the peripheries of society.  This method draws on the ideas and writings of Bénézet Bujo, Jean Marc Ela, Emmanuel Katongole, Teresa Okure and Elo – the last three having essays in this book. Local, contextual theologies can be constructed in Africa with the local communities as “theologian.”

Bator developed this distinctive method or process in convening the three international Theological Colloquia on Church, Religion and Society in Africa (in short, TCCRSA) from which the essays of this new book are taken. This “Three-year Theological Research Project in the Currents of the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II” took place in Nairobi in 2013, 2014 and 2015. These conversation-style theological research seminars used palaver sessions, baraza sessions and informal, interactive roundtables on African theology to provoke conversation, discussion and dialog. Over the three years there were 60 participants from very diverse backgrounds. The 20 writers in this volume include 10 priests, five lay women, three religious sisters and two bishops. Significant is the contribution of the eight women.



To The Church We Want: African Catholics Look to Vatican III

James Chukwuma Okoye, C.S.Sp.

Director, Center for Spiritan Studies, Duquesne University


Church, Religion, Society

The book intends to “provide a critical understanding of present reality and to create paths towards growth, transformation, and change in the church” (xviii). The essays are grouped into three sections: The Francis Effect and the Church in Africa; Critique of Theological Methodology and Ecclesial Practice; and A Church that Goes Forth with Boldness and Creativity. The operating theme is transformation.

Pope Francis is a product of the Latin American church, where praxis is contextual and the program of conscientization is transformative (18, 48). SECAM has produced many documents; the two Synods on Africa have focused on the Church as Family of God. Healy (197) suggests the model of Small Christian communities, the ordination of community elders, perhaps also a two-year catechumenate for Christian marriage (200, 202). Stan Ilo (12) outlines his fears about an African pope (a bit of a caricature but with elements of truth): he would see contextual ecclesiology as ecclesiological relativism or tribal Catholicism, impose unquestioning obedience, respond to challenges by calling for more spiritual depth, further sacramentalization of the people, greater spiritual devotions and pious activities.


What in Africa would produce such an African pope and what should we be doing about it?

How does the SCC model of Church compare to the transformative Basic Communities of Latin America?

What transformation has come from the model of Church as Family of God?

African Catholicism is in the throes of a drama of life versus law/tradition. A few examples. There are firm directions on the use of contraceptives, but not on Christian participation in violence and killing (167) or on violence against women and “corrective rape” of “sexual minorities” (214, Hadebe). Thousands of women are dying because their husbands are HIV positive (61). Katongole (162) asks, why is sexual orientation a basic right but drinking good water is not? Mwaura reminds us of the thousands of street children in urban settings (151), manifesting the breakdown of family solidarity. The UN reckons there are 13 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa (152). By 2020, more than 50% of African youth will be illiterate and unemployed. There is growing charismatization of African Catholicism (166, note 9, Katongole). The editor reminds us that some customs may be beautiful, but may no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel (xxx).


What impact are church and religion having on society and sound government?

What about the necessary discernment of culture? Do we too easily “sacralize” culture?

There is yet no agreement on resources to hand. The African church is not a New Testament church. All we need is the New Testament as unique source, and it calls us to be a Eucharistic church (97-98, Okure). Problem is, there are cultural ways of being Eucharistic. Eucharistic chapels and hourly adoration may do little to alleviate inhumanity, fratricidal violence and oppression of the poor! We need just two sources, says Nyamiti: the Bible, with particular emphasis on the official teaching of the church, the magisterium, and the African socio-cultural situation (123). Well, both Bible and magisterium need be read with African eyes. Béré names the following resources: Bible and African traditional religions, Christian revelation and African philosophy, analysis of sermons, vernacular translations of the Bible (123). And he suggests we look at the criteria for the word of God in Verbum Domini, 2008—Christ, Scripture, tradition, cosmos; to which he adds conscience (which the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1778 calls the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ”). Some in the Church currently downgrade the role of conscience, lest people decide for themselves. Pope Francis effectively combined the spiritual, theological, and scientific for ecology (233). And our editor chimes in: “theological evaluation is not enough … sociological analysis and anthropological study are equally important for understanding the meaning and function” (xxiv, speaking of the family).


African religions are said to contribute the values of harmony, solidarity, and a non-exclusivist tone (110). How have they helped in healing ethnic strife?

What contribution has African Theology made in the lives of the people?

How do you read? The Bible is the language of evil spirits, demons, angels, dreams; we must reject demythologization and affirm the logic and spirituality of witchcraft, polygamy, divination, traditional healing practices (87, Magesa). Have we studied what belief in witchcraft and demon possession do to the African psyche? The evangelist John demythologized demon possession for the division within the heart of truth and falsehood, light and darkness. There is no uniform New Testament ecclesiology (111, Uzukwu); an African ecclesiology will involve choices. The global and the local need be integrated, so also Christian and African cultural values and meanings (79, Magesa). Béré (124) opines that “the Bible as a key source of theology has simply been left out of African theology… no systematic methodology has so far proven operational.” The editor rejoins that TCCRSA has successfully initiated a new way of doing conversational, cross-disciplinary, collaborative, and multigenerational theology” (xiii). Let the discussions begin.