‘I knew this would happen’ I hear you say. ‘Your great learning has driven you insane, Josh’ the distant voices cry. No, as it happens. This was yet another malaria-tablet-induced dream. Despite what the naysayer may say, I am completely sane, or at least my good friend the King of Assyria tells me so.
To move onto more sensible climbs, I will tell you about religion. Ugandan style. You see, when I first arrived in Uganda (at my hotel with a view of a million dollars in Kampala), I noticed there was a picture on the wall. Who was it of? Not the Pope, nor the Ugandan President, but rather the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Uganda. For those who are used to the nice, cosy image of Anglicanism in the Church of England (where it would be rather unusual to find pictures of our dear Archbishop Justin Welby hanging around in the leading hotels in the country), Anglicanism in Uganda is a different kettle of fish. For one thing it is thriving. And I don’t mean ‘The-church-has-a-nice-new-young-couple’ type of thriving, but rather, ‘the-church-has-a-nice-new-large-village-of-two-thousand’ type of thriving. Although Roman Catholicism is still the largest denomination, Anglicanism is not too far behind.
I realised this when I went to a village in a Kuman region (a district near Soroti) for a Confirmation Service (for children and young people - and a few older ones as well - who are being confirmed into the Anglican denomination). Not only was the whole village present for the Confirmation (the church was packed to overflowing - it would make many a British ‘mega-church’ blush), but I also discovered that the local school was Anglican, its political representatives were Anglican, and I think even the animals were the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ type of Anglican as well. This is not the type of liberal incense and candles Anglicanism that you would find in the American Episcopalian Church, or the quiet little Matins Service in an English Country Parish. Instead, this is full-blooded African Anglicanism: a service can easily last five hours (with a two hour sermon), with a strange combination of a translated version of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and hypnotic traditional African music (repetitive, with call-and-response, dominated by voices, drums and African harps). Even though the bishop was garbed like his European Medieval predecessors, his faith is full-throttle Conservative Evangelicalism. He preaches with an astonishing passion and energy and without notes. Sometimes he is so loud, the microphones start screeching. Once again, in contrast to much Western Christianity, his is a typically African sermon of death, judgment, and hope in Jesus Christ. A two hour sermon is quite usual for him.
|The whole village processes to church|
Indeed, with the village churches packed, the Cathedral in Soroti packed (easily over a thousand in each of its four Sunday services), and a total of 276 schools in the Soroti district alone, it appears that the author of the book ‘The New Christendom’, Philip Jenkins, is right: Christendom is no longer found in Europe or North America, but in Africa and South America (and increasingly in China and the Far East). Whilst religion in Europe has taken three centuries of battering by an increasingly confident secularism, introducing public secularism into somewhere like Uganda would probably cause the country (or at least the educational system) to collapse. The ancient tribal religions have mostly fled into the shadows of the country; Islam is a minority. Secularism is nowhere to be found. Christianity is culturally, socially and politically dominant.
I got a taste of how much things have changed. To a certain extent figures like bishops have taken on the traditional role of the tribal elders. Roles can take a long time to change in cultures; the gestures may remain the same even if the type of person in a social role has changed. In this village in the Kuman region, the whole church gathered into a line to shake the bishop’s hand. But where this differed from a Church of England model is that the bishop stayed seated at the front, and the church processed to greet him there. And when they did shake his hand, they would kneel before him, as if he were a tribal elder: not just the women - as is the custom of the Kumi - but the men as well. I also was greeted thus: people would walk up to my chair and kneel before me as they shook my hand. In a sense, I was paid homage.
This is a pleasant experience to have, despite my egalitarian principles, and I have decided to introduce this gesture as soon as I head back to the UK.
Tune in tomorrow to see more fun, sun and adventures in Penduck of Life’s Ugandan Adventures. Tomorrow we’ll be encountering the children of Uganda, and how Ugandan six-year-olds are better than me at football, and have an interested habit of staring at me… endlessly…