Unity and division as Justin Welby visits Africa

By Martin Bashir*

Justin Welby met a teacher in the refugee camp who has nearly 800 pupils
Justin Welby met a teacher in the refugee camp who has nearly 800 pupils

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s trip to Africa has raised the plight of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, but has also highlighted divisions within the Church of England over same-sex relationships.

Above the lush plains of Uganda, two archbishops are on a mission, flying north in a light aircraft towards refugee camps on the border with South Sudan. We are travelling with them.

This youngest of nations, which became independent in 2011, has descended into the oldest of enmities – conflict between ethnic groups. The result is that almost one million South Sudanese have been permanently displaced, living in several Ugandan refugee camps. And that number is growing.

Despite their desperate circumstances, as soon as the Archbishops of Canterbury and Uganda disembark near the first camp in Moyo, the reception is joyous.

“These people are living through the most horrendous suffering,” says the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby as he tours the camp. “Their sense of endurance and perseverance is incredible.”

As he enters a mud-walled building, which cannot be more than 12 feet (3.7m) square and is home to a family of five, Mr Welby asks if it can withstand rain?

“No,” says the father, who points to the single matted carpet that is still damp from the previous day’s rainfall.

“This is dreadful,” is the archbishop’s quiet response.

Yet compared to the horrors they witnessed in their homeland, these camps are appreciated by most of their inhabitants.

“What we cannot fail to acknowledge,” says Mr Welby, “is the extraordinary response of the Ugandan government.

The Archbishop of Uganda, Stanley Ntagali (r), will not be attending the next archbishops' meeting
The Archbishop of Uganda, Stanley Ntagali (r), will not be attending the next archbishops’ meeting

“The president of Uganda has said that they do not use the word ‘refugee’ because, in his words, ‘We are all Africans’. This is in marked contrast to the xenophobic and racist reaction of some European nations to asylum seekers and refugees.”

The majority of those in this camp of 20,000 refugees, rushed towards the border carrying only their children, who must now be educated in classrooms that are designated by markers on trees. One of the teachers, surrounded by hundreds of five and six-year-olds, explains that his “school” numbers almost 786 pupils.

The Archbishop shouts: “784”, repeating what he had just heard from the teacher. “That’s incredible.”

Throughout his visit, Mr Welby has been accompanied by the Archbishop of Uganda, the Most Reverend Stanley Ntagali. On the issue of refugees, the suffering of displaced persons and the desperate plight of South Sudan, there is complete unanimity. But there are other issues that are troubling their relationship.

Mr Ntagali is a leading conservative evangelical, whose province in Uganda is continuing to grow in Christian converts.

But he was angered by the American Episcopal Church’s decision to endorse same-sex relationships and walked out of a global gathering of archbishops in Canterbury last year.

A choir of refugees performed for the archbishops
A choir of refugees performed for the archbishops

He issued a statement saying that he would not be returning until “godly order” had been restored and the Bible returned to what he said is its rightful place “as the authority for our faith and morals”.

Since then, the Canadian and Scottish Episcopal Churches have formally voted to endorse same-sex marriage.

Mr Ntagali says the Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman – and that the growing Ugandan church will not remain in fellowship with those who support same-sex unions.

“This is the basis of our faith and it is founded in the Scriptures,” he explains.

It is a theological tussle that has the potential to pull the Anglican Communion apart – a communion that numbers no less than 80 million Christians in 166 countries.

The next gathering of archbishops will again take place in Canterbury, this coming October. But Mr Ntagali has written to the Archbishop of Canterbury explaining that he will not be attending.

While Mr Welby respects the assertion of strong theological views, he believes that the church should not be split by issues that are not, in his words, “creedal”, that is, not directly related to the creed of the church.

“It is a constant source of deep sadness,” he explained after Mr Ntagali walked out of last year’s primates meeting, “that people are persecuted because of their sexuality”. But he also said, “It is not for us to divide the Body of Christ.”

After visiting a second refugee camp near the town of Adjumani, Mr Welby asked all of us to pray for peace and reconciliation in South Sudan. A prayer that he probably repeated, privately, for the church that he leads.


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