The legendary Martin Luther King Jr said, eons ago, in one of his many great speeches: “Churches have become social clubs with a thin veneer of religiosity.”
A faction of the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, led by disrobed bishop Nolbert Kunonga, has been reduced into one such club.
In fact, Kunonga’s church appears to have thrown through the window all pretence at “religiosity” to unashamedly plunge into the deep end of politics.
Ever since Kunonga openly declared himself and his church an extension of Zanu PF, his behaviour and that of his members has become indistinguishable from the behaviour of his party.
The church has lost respect even of the dead. The sanctity of life is now lost to Kunonga’s church and Monday’s reports that thugs from that church went to the cemetery to stop the burial of a 70-plus-year-old faithful Anglican elder, made disturbing reading.
Edward Rinashe had, by virtue of his long-time service to the Anglican Church, been accorded a place at the special burial space reserved for senior Anglican Church members at St Mary’s Cemetery in Chitungwiza. But because Rinashe had chosen to remain loyal to the original church, refusing to join Kunonga’s splinter faction, his body was violently denied its rightful resting place.
The tug-of-war in the church is over property ownership but, in essence, it is about Kunonga refusing to cede authority of the church in Zimbabwe after he was judged wrong and excommunicated. He insists he is leader of that church and literally ordained himself.
But the appointment of bishops is not preceded by an election campaign or a popularity contest. Other than in politics, you do not choose the one with the biggest mouth.
The process of finding a bishop takes quite a long time of serious consultation behind closed doors. You look for moral and spiritual excellence, for strength of personality and leadership, for courage and the ability to listen. Integrity and sincerity of conviction are more important than popularity and being “well-connected”.
Such a bishop is the personality that followers in any church should look for and be guided by.
People that turn to physical violence and take their brutality even to cemeteries can hardly be examples of the bishops leading the Church of God.
Political loyalties and identities count for little in the life of a true bishop. The Church should, by nature, transcend national and political boundary lines.
Kunonga, by declaring open allegiance to a political party, sold his soul to that party.
For over 2 000 years the State has been trying to gain control over the Church. But the Church needs to retain her freedom and moral independence. She cannot be answerable to a monarch or president, a party or lobby.
A national church, integrated into the State, is in grave danger of losing her freedom to speak with a prophet’s voice.
She needs to be more than a prop and support for a certain social and political system. She must be able to speak the truth, even if the powerful do not want to hear it.
She must be the mouthpiece of her master who is the protector of widows and orphans, of the poor and downtrodden.
Bishops, as leaders of the Church, must not owe allegiance to the powerful who, having put them into their position, ask for “good behaviour” in return.
That is the reason why the Anglican Church has chosen not to have bishops elected by a synod in an open ballot, however attractive that may appear to modern democratic instituncts.
The danger of outside manipulation is too great, as the long historical memory of the Church knows only too well.