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This article was originally published in Missionalia 23:3 (November 1997), pp 381-397, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society. If you would like to see some other articles from Missionalia, have a look at the list of Missionalia articles on the Web

Missionalia 25:3 (November 1997) 381-397

CRISIS AND IDENTITY – Presbyterian Ecclesiology in Southern Malawi, 1891-1993

Kenneth R. Ross1


African theologies that relate Christian faith to traditional culture have not really influenced the life of African churches. This is because these theologies have often ignored the concrete circumstances of the believing communities. The history of Chris tian communities in Africa could be used as a source for doing theology. The author uses four 'moments of truth' in the life of the Blantyre Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), to show how the ecclesiology of this Malawian church developed through its response to these crises. The crises are 1) the imposition of colonial rule in the 1890s; 2) the Chilembwe Rising of 1915; 3) the formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in the 1950s; and 4) the breaking of the Banda dictatorship in the 1990s. This offers African theologians much promising material for 'drinking from their own wells' in theological construction.


Doing theology in Africa has been, for the last generation, predominantly a matter of relating Christian faith and traditional culture. The premise has been that African Christian identity will be secured only when the faith is interpreted in terms of traditional cultural categories. The task to which academic theo logians have applied themselves has been, accordingly, to show how the message of Jesus Christ has resonance within the categories of a traditional African worldview. A formidable body of scholarship has been built up as theologians in different parts of the continent have sought to fulfil this task.2 At the same time, efforts at theological construction have been limited in terms of their uptake at the popular level. The result has tended to be, as Aylward Shorter (1982:135) has commented, "a notional theology ... not couched (to use Cardinal Newman's terminology) in the grammar of real assent – the imaginative expression of popular faith." Similarly Charles Nyamiti (1992:18) acknowledges that "none of the existing African Christologies has had any appreciable influence in the life of the African churches." Part of the reason for this weakness might be found in the one-dimensional character of this approach. Theology is essentially a dialogue between the biblical text and the vernacular world in Africa. On any reckoning, this is a rich and dynamic field. However, it is one where little attention tends to be paid to the concrete historical circumstances of the believing community within which this dialogue occurs. The limitations of a "faith and culture" approach are that it tends to posit an engagement between a static religious entity and a timeless sphere of culture. What is missed here is the fact that the community in which the meeting between Christian faith and traditional culture takes place, is a community which is moving through a particular history. All the while, on the ground, Christians have been forming a viable self-understanding as believing communities have responded to events which have occurred in their time. This offers a source for doing theology that has so far rarely been tapped: the history of the Christian communities in Africa.

Moreover, in that history there occur certain decisive and definitive events. The community comes to certain points of kairos where its response to a given historical situation is determinative of its understanding of the biblical gospel and of its own identity as a church. This is a reality which was given classic expression by Christians in South Africa in 1985 when they recognised that they had reached "the KAIROS, the moment of grace and opportunity, the favourable time in which God issues a challenge to decisive action. It is a dangerous time because, if this opportunity is missed, and allowed to pass by, the loss for the Church, for the Gospel and for all the people of South Africa will be immeasurable" (Kairos Document 1985:4). If it is true that there occur in history such moments of crisis, then, to attempt to define the self-understanding of any Christian community without taking account of its particular historical experience, it seems to me, is to be severely handicapped in the task of constructing a theology that is true to the empirical reality with which it is engaged. The process with which we are concerned was hinted at by John Mbiti (1968:332) at one of the earliest gatherings of the modern generation of African theologians: "We cannot artificially create an 'African theology' or even plan it; it must evolve spontaneously as the Church teaches and lives her Faith and in response to the extremely complex situation in Africa." Mbiti was pointing here to the particular history through which a church passes as the crucible within which a viable theology would be formed. The argument of this article is that there are times of crisis in any such history which are especially definitive for the church's understanding of herself and her faith. As I have argued elsewhere:

The path of discipleship and the advance of the kingdom run through the events of history and there are 'moments of truth' when the gap between the ultimate and the penultimate

narrows and a particular historical option becomes very closely identified with the kingdom of God. Without faithfulness at this penultimate level the church will not be able to be an effective sign pointing to the ultimate realities which it is charged to proclaim to the world. The integrity of the church is then at stake in the decision which it takes (K.R.Ross 1995a:62; see also K.R.Ross 1995b:70).

Such moments of crisis and challenge are also theologically formative as a particular church develops its sense of identity and self-understanding. In this paper, a case study will be made of the Blantyre Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), a Presbyterian church movement begun by Scottish missionaries in 1875 and today widespread throughout the South ern Region of Malawi with membership approaching 1 000 000.3 We shall examine four "moments of truth" which have arisen in the history of the Blantyre Synod and note ways in which the Synod's ecclesiology has been formed out of its response to such times of crisis. The argument of the paper is that this church, in the course of its history, has encountered certain decisive and definitive moments; and that its response to such kairotic moments has been of formative significance in the development of an indigenous and viable ecclesiology. After 120 years of Christian life and witness, the Blantyre Synod can draw for its self-understanding not only on the biblical text, the wider Presbyterian tradition and the communal traditions of the Yao, Mang'anja and other peoples who make up its membership, but also on its history as a church.


From 1875 to 1889 the Blantyre Mission operated in a precolonial social and political context where it made its way independently in its relations with surrounding communities. After almost collapsing in its early years under the pressures of such a situation, the Mission became well-established in the 1880s under the inspirational leadership of David Clement Scott (see A.C. Ross 1996:39-84). Towards the end of the 1880s, however, the missionaries became concerned about the territorial ambitions of the Arabs and the Portuguese. A British Protectorate seemed the only satisfactory alternative to the Portuguese annexation which the missionaries believed would be in jurious both to their own work and to the interests of the population at large. Accordingly, they launched a vigorous and finally successful campaign to persuade the British Government to withdraw from its initial willingness to cede the area to Portugal and to establish a formal British Protectorate in 1891 (A.C. Ross 1996:85-104; Pachai 1973:70-80). This portentous step re solved one crisis but immediately plunged the Mission into another. For now the missionaries would, inevitably, work in some kind of association with their compatriots in the British administration. What would this mean for the infant Christian church growing under the missionaries' care and direction? In the course of the 1890s and early 1900s three decisive steps were taken which marked out the identity of the church as it entered the colonial era.

Training and appointing African church leadership

First, Clement Scott attached paramount importance to the training and appointment of African Christian converts as church leaders. From the time of his arrival in 1881 he worked closely with Africans who had already been attracted to the Mission, notably Joseph Bismarck, Rondau Kaferanjila and Donald Malota. It was they who spearheaded many of the Mission's early advances.4 In 1893 the training of African leadership took more formal shape with the announcement that "a deacons' class of seven but representative of many more, who will in like manner devote themselves to service, meets every morning at 7 o'clock. They take a lively interest in Biblical Criticism, Theology, Church History and Liturgics" (LWBCA, May 1893) After ordination in November 1894 the seven deacons were at the heart of the work of the Mission and were entrusted with major responsibilities. When a new mission station was opened in Angoniland (Ntcheu), it was Harry Kambwiri Matecheta who was chosen to lead the work (LWBCA, Sept. 1893). Scott's hope that the seven would be followed by many more was fulfilled to the extent that in 1916 Robert Napier could note in his diary:

For four days about one hundred native church leaders from all over the Mission have been meeting in conference [at Domasi]. The debating would have done credit to the [Church of Scotland General] Assembly, and the earnestness of tone would have merited comparison with Keswick. Men faced real evils and we go home with inspiration (Hetherwick 1925:103).

The confidence in African leadership which characterised the Blantyre Mission from those early days would inevitably form a stark contrast to the racist attitudes of the white settlers who arrived in increasing numbers after the establishment of the British Protectorate. As Andrew Ross (1997:3) has argued, Scott gave his African circle a strong sense of worth just at the time when white society would begin to tell them that they were worthless. They could hardly mistake the contrast between the values which guided their church life and those which prevailed in the surrounding society.

Critique of the British Administration

If anything, this was still more unmistakable in the Mission's appraisal of the conduct of the British administration. From the beginning the Blantyre missionaries were intensely suspicious of Sir Harry Johnston, the pioneering British Consul and an associate of Cecil Rhodes. They feared, with good reason, that Johnston was planning to allow the Protectorate to fall under the control of Rhodes' British South Africa Company. "Remember it was mainly Scott and Hetherwick," wrote Johnston to Rhodes in 1893, "who in 1890 baulked the scheme of all BCA coming under the Company's Charter. They are now up and at it again and the most serious enemies you possess."5 On issues such as land, labour, taxation and military actions against local chiefs, time and again the missionaries sharply criticised actions of the British Administration which they judged to be harmful to the interests of the African population. No wonder Alfred Sharpe concluded that

there would be no permanent and satisfactory state of things with regard to this Mission until two missionaries, the Rev D.C. Scott and the Rev Alexander Hetherwick, were removed from the country.... The missionaries are taking a course that makes them appear in the eyes of the natives of this Protectorate as an Opposition Party to H.M. Administration.6

In doing so, they provided the African people with an incipient critique of colonialism, one which depended not on the spear or the gun but on the power of reasoned argument. This would later be exploited to devastating effect by Congress leaders in the struggle for independence but already it had marked out the identity of the church as being at odds, at least in some important respects, with the conquest to which the African people of Malawi found themselves being subjected.

Expanding into Mozambique

Thirdly, the Mission marked out a distinct identity by launching a vigorous campaign of expansion into Portuguese territory in Mozambique. In 1910 the missionaries at Blantyre presented the following Memorial to the Foreign Mission Committee in Edinburgh: "We rejoice to know that we have practically covered the whole field available to us with our stations, only a few districts remaining to be touched, so that for future expansion we look to an advance into Portuguese East Africa that has so far been untouched" (Hetherwick 1925:50). This was a cause especially close to the heart of the intrepid Robert Napier who would almost certainly have led this advance had he not been killed in action in Mozambique towards the end of the First World War. Before his death, however, he had shared the vision not only with the Church of Scotland Committee but, more importantly, with the leaders and members of the churches in Nyasaland. On one occasion, he noted in his diary: "The Lomwe people will welcome us and follow us from British territory, where they have fled for safety, back to their old homes in Lomweland – if we go. The teacher in one of our district schools made me write down his name as a volunteer whenever we go" (Hetherwick 1925:60). When a mission station was finally established at Mihecani in 1913, soon the Great War removed most of the white missionaries and the early development of the Lomwe mission was largely left in the hands of Lewis and Grace Bandawe, both distinguished leaders within the Blantyre Mission (L.M. Bandawe, in Pachai 1971:76-103). This demonstration of the importance of missionary expansion to the life of the church and its capacity to cross political boundaries acted to mark out the distinct character of the church at a time when it could easily have been confused with the British administration.


The First World War brought a crisis for the Blantyre Mission in the form of the protest by African Christians which culminated in the Chilembwe Rising of 1915. John Chilembwe was the leader of the Providence Industrial Mission, sponsored by the National Baptist Convention Inc. in the USA, with its head quarters at Chiradzulu. He was so outraged both, in general, by the demands which the First World War was making on the African population and, in particular, by the oppression and injustice being perpetrated by the white management of the nearby Magomero Estates, that he led an armed insur rection. This was quickly suppressed. Chilembwe himself was shot and killed, many of his followers were executed and his church was blown up by the British administration (See Shepperson & Price 1958). Yet the memory of the Rising remained a potent factor in the evolution of the nationalist con sciousness which finally resulted in independence for Malawi, something which was recognised in 1995 when Chilembwe Day (16 January) was gazetted as a public holiday. The situation in 1915, however, provoked a major crisis for the Blantyre Mission and the churches emerging under its aegis. No less than 84 of the "rebels" had been found to be baptised mem bers of the Blantyre Mission, including Chilembwe's second-in- command John Gray Kufa, one of Clement Scott's first seven deacons and a distin guished leader among the first generation of Blantyre Mission converts. This aroused strong suspicion in the British administration, and especially amongst the white settler community, that the Blantyre Mission's educational policy was directly subversive. In wartime conditions, with the white settler com munity united in its determination to ruthlessly stamp out any seedbeds of rebellion, the identity of the church was clearly going to be tested.

A Commission of Inquiry was set up to investigate the causes of the Rising and among the prime suspects was the Blantyre Mission. In the Legis lative Council, Alexander Livingstone Bruce, owner of Magomero Estates, had noted that the Rising was "a rebellion of mission trained natives" and proposed that "all schools in charge of native teachers in the Protectorate be closed at once" (Shepperson & Price 1958:365). It was therefore under intense pressure to comply with the prevailing white view that the Rising was an indication of the need to entrench the structures of colonial government and keep the native population firmly "in its place", that Alexander Hetherwick, leader of the Blantyre Mission, appeared before the Commission of Inquiry on 29 June 1915. He was examined for four and a half hours and, as his bi ographer remarks, "during this time not one friendly question was put to him" (Livingstone s.a.:156). The proceedings of the Commission reveal the wide difference in outlook between the Blantyre Mission and the British Adminis tration. One cause for complaint was that the Mission was irresponsibly making Bibles available to "natives" (sic). Questions and answers were as follows:

Commission: Can any native get a Bible?

Hetherwick: Yes, we will sell it to any native.

Commission: Do you think the native, educated or otherwise, is capable of understanding the Holy Scriptures?

Hetherwick: Yes, as capable as any ordinary Christian.

Commission: Do you think the Bible in Chinyanja is clear and understood?

Hetherwick: Undoubtedly.

Commission: If a teacher selects an isolated portion or verse, may he not misapply it?

Hetherwick: Yes, as a European might.

Commission: We have it on evidence that native teachers do sometimes discuss amongst themselves texts from the Bible!

Hetherwick: And why not?

Commission: Can the native interpret it correctly to others?

Hetherwick: The native is as able to interpret the Bible as you are.7

Not surprisingly, the gulf was equally wide when it came to questions of the degree to which "natives" could be entrusted with education and responsibility:

Commission: You say there may be 12 Europeans and 10 natives [on the Blantyre Kirk Session]. Soon the native vote may have the majority. Are you prepared for the Church of Scotland practically to be governed by a native majority?

Hetherwick: It may be.

Commission: Is there not a danger of giving the native so soon such power?

Hetherwick: We have seen nothing of danger as yet and I fear none.

Commission: Do you think the result of mission education is to lose a sense of respect for Europeans? Have you found this?

Hetherwick: I have had respect from every native I met.

Commission: Of course, natives get swollen heads!

Hetherwick: As Europeans do – we have met them!8

The hostile questioning concluded with the complaint that Africans were no longer respectful because they did not remove their hats when they passed a European. Hetherwick indignantly turned the tables: "I have seen many Europeans absolutely ignore a boy's salutation. The smallest drummer boy in the British army if he salutes Lord Kitchener receives a salute in return. There will be no difficulty if the European makes acknowledgment: it indicates that two gentlemen have met and not only one" (MNA, COM-6 2/1/1). This explosive affirmation of the common humanity and common dignity of black and white made it abundantly clear that the Blantyre Mission had a self-understanding which was radically at variance with the prevailing colonial mentality.

Still more significant, however, was the emergence of African church leaders who were able to respond to the crisis provoked by the Chilembwe Rising. Most remarkable was the appearance of the Blantyre church elder Joseph Bismarck before the Commission on 14 July 1915. Bismarck had come to Malawi from Quelimane with a party of Livingstonia and Blantyre missionaries in 1876, had worked for many years as a teacher/evangelist in the Blantyre Mission and early in the 20th century had acquired his own estate near Blantyre which he was running quite successfully (see Bismarck 1969:49-54). This long experience gave Bismarck the historical perspective from which to challenge many of the assumptions of the Commissioners. To their complacent supposition that it was quite unreasonable for the "natives" to resent taxation, Bismarck responded by pointing out that "when the Europeans came into this country, they didn't say that the natives were going to be taxed .... When the treaties were made, it was only for our protection from other nations.... I think it will save trouble if you say what you intend doing" (MNA, COM-6 2/1/3). On point after point, Bismarck politely but firmly demonstrated that, on issues of contention between the Europeans and the "natives," it was the Europeans who were at fault. Restrictions on native game hunting was one matter raised:

Commission: If there were no restrictions, then all the game would be killed and there would be none.

Bismarck: No, they did not kill all the game in the old days.

Commission: Do you remember that in the old days there were lots of buffaloes and now there are none?

Bismarck: But it was the European who killed them! (MNA, COM-6 2/1/3).

On the hot issue of the European insistence that "natives" should remove their hats whenever white people were around, the Commission pressed Bismarck with their assumption that it was wrong for natives to wish to possess and wear hats:

Commission: Don't you think [the native] wanted to clothe himself like a white man? And when he had money he bought them. Don't you think so? He first got a coat and trouser and after that a hat?

Bismarck: No – all the trouble lies with you. Don't you go away from that. It is your fault. If you had said at the beginning, coats and hats etc are not for you, they are for Europeans, then the natives would have understood that from the beginning. But you have tempted him to wear these things.

Commission: What should the Government do in a matter like that?

Bismarck: Simply put a law saying that if natives salute you and take off their hats, you must answer them and let them put on their hats and pass. We do it when you are passing and, if we get a salute, we are happy and don't find any insult, and we feel proud that you answer us. But with other Europeans, although you be polite to them, they must press a native down (MNA, COM-6 2/1/3).

Perhaps Bismarck's most audacious and telling comment, which apparently flabbergasted the Commissioners, was his challenge to their assumption that it was the "natives" who were responsible for the Rising:

Another thing I want to speak of, is this serious rising. I notice that it is called a "native rising" and it is said that it was a general rising. No. It was not; and it is not a native rising. It ought to be called John Chilembwe's rising. And also it is said, that it had been instigated by John Chilembwe. No – it ought to be said that John Chilembwe has been instigated by Mr. Booth who was his teacher and taught him at first and took him to America.... I think you as our master ought to know things, that this is not a native rising at all. You ought to call it by the name of your own countryman Mr Booth.9

Similarly, in an essay submitted to the Commission of Inquiry, Harry Kambwiri Matecheta, who had been ordained to the ministry within the Blantyre Mission in 1911, clearly distanced himself from the Rising but, equally, took the opportunity to express his dissatisfaction with certain aspects of European rule.10 After appealing to the life and work of David Livingstone, Matecheta wrote:

We natives have this custom: never call your slave a slave when you have made him a free man. If you do so he will leave you or be against you. We know that at Magomero [where the Chilembwe Rising was centred] they were persecuted for attending Church, or for building a small grass hut for prayers. Why? We do not know; and that the case came to the hearing of the Resident at Chiradzulu, and instead of putting the matter right, one of the natives was put in prison three months with hard labour (Matecheta, in K.R. Ross 1996:151).

With an African leadership which was able to bring this kind of evangelically based critique to bear on social and political affairs at a time of crisis, it is clear that the emerging church had a robust and resilient sense of identity. It was able to maintain its distinctive ground in face of powerful demands for it to fall in line with the colonialist and racist spirit of the age. The Commission of Inquiry, at a moment of crisis, allowed the church movement arising out of the Blantyre Mission to discover its identity in such a way that it was able to survive the high tide of racism and colonialism in the 1920s and 1930s and provide the womb out of which a formidable nationalist movement would be born.


It was when this nationalist movement had grown to maturity that history brought a third great crisis to the Presbyterian churches in southern Malawi. From its inception in 1953 the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was bitterly resented by practically the whole African population of Nyasaland. They had expressed this opposition through all available channels when the proposal was brought forward and felt betrayed that Britain had nevertheless allowed the Federation to be formed. Experience of the operation of the Federation served to confirm Malawians' fears that it was intended to en trench white supremacy throughout the region and to turn Nyasaland into a "native reserve." Hostility heightened in 1958 when the Federal Legislature introduced measures to reduce the very limited political representation which it accorded to the African population.11 This raised again the question of identity for the church. Would a movement still controlled and directed by white missionaries prove to be inextricably bound up with white interests or would it be able to assert a distinctive identity at what was to be a turning point in the national history? The political question as to "which side" the church would be on in the struggle for independence, deepened into the theological question as to what is the identity of the church as the body of Jesus Christ? The crisis reached the point where the Blantyre Synod sensed an obligation to issue a "Statement on the Present State of Unrest."12 Here the Synod clearly "took sides" with the aggrieved African population and against the plans of the white settlers:

Synod ... feels it urgently necessary to say that it is unanimously opposed to Federation as it has been seen in practice over these years .... This Synod appeals to Christians of all races in this land, and to its own members in particular, to strive by every means in their power, to help understanding between races, and to build a peaceful, righteous society .... This Synod appeals to the people of Scotland through the Church of Scotland to remember their ancient links with the people of this land, and consider their political responsibilities towards us as exercised by the United Kingdom Government (in K.R. Ross 1996:200f).

When a state of emergency was established the following year, this latter appeal bore fruit when the Church of Scotland successfully advocated the cause of self-government for Nyasaland. In his history of modern Scotland T.C. Smout (1986:207) has argued that this was "the last occasion on which [the Church of Scotland] swayed government policy on any matter." Within the Malawi context, the distinctiveness of the church was made very apparent since, at a time when the Federation was reducing the token African representation in its Legislature, the Blantyre Synod could speak "as a Synod whose affairs have been in mainly African hands for many years and who are now well-nigh completely independent in control of our own affairs" (in K.R. Ross 1996:200). The difference between, on the one hand, belonging to a church which had grown out of the soil of Africa and which was led by African ministers and elders of great stature and, on the other hand, being forced to belong to a political unit which aimed to entrench white supremacy, was so marked that it is unsurprising that the members of the Blantyre and Livingstonia churches were practically unanimous in their determination to end the Federation. All this came into remarkably sharp focus in the crisis provoked by the state of emergency in 1959 when hundreds of Congress leaders were summarily detained and the churches stood with them. It was in the north of Malawi, at Blantyre's sister mission at Livingstonia that the Synod Moderator Stephen Kauta Msiska perceived the importance of what was occurring and remarked: "I think this is the beginning of church history in Nyasaland" (Jackson 1994:46; cf. Jackson s.a.:70-136). It was in the heat of the crisis that the identity of the church became clear.


The Congress movement was so much the child of the Blantyre and Livingstonia Synods, with e.g. eight out of the ten members of the first Malawi Cabinet being products of the Presbyterian Missions, that the churches were caught off guard when decisive changes in the Malawi Congress Party during the early 1960s paved the way for the dictatorship and repression of the one-party system which prevailed from independence in 1964 until the rise of the democratic movement in 1992-93. For many years the Blantyre Synod appeared to be ideologically captive to the Banda regime. Its ministers were often called upon to officiate at state occasions and its General Secretary acted as an unofficial court chaplain to the Life President and his inner circle. So far did the church appear to have compromised with the regime that many began to doubt whether it was anything more than the creature of Banda and his lackeys. 1992, however, brought a new crisis which provoked a fresh assertion of the identity of the church. The turning point of recent Malawian history came on 8 March 1992 when the Catholic bishops issued their now famous Pastoral Letter Living our Faith, which offered the first public criticism of the excesses and injustices of the one-party system.13 As the Banda regime attempted to repel this challenge, it sought the support of the Pres byterian Synods with which it had long been allied. The support was not forthcoming and, indeed, the regime's ideological support structure was dealt a further blow when the Church of Scotland effectively disowned Kamuzu Banda as a practising elder.14 Still Blantyre Synod itself took no public action until, early in June 1992, its leadership united with that of Livingstonia and a delegation from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches to meet President Banda and call for the appointment of a broadly based Commission with the mandate "to make specific proposals for structural reform towards a political system with sufficient checks and balances on the use of power, and guaran tees of accountability at all levels of government; to review the judicial system in line with the rule of law; to look into the distribution of income and wealth required by the demands of social justice" (WARC 1992:2). From that day on, the Blantyre Synod was at the centre of a movement to promote radical political reform which took concrete expression in September 1992 with the formation of the Public Affairs Committee, a church-organised body which would prove to be the engine of political change in the transition from single party to multi-party politics during the 1992-93 period (K.R. Ross 1995c:29- 37).

With this gradual re-opening of a critical distance between church and state, the question of identity soon came to the surface within the Blantyre Synod. When the Synod Administrators issued a "Statement on the Role of the Church in the Transformation of Malawi in the Context of Justice and Peace" in January 1993 (reprinted in K.R.Ross 1996:217-222), they began by asking the question "What is the Church?" Amongst the answers they offered were:

The Church is people and must be concerned with the well being of people.

The Church is Christ together with his people – one family under God whose purpose is to unite all people in Jesus Christ.

The Church is both a local Church and a universal Church and is not limited by country, continents, race or gender.

The Church is a unique wonder of the presence of God in a broken world.

The nature of the Church is not determined by people but is determined by God himself (see K.R.Ross 1996:217-222).

These apparently straightforward explanations of the nature of the Church, in the particular context of the political crisis engulfing Malawi at that time, had the kind of profound application to national affairs which was classically exemplified by the Barmen Declaration in Germany in the 1930s (see Villa- Vicencio 1986:89-98). Once again in a moment of crisis the identity of the church became clear and southern Malawian Presbyterians were strength ened in their self-understanding and mission as a church.


A succession of crises has a cumulative effect, even if experienced over a century. The Blantyre Synod has a history in which it has responded to sev eral crises and in the process discovered and affirmed its identity as a church. Reflecting on and engaging with this particular history is one of the ways in which a viable theology can be formed, one that is rooted in the local situation yet carries universal relevance. As a community the Blantyre Synod has the sense that it is a church centred on Jesus Christ, drawing its strength from prayer, rooted in African soil with growth continuously shaped and informed by engagement with the Bible, confident in the gospel it proclaims, committed to justice, holding fast both to its ultimate commitment to Christ and to its penultimate commitment to building the nation. It is a church with a clear sense of its mandate to be a harbinger of the new humanity and prepared for the occasions when fulfillment of its mission brings it into sharp conflict with the "principalities and powers" of the old order. It is a church of the people, so grounded in the life of the rural poor that it finds itself at odds with any structures which promote elitism, domination or oppression. Yet this deeply indigenous character is balanced by the strong sense of being part of an international fellowship. Entirely local leadership is combined with an ecumen ical accountability. It is a church so grounded in the gospel that at moments of crisis, even if it has temporarily forgotten itself, it is able to draw on the "dangerous memory" of Jesus Christ to determine where it should stand. It is a missionary church, driven by the impetus that its message must reach ever wider and deeper into the life of the community. This sense of ecclesiological identity has been developed not only from the day to day interaction of Christian faith and indigenous culture but particularly by the church's re sponse to the moments of crisis which have arisen in its history.

Lamin Sanneh (1989) and Kwame Bediako (1995) have rightly drawn attention to the importance of the vernacular expression of Christian faith as the base for African Christian self-confidence and theological endeavour. As Bediako (1995:61) has argued: "in the African Christianity of the post missionary era, the extent to which a church can be said to possess a viable heritage of Christian tradition in its indigenous language is the extent of that church's ability to offer an adequate interpretation of reality and a satisfying intellectual framework for African life." Confidence in the vernacular is no doubt integral to a viable theology in Africa but the referent is not only the indigenous language and culture of the Christian community but also its in digenous history. The particular history through which it has passed, the crises it has met and the response it has offered to them, have acted to form a robust and well-defined identity. The conflicts and struggles which have marked modern times in Africa have made their demands upon the churches and it is precisely as the churches have responded to these demands that there has emerged the kind of ecclesiological sense of identity which has been exemplified by the case of the Blantyre Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian in Malawi.

Perhaps the hesitation of African theologians to draw on history as a source for theological construction stems from a sense that the churches have been formed by someone else's history and that therefore it is a foreign and alienating point of reference. Yet, by now, very many African church movements have themselves passed through a rich and challenging history which has had the cumulative effect of forming a certain ecclesiological sense of identity. This offers to the theologian material which is wholly indigenous, deeply rooted in the life of the people and calling for discernment of the work of the Spirit of God. For an African church to celebrate its centenary or other anniversary, as many are doing in southern Africa these days, is not just an opportunity to mark a milestone or indulge in some nostalgic evocation of early days. It is to mark out a source from which its own distinctive, yet none theless universal, ecclesiology may be elaborated. Attending to history in this way will be necessary if Africa is to drink to the full "from her own wells" (cf. Maluleke 1996) in theological construction.


APPIAH-KUBI, K. & TORRES, S. 1979. African Theology en Route. Maryknoll: Orbis.

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1 Dr Kenneth Ross teaches systematic theology at Chancellor College, University of Malawi, P.O. Box 280, Zomba, Malawi.

2 See, e.g., Appiah-Kubi & Torres (1979); Baëta (1968); Boulaga (1984); Bujo (1992); Dickson & Ellingworth (1969), Fashole-Luke et al. (1978); Idowu (1965); Mugambi & Magesa (1989); Nyamiti (1984); Pobee (1979).

3 For the early history see A.C. Ross (1996); for more recent developments see S.D. Chiphangwi (1978) and Ncozana (1996).

4 See, e.g., Life and Work in British Central Africa ( = LWBCA), August 1888, December 1888, July 1889, November 1890.

5 Johnston to Rhodes, 7 June 1893, Salisbury Rhodesia Archives LT/1/16/4/1, cited in A.C. Ross (1996:114).

6 Alfred Sharpe (to Kimberley, 31 October 1894, Foreign Office 2/67), cited in A.C. Ross (1996:114f).

7 Malawi National Archives ( = MNA), COM-6 2/1/1.

8 MNA, COM-6 2/1/1. When Hetherwick's younger colleague Robert Napier made reference to a "national Christian church" he was asked by the Commission: "Do you mean an African church which would be run entirely by Africans?" He replied, "Certainly, this country is African. I am thinking ahead, more like 1960." MNA, COM-6 2/1/3.

9 MNA, COM-6 2/1/3. On the influence of Joseph Booth in Malawi, see Boeder (1983); Fiedler (1996); Kavaloh (1991); Langworthy (1986); Langworthy (1996); Shepperson & Price (1958).

10 H.K. Matecheta, "The Origin of John Chilembwe Rising", an essay submitted to the Chilembwe Rising Commission of Inquiry, MNA COM-6 2/1/3; reprinted in K.R. Ross (1996:146-151). The nature and historiographical merit of Matecheta's essay has been extensively discussed in Shepperson (1972).

11 For the political history of this period see Blake (1977:243-344); Linden (1967); Moyer (1963); Pachai (1973:256-266); Sanger (1960).

12 This Statement is found as Appendix I in the Report of the Committee Anent Central Africa, Church of Scotland General Assembly 1958, pp. 16-19; reprinted in K.R. Ross (1996:195-201).

13 Living our Faith, Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishops of Malawi to be Read in Every Catholic Church on 8th March 1992; later published under the title The Truth Will Set You Free, Church in the World 28, London: CIIR, 1992. For an account of the impact of the Letter see CIIR (1993); Newell (1995); K.R. Ross (1995d).

14 See K.R. Ross, Malawi's Peaceful Revolution 1992-94: the Role of the Church of Scotland. Records of the Scottish Church History Society, Vol. XXVII, forthcoming.

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