The Church We Want: Foundations, Theology and Mission of the Church in Africa — Conversations on Ecclesiology
Editor: Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, S.J.
Year of publication: 2015
Number of Pages: 342
Price: Kenya Shillings 900 or USA $9
Publisher: Paulines Publications Africa
Paulines Publications Africa
P.O. Box 49026
00100 Nairobi GPO
Reviewer: Francis Njuguna
As the Catholic faith in Africa fast grows, so are the needs for the theological materials that are necessary for the spiritual nourishment of the faithful. In some aspects of the Catholic Church, it is noted that the theological needs of the church are growing faster than the availability of the theological materials that in a normal situation should match the notable faith growth.
Alluding to this in the book under review the editor, Nigerian Jesuit priest, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, and current Principal of Hekima University College (Jesuit School of Theology and Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations), says the output of research and scholarship on the theology of the church in Africa has not matched the mandate of the First African Synod to “work out the theology of the Church-as-Family with all the riches contained in this concept” (Ecclesia in Africa, No. 63).
He says the new book comes in to fill this gap by presenting incisive analyses, models, and portraits of the church in Africa from diverse historical, theological, ecumenical, cultural, and contemporary perspectives and contexts.
“The new book builds on the previous volume by gathering many past contributors in a community of theological scholarship that engages in conversation as an ongoing process of maturation of thought, broadening of vision and deepening of reflection” (page 9), he says, while stressing that the essays in the book open up new paths for understanding the theology, identity, and mission of the church in Africa and the world.
For an easy reading and comprehension of the materials therein, the new book is broken into four parts, namely: “The African Church in the Vision of Pope Francis;” “Scriptural, Theological, Spiritual, and Cultural Foundations of the Church;” “Ecclesia of Women and the Church in Africa;” and “The Church in Contemporary Social and Ecumenical Contexts.”
Within Part One, for example, the new book has an essay on the Small Christian Communities (SCCs) written by Father Joseph Healey, a Maryknoll missionary priest, whose concern for this pastoral program of the church in the Eastern African Region is widely recognized. Under the title “Small Christian Communities (SCCs) as Domestic Church in the Context of African Ecclesiology,” the essay explores the history, development and the impact of the SCCs in Africa and in particular under the church’s regional body of AMECEA – the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa.
He traces the SCCs history back to 1961 when the Catholic Bishops Conference in the now Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at its Sixth Plenary Assembly, held from 20 November to 2 December approved a pastoral plan to promote “Living Base Ecclesial Communities” (also called “Living Christian Communities” or “Communautes Ecclesiales Vivantes de Base [CEVB] in the full French term).
According to Father Healey, the SCC pastoral program, currently operative in nine African countries, namely Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia within the AMECEA Region was officially founded in 1976 at the AMECEA Plenary Meeting held in Nairobi, Kenya under the theme: “Building Small Christian Communities in Eastern Africa.” He says, “Certainly the growth and influence of Small Christian Communities has been one of the milestones and highlights of the first fifty-four years of AMECEA (I961-2015)” (page 104). According to him an estimated 180,000 SCCs are operating in the AMECEA Region, with an estimated 45,000 in Kenya.
Father Healey thanks the founders and visionaries, whom he says created AMECEA SCCs as a key pastoral priority. “We also thank the faithfulness and commitment of millions of lay Christians in Eastern Africa who have actively participated in SCCs over the years and said yes to the commitment to be truly African, truly Christian in further developing this new way of becoming church” (page 104), he emphasizes.
In Part Two the book has an essay on “Becoming the Church of the New Testament” penned by Nigerian Catholic Sister, Teresa Okure. She stresses, among other things, the need for African theologians to make the call to be a Eucharistic Church anchored in the new commandment of love, the soul of their theologizing in service to the Church we want to be. “We need to help the Church hierarchy to evolve new practical measures for internalizing this” (page 118), says Sr Okure, emphasizing that, “This requires courageous revision of age-old church structures and the evolution of a New Testament ecclesiology and Christology that serve as antidotes to those anti-gospel value systems that infiltrated the Church from the empire” (page 118).
In the book’s Part Three one of the essays is on “The Ecclesia Women We Want in Africa: Some Challenges” by Alison Munro. The author vehemently argues that the church need to move away from clericalism in which we often see the letter rather than the spirit of the law, the placing of laws and regulations before the needs and pains of people, and the promotion of ordained men into position of superiority over the non-ordained simply because of the status. “African women themselves need to move away from internalized sexist practices, attitudes, beliefs, and patterns” (page 212), the essay recommends.
The church must denounce patriarchy and cultural practices, its own and those of society and the negative traditions that debase women in various ways and remain untouched and unchallenged except by those without voice, the author also recommends. According to her the church’s voice at all levels must be heard naming and denouncing violence and injustice in the Church.
In the book’s Part Four one of the essays is on “How African Are African Instituted Churches? The Ecclesiology of African Instituted Churches,” by a Kenyan Catholic woman theologian, Philomena Njeri Mwaura. She has, among other things, called on the AICs to embrace theological education to enable them understand the origin and basis of the Christian faith and their interconnectedness with the wider Church. “Some also need to develop viable and effective administrative structures to help them avoid succession leadership wrangles that can bedevil the churches when their leaders die” (page 308), she suggests.
The 25 essays are well researched, presented and scholarly done. The book is recommended for the clergy, religious, ad laity — both men and women in seminaries and formation centers – and for those who thirst for theological materials to enrich their live spiritually.