African Conversational Theology: A New Way of Doing Theology (Talk at DePaul University)

“Africa Matters” Book Discussion on two Orbis books:

The Church We Want: African Catholics Look to Vatican III

HIV & AIDS in Africa: Christian Reflection, Public Health, Social Transformation

5:30 — 8 p.m., DePaul Student Center, Room 314B

DePaul University

Chicago, Illinois, USA

Thursday, 29 September, 2016


African Conversational Theology: A New Way of Doing Theology


By Joseph G. Healey, MM



I am delighted to be here at DePaul University this evening. I join in the celebrations this week of the 200-year anniversary of the Vincentians (Congregation of the Missions)’ service in the USA. A special connection for me is that I teach African Vincentian seminarians at Tangaza University College in Nairobi, Kenya that is like the Kenyan mini-version of the Catholic Theological Union (CTU) here in Chicago.

I bring warm African greetings from our two editors Emmanuel Orobator in Nairobi, Kenya who likes to be called “Bator” and Jacquineau Azetsop in Rome, Italy. They are deeply with us in spirit.

I am an ordinary and regular member of St. Kizito Small Christian Community (in short, SCC) in the Waruku Section of St. Austin’s Parish, Archdiocese of Nairobi, Country of Kenya, Continent of Africa, world. I like to begin this way. To be faithful to this new way of being church, my main credibility is that as a priest I have no special responsibilities in our SCC. The lay people are the leaders of our SCC. I am happy to be a student, a learner. As we say in Swahili: “Mimi ni mwanafunzi” (“I am a student”).

  I teach a course on "Small Christian Communities (SCCs) as a New Model of Church in Africa Today." I am 78 years old. In our first class the students who are in their 20s started calling me Mzee, the Swahili word for "elder," as a title of respect. But I said, "No. Not yet. Not yet. Please give me another name." So the next day they started calling me "a youth from a long time ago." I like that a lot better.

For many years African theologians have searched for a genuine, authentic African method of theology. At the Padua Conference on Theological Ethics in Padua, Italy in July, 2006 the Ugandan theologian and historian John Waliggo emphasized the importance of African narrative theology and said:

Africans can now stimulate theological development. We refuse to leave our cultures and traditions behind. We have much to say about inculturation, offering new models for theological reflection. Our theological style is very concerned with narrative, expressing teachings in story. Our people listen better when you give them a story. This means using local expressions and rituals, linking the Gospel to their story.

Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole emphasizes that African theologians listen to the real life stories of the African people. Stories are not just anecdotal. African Storytelling is a way of living, a way of listening, a way of being theologian. It includes oral theological conversation. [PK1] Importantly, storytelling honors women’s stories and experiences. Stories give texture to theology. They illustrate the lives of people living the theology, preventing theology from being just a series of propositions.

African theologians are developing African Conversation Theology, or more specifically African Christian Conversation Theology, as a “New Way of Doing Theology.” In Africa we prefer the term AfricanPalaver Theology, but we realize that the word palaver carries a lot of negative baggage in the Western world. For us in Africa, it is both the name of a method or process of theology and the name of a type of content of theology (much like Liberation Theology).  Method heavily influences and determines content and vice versa. It is a two-way process that illuminates and enriches African values and Christian values. It is similar to Mango Tree Theology and Storytelling Theology.

Bator describes this distinctive method or process very clearly in the “Preface” in our new book. This is African Theology as Conversation, Active Dialog, Intensive Listening and Learning from Each Other (described as “listening in conversation”) and Consensus. This new way of doing African Christian Theology is participatory, collaborative, democratic, cross-disciplinary and multigenerational.

Bator expands this conversational theological methodology by saying:

Strong, dynamic currents are shaping the flow of theological discourse in Africa. A unique characteristic of this discourse is the widening circle of conversation partners. African theologians are no longer content with talking to like-minded theologians; they engage bishops, civil society groups and government representatives as conversational partners in a rational dialogue and critical analysis within society and in the [Catholic] Church. This conversational methodology breaks new ground in theological scholarship in Africa and represents a new way of doing theology in which collaboration and conversation win over confrontation and adversarial positions. The result is a process of mutual listening and learning, a vital ingredient for constructing what veteran African [Nigerian] theologian Elochukwu Uzukwu designates “the listening church.”

Uzukwu, who likes to be called Elo, published his important Orbis book A Listening Church, Autonomy and Communion in African Churches in 1996. To use a play on words, perhaps Pope Francis “listened” to him when the pope emphasizes that the Catholic bishops and other leaders today must be a Listening Church first and a Teaching Church second.

The starting point of this kind of African Christian Theology is both context and experience. Many of the essays in this book draw on grassroots experiences and practical “on the ground” research. In the spirit of Pope Francis African theologians try to listen to the cries of the poor, the marginated and those on the peripheries of society.  This method draws on the ideas and writings of Bénézet Bujo, Jean Marc Ela, Emmanuel Katongole, Teresa Okure and Elo – the last three having essays in this book. Local, contextual theologies can be constructed in Africa with the local communities as “theologian.”

Bator developed this distinctive method or process in convening the three international Theological Colloquia on Church, Religion and Society in Africa (in short, TCCRSA) from which the essays of this new book are taken. This “Three-year Theological Research Project in the Currents of the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II” took place in Nairobi in 2013, 2014 and 2015. These conversation-style theological research seminars used palaver sessions, baraza sessions and informal, interactive roundtables on African theology to provoke conversation, discussion and dialog. Over the three years there were 60 participants from very diverse backgrounds. The 20 writers in this volume include 10 priests, five lay women, three religious sisters and two bishops. Significant is the contribution of the eight women.

I would like to illustrate this method by using my own essay called “Beyond Vatican II: Imagining the Catholic Church of Nairobi I.” Bator first invited writers to draft papers on specific themes. I invited many African pastoral workers including members of grassroots Small Christian Communities and theologians such as [Tanzanian] Laurenti Magesa into the “conversation” on my paper and incorporated their comments and insights. Then the papers were circulated to the colloquium participants to read and reflect on a head of time. Some gave feedback to the presenters. For example, one priest from South Africa gave me a very helpful and detailed written commentary on my paper with many practical suggestions. Further updating, revising and editing followed.

At the colloquium itself I presented a summary of my paper in a plenary session. Here is the opening paragraph under the heading “Be Bold and Creative” taken from No. 33 of Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel. I quote from page 189 of our new book:

The editor of this volume, Bator, Jim Keane, the Acquiring Editor of Orbis Books, and I met to discuss a book that could evolve out of TCCRSA.  In brainstorming about a possible title and cover we tried to think outside the conventual box. We drew a line through the words “Vatican III, Rome” on the cover and wrote “Nairobi I.” We could have as easily written “Kinshasa I” or “Lagos I.” Going further afield we could have written “Manila I” or “Sao Paulo I.” The idea was to challenge the natural assumption that the next ecumenical council has to take place in Rome. If the center of gravity of the Catholic Church is moving from the West to the Global South, why not have the successor to Vatican II meet in one of the great cities of the Southern Hemisphere?

My co-presenter was Nontando Hadebe, a lay woman theologian from South Africa, that in itself shows the rich diversity of the participants. After a half hour plenary session that combined comments from the floor and questions and answers on our papers, Bator, a man of many talents, simultaneously recorded this “conversation” on my paper in his computer and “miraculously” handed me a half page summary at the end of the session. During the coffee breaks and meals I dialogued further with participants on my paper. In the spirit and practice of this colloquium using the method or process of African Christian Conversation Theology, I incorporated the comments and insights of the participants in the final draft of my essay for this book.

As another example, I refer to my essay called “Small Christian Communities (SCCs) as Agents of Change in the Fight against HIV and AIDS in Eastern Africa” in our book HIV & AIDS in Africa. Today there are over 180,000 Small Christian Communities (SCCs) in the Catholic Church in the nine AMECEA countries in Eastern Africa that have some kind of planned practical action, service and pastoral, social and mission outreach to people with HIV and AIDS. SCC members are important agents of change and transformation in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Our recent research clearly documents the active involvement of SCC members in reaching out to people with HIV and AIDS as responders, health care workers, caregivers, and counselors. They are also called Volunteer Community Health Care Workers and Home-based Care Providers. SCC members have a special opportunity to minister to families and couples affected by HIV and AIDs such as caring for millions of AIDs orphans and counseling discordant couples.

A historical perspective. This ministry is a pastoral and social priority for the Catholic Church in Eastern Africa It is significant (and disappointing!) that HIV and AIDS were not specifically mentioned in the 39 questions of the original questionnaire for the World Synod of Bishops’ first session on “Family and Marriage” in Rome in October, 2014. Some African countries such as Kenya did not mention HIV and AIDS in its answer to the last question: “What other challenges or proposals do you consider urgent or useful to treat?” The coordinator of the compilation of answers in Kenya said that this was an oversight due to the pressure of limited time. Sorry, this is not acceptable.

HIV and AIDS were also not mentioned in the Final Report of the 2014 Synod, another indication of the Western influence on the synod discussions and documentation. Cameroonian theologian and Jacquineau Azetsop, the editor of this book, says, “HIV was totally absent. The synod was totally dominated by issues from the first world. It is unfortunate that African bishops forgot about it also.”

An important exception was Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel, the Archbishop of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (himself a Vincentian)’s intervention on “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family and External Pressures on the Family” at the October, 2014 session. Speaking as the Chairman of AMECEA[1] (the regional Catholic Bishops Conference), he focused on three key pastoral challenges that face Catholic families in Africa.

1.  "Poverty.

2.  Migration.

3.  HIV a virus and AIDS a disease that create division in the family and frequently

divorce. Usually, both parents are affected and, sometimes both die, leaving children

under the care of grandparents.”

 It is very important to understand that these three challenges are interconnected and interrelated and are part of Africa’s overall cultural, economic, political, religious and social context and reality. One report states: “71% of the 35 million people living with HIV and AIDS in the world live in sub-Saharan Africa. The call by UNAIDS to close the gap around access to HIV services will not be met unless the delivery of antiretroviral treatment (ARV) is radically reshaped into community-led approaches that adapt to the realities of those living with HIV.”

Meanwhile commentators in North America and Europe merely say that the HIV and AIDS problems are being handled and controlled by medicine (that is, the “cocktail” of anti-retroviral drugs).

Two final take aways. First, in the spirit of the pastoral challenges of Pope Francis, the final section of my essay in The Church We Want proposes pastoral solutions to the “Two Meanings of the Eucharistic Famine in Africa:”

1.      Ordination of Married Community Elders or Locally Ordained Ministers (Married Priesthood).

2.      African Stages of Marriage.

Let our conversation, discussion and discernment on these pastoral challenges in Africa evolve and grow.

Second, we are organizing a total of 12 Book Events to help promote, market and distribute these two important books on Africa. DePaul is Event No. 5. Elo is creating a Discussion Forum in the Bulletin of Ecumenical Theology (Volume 29, 2017) – both the print version and the digital (electronic) version that is on the website of the Duquesne University Library. All of us are invited to contribute to this forum on topics related to these two important books on Africa by posting our comments and further insights We hope that a rich and online “conversation” and exchange will take place in this forum on the internet.

This is a perfect way for our African Christian Conversation Theology to develop and grow. The voices of Africa are important. We have to continue to emphasize that “Africa Matters.” We can share the gifts of Africa with the Global Church and our world society.

In the spirit of the collaborative, collegial and synodal style of our African

Conversational Theology let us follow the well-known African Proverb that is also very popular in Western countries: If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.

Rev. Joseph G. Healey, MM
Maryknoll Society
P.O. Box 43058
00100 Nairobi, Kenya

0723-362-993 (Safaricom, Kenya)

973-216-4997 (AT&T, USA)

Skype: joseph-healey

[1] AMECEA is an acronym for "Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa." It is a service organization for the National Episcopal Conferences of the nine English-speaking countries of Eastern Africa, namely Eritrea (1993), Ethiopia (1979), Kenya (1961), Malawi (1961), South Sudan (2011), Sudan (1973), Tanzania (1961), Uganda (1961) and Zambia (1961). The Republic of South Sudan became independent on 9 July, 2011, but the two Sudans remain part of one Episcopal Conference. Somalia (1995) and Djibouti (2002) are Affiliate Members. AMECEA is one of the eight Regional Episcopal Conferences ofSECAM (Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar).