Crowther Talk: Canterbury Cathedral

From the archive.
The Rev Canon Philip Mounstephen, executive leader of CMS, joined Archbishop Justin Welby at Canterbury Cathedral during a service of 'thanksgiving and repentance' for the first black Anglican bishop, Samuel Ajayi Crowther.

Philip Mounstephen – Canterbury Cathedral 29 June 2014

Philip Mounstephen, CMS executive leader, addresses the congregation at Canterbury Cathedral, 150 years to the day after Crowther was made bishop.
On Friday this week it was my great pleasure to attend a day conference entitled ‘Missio Africanus’ – a day to discuss the huge mission potential of the diaspora African church, here in Europe: a church today that is consciously African; vibrantly Christian; and increasingly globally engaged. It was exciting to be there – and strategic too: for I am convinced that such a church is a huge resource for the re-evangelisation of this continent, and I am determined that we in CMS should play our part in the receiving and in the releasing of its gifts in mission.

But where did this great day take place? It was held in no less a place than Crowther Hall: Crowther Hall which was at one time CMS’ own training college, which now belongs to the Ghanaian Church of Pentecost, and which is named, of course, after the man whose legacy we honour today: Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther.

What, I wondered, would Ajayi Crowther have made of such an event? He would, no doubt have been mystified by the fact that mission and evangelism in Europe has become such an urgent task. But I’ve no doubt he would have rejoiced at this clear evidence of the existence today of an African church that is consciously African; vibrantly Christian; and increasingly globally engaged.

The vibrancy of the Church in Africa is deeply rooted. It is no coincidence that the movement for the abolition of slavery and the Church Mission Society share common origins, for there was no sacred / secular division in our founders’ minds. For them the agenda was clear: their agenda was nothing less than Jesus’ agenda: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind – to set the oppressed free.” Freedom from slavery and freedom in Christ were all of a piece in our founders’ minds, and all of a piece in the minds of many of those set free too. It is no surprise that Sierra Leone, where the young Ajayi was taken when he was rescued from the slave ship, and which was itself set up as refuge for freed slaves – it is no surprise that Sierra Leone became a vibrant source of so much wider missionary activity, as people went forth from there to proclaim good news for the poor and freedom for the prisoners. It is no surprise in this context that CMS’ General Secretary Henry Venn came to articulate the classic three-self principle for the indigenous churches that they founded: that they should be self-governing, self-financing and self-propagating. For churches whose members had known slavery how on earth could they be otherwise?

Samuel Crowther was both the fruit of that vibrant campaigning zeal and an exceptionally effective agent of it. His experience of liberation from slavery and of liberation in Christ profoundly shaped him and was the mainspring for his life in mission, and for a journey which took him from Sierra Leone and led him eventually back to his own country where he worked tirelessly on the Yoruba translation of the Bible; established a cotton industry in Abeokuta to counter the slave trade; engaged in patient and persuasive dialogue with local Muslim leaders; and planted significant churches schools and mission stations all along the Niger. So transformatory was his work, not least in codifying and unifying the Yoruba language, that he is often referred to as the father of the Yoruba people.

And of course that journey led him eventually, 150 years ago to this very day, to this very Cathedral, and to his consecration as a Bishop, at Henry Venn’s instigation, in the Church of God, the first black African bishop of the Anglican Communion.

Today we do right to honour the man and to remember with pride those who did so much to set him free and to equip him for ministry and mission, much of it under the auspices of CMS.

But we in CMS also have to acknowledge the shame we share. As the so-called imperial sun reached its zenith, African leadership, Crowther’s included, was increasingly denigrated by younger missionaries who should have known better but didn’t. Henry Venn’s radical three-self principles were quietly sidelined, and Crowther died eventually a broken man, as English people effectively tried to place the shackles back on a man – and on a people – from which they had been so wonderfully set free. The tragedy of Samuel Ajayi Crowther is that he became not the norm but the exception, for it would be many, many years before there was another black African Bishop in the Anglican Communion.

And would that that side of Crowther’s story was the exception. Too often parts at least of the Christian Church, have been on the wrong side of history not least when it comes to race, whether in the campaign to abolish the slave trade; the civil rights movement in the USA; or the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. And still today there are those in the West, who should know better, who quietly deride the church in Africa, not least for those very things which make it distinctive.

And yet, by the grace of God, there is today a church in Africa that is consciously African; vibrantly Christian; and increasingly globally engaged. There is today a church in Africa which is self-governing, self-financing and wonderfully self-propagating and for which we thank and praise God. And Samuel Ajayi Crowther is in many ways the herald and the forerunner of that Church: a church that has been such a blessing to Africa and will, by the grace of God, be so to the whole world.

But before we rejoice in that and thank God for Ajayi and his great legacy, let us acknowledge that we too have sometimes, through our own ignorance and prejudice stood on the wrong side of the work of the Kingdom of God. So let us comes afresh to the fountain of grace. Let us seek anew the Lord’s forgiveness for our sins, that we may recommit ourselves to his service. Let us keep a few moments’ silence to call to mind our own sins and shortcomings….

Here is a link to read Archbishop Welby's sermon at the Anglican Communion News Service
Published 3 July 2014

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