World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

You are here: Home / Resources / Documents / Other conferences and meetings / AACC International Symposium 2012

AACC International Symposium 2012

Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, associate general secretary's presentation at the AACC International Symposium 2012

01 January 1970


All Africa Conference of Churches 2012 International Symposium
The Church in Africa: Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities
2-7 December 2012, Nairobi, Kenya

The guest of honour: Your Grace the Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu
Rev. Dr Andre Karamaga, the General Secretary of the AACC
All the former Presidents and former vice presidents of the AACC
Former General Secretary of AACC Rev Jose Chipenda
Rev. Dr Setri Nyomi, General Secretary of the World Communion of Reformed  Churches
Dr Caroline W. Njuki, Assistant General Secretary, Mission Relationships
United Methodist Church Global Ministries
All Delegates to the symposium
Sisters and brothers in the Lord,

First, I bring you greetings from the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit. Second, the WCC congratulates the AACC for the new buildings which were opened and dedicated to God yesterday. Third, I would like to thank the Rev Dr Andre Karamaga, The General Secretary of the AACC, for organizing this international symposium on the theme “The Church in Africa: Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities” in order to launch the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the existence of the AACC in preparation for the 10th General Assembly of the AACC to be held in June 2013.

The AACC General Assembly theme:  “God of Life, Lead Africa to Peace, Justice and Dignity” is indeed an opportunity for the WCC to be on a pilgrimage with the AACC as we also prepare for our own 10th Assembly to take place in Busan, South Korea from 30th October to 8th November 2013 under the theme: “God of life, Lead us to Peace and Justice”. The overlap in the assembly themes “bears witness to our common purpose in mobilizing the churches for peace and justice in the world. It is also an opportunity to engage in a sustained and in depth dialogue on critical issues challenging the churches and the world today. We want to discern what it means to be the church together in the world today, seeking justice and peace; and the fullness of life for all creation”. For this symposium, the focus is on the African context.

I was asked to speak about: The Church in Africa: Opportunities to create a new Africa of Justice, Peace and Dignity. I have sought to respond to the topic by following the structure of the assembly theme. In part one; I will focus on God of life. In part two, I will look at Lead Africa and in part three I will focus on Justice, peace and dignity. For each section I will draw on examples from Africa.

1. God of Life

The first opportunity is a reflection on the God of life. The Assembly theme starts with a call to the God of life. The WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism document on Together towards life: Mission and evangelism in a changing landscape, helps us to understand what is meant by God of life. The document starts with an affirmation that:

‘God created the whole oikoumene in God’s image and constantly works in the world to affirm and safeguard life. We believe in Jesus Christ, the Life of the world, the incarnation of God’s love for the world (John 3:16).[1] Affirming life in all its fullness is Jesus Christ’s ultimate concern and mission (John 10:10). We believe in God, the Holy Spirit, the Life-giver, who sustains and empowers life and renews the whole creation (Genesis 2:7; John 3:8). A denial of life is a rejection of the God of life. God invites us into the life-giving mission of the Triune God and empowers us to bear witness to the vision of abundant life for all in the new heaven and earth. How and where do we discern God’s life-giving work that enables us to participate in God’s mission?’

Scholars of African theology have pointed out that Africans live with contradictions even in their understanding of the God of life. While Africans have embraced the God of life, they are living under life denying political, economic and social conditions. This contradiction was first reflected on by prominent Kenyan Anglican theologian, Jesse Mugambi in his 1995 book From Liberation To Construction: African Christian Theology After The Cold War, What he said then is still valid today. In my opinion, the fact that African people live with the contradictions between deep spirituality and numerical mass on one hand and the deep political, social and economic problems leads to an opportunity for the church in Africa to raise critical questions about how African Christians understand the God of life. I will draw from the research findings of one of my PhD students, Tsvakai Zhou from Zimbabwe, to illustrate one example of African understanding of the belief in the God of life irrespective of the problems that African people go through. Zhou worked with female ex prisoners as a chaplain and found out that:

“…imprisonment led most of them have a negative image of themselves. However, when examining what the female prisoners and ex-prisoners said about their relationship with God, they did not blame God for what happened to them but looked up to God for their healing and restoration into society. The way they perceive God can be grouped into four categories: first, God is ever present with them in their problems despite their mistakes; second, God fights for them even when they are badly treated by society; third, God forgives them for the mistakes that they made; and fourth, God provides for them as they struggle to find their feet in the society.”

Zhou has interpreted the participants’ perception of God of life in two ways. The first one is a feminist interpretation of material survival of the marginalized of the society. Zhou draws from the work of Beverly Haddad (2008:49) to show that “survival embraces a dignity, a quality of life, which is intricately intertwined with these women’s understanding of God in their lives. Poor and marginalized women employ strategies that show agency and resistance to their material conditions of oppression. Haddad goes on to suggest that, in the interconnectedness of faith and material conditions, those survival strategies and resistance practices are fostered, which in turn can lead to social transformation”.

The point that is being made here is that when Africans suffer and trust our God of life, it does not mean that they have stopped being their own agents of change. As they act on overcoming their problems, they draw strength from God of life who has the power for justice and peace. Zhou’s second interpretation of the female ex-prisoners perception of God is anchored in African Theology. Zhou argues that the female ex-prisoners continued trust in God, despite their suffering, is a representation of how the African people in general perceive evil and suffering in relation to God.  She draws from scholars like Smith 1950; Mbiti 1968 and Magesa 1997 to argue that when Africans suffer they do not blame God, as they are of the view that suffering and evil are caused by human beings. The more Africans suffer, the more they hold onto God and pray to God, while blaming humanity for the calamity which befalls them.

Nevertheless, as the church in Africa grapples with a deep understanding of “God of life”, it does not preclude asking questions about the African realities of the unjust economic system that made the female ex-prisoners in Zhou’s study commit the petty crimes which landed them in prison in the first place. It also does not glorify suffering as an identity defining what it means to be African. There is no dignity in unnecessary suffering, which the church in Africa ought to reject as they seek alternative ways of being which uphold human dignity. Thus, theological training in critical thinking and social analysis becomes part and parcel of the churches’ understanding of “God of life”.

2. Lead Africa

As I reflected on the assembly theme, the Communications department of the WCC asked me to review a 2011 book written by Emmanuel Katongole, a prominent Roman Catholic Ugandan theologian, entitled: The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa. This book helped me to understand the section of the assembly theme which asks God to Lead Africa

This book is about a search for a new future for Africa in a context where: a) Christianity is the dominant religion; b) there is history of plunder, violence and poverty in colonial and post colonial Africa and c) he perceives that the church has failed dismally to solve the problems of Africa. Emmanuel Katongole locates his study in the field of Christian social Ethics in Africa. Within this field, Katongole is asking for a paradigm shift “from the external formalities of nation-state politics to its inner workings or logistics, from skills and technical strategies to myths and visions, from a preoccupation with fixing a broken institution to imaging new experiments in social life in Africa” (61). The central questions that Katongole is addressing in this book are: “Does Christianity have the power to save Africa? How? And what would that salvation look like?” (20). Katongole has sought to answer the question in three sections, namely: Sacrificing Africa; Daring to invent the future; and the Sacrifice of Africa.

In the first section, Katongole argues that:

a) The problems of Africa should be understood in the context of the damage made by colonialism to the people of Africa. He gives the example of the plunder of the current Democratic Republic of Congo by King Leopold of Belgium who sacrificed the lives of many Africans as he plundered the country of its resources. This plundering and sacrificing of African people was repeated by different colonial governments in Africa to varying degrees. In post colonial Africa, the same pattern has continued because the nation-state is a project of the western countries. It is not owned by the people to make it work to the advantage of the African people.

b) The African people lack confidence in themselves because they were treated as a people without a history. They have been told a lie that their history only began with the coming of the missionaries and the colonial governments. This has created insecurity in the African people as a people without a past from where they can draw from in order to shape their future. This was one major issue where the political and church leaders worked together to restore the African past. He strongly argues that “thus the most decisive critique of the nation state politics in Africa is not its failure to provide even basic services such as water, health care, infrastructure and security- though this shortcoming is telling in itself. The real issue is not so much what the state has failed to do for African men and women, but what it is doing to them… framing their lives within a telos of ‘nothing good here’ (hopelessness) and thus shaping expectations of mere survival, while producing the very same hopelessness and desperation it assumes” (83).

c) Katongole goes further to analyse critically the attempts of the Church to reverse the situation of the African people’s social history. He has divided the responses of the church into three paradigms namely: deeper evangelization: the spiritual paradigm; development and relief: the pastoral paradigm and mediation, advocacy and reconciliation: a political paradigm. In his assessment of the three paradigms, he argues that the Church in Africa has failed to make a major difference in solving people’s social problems because it operates with a western paradigm that separates religion and politics. He then argues that “Christian social ethics needs to resist the prescriptive temptation in order to recover the unique social contribution the church can make in the search for a new future in Africa. For the most determinative contribution Christianity can make in Africa is not in terms of advocacy for nation-state modalities, but instead fresh visions of what Africa is and can be” (50).

In the second section one sees Katongole begins to articulate the framework of social imagination of Africa which is rooted in the creation story in Genesis. In addition to theory,  Katongole begins to use effectively the methodology of narrative in order to show some Africans who have dared to dream and implement their case for an alternative Africa. In the last section of the book, Katongole says the role of the church in Africa then is to build the capacity of Africans to dream dreams of another Africa where love from God empowers ordinary Christians to action for an alternative Africa.

Elsewhere I have done a detailed analysis of the issues that Katongole has raised. What I want to zoom in on here is on the capacity of the churches in Africa to inspire its members to be agents of transformation based on their dreams of an alternative Africa. The Arab spring of 2011 and 2012 has shown us that masses can lead a revolution but a revolution that is not accompanied by mass implementation of change does not achieve much. What bring change are transformational Christian and theological education and formation consisting of past and present positive stories where the God of life partners with humanity for change, and this is reflected in the sermons and Bible studies that people hear every Sunday.

3. Justice, peace and dignity

First, the vision of the Assembly theme relates to the abundant life in all creation. However in present times people and the earth suffer from ecological destruction and climate change, because of the current development paradigm, while the poorest and most vulnerable experience the worst consequences of the ecological crisis. This is a topical issue that gives the Church in Africa an opportunity to be part of the calling for climate justice, which implies reaffirming the prayer of the Assembly theme as well as acting for justice and peace. Based on the understanding of oikoumene as the whole inhabited world which includes the ecological and economic dimensions, this topic reflects on the local and global dimensions of the common witness of the church.  Taking into account the experiences of African religions, of green churches and eco-congregations, churches have opportunities of becoming more eco-friendly in their mission. This would require a holistic understanding of creation expressed in the theology and work of the churches. It also offers an opportunity for the churches to get involved in advocacy for climate justice at the local and global levels.

Second, the Assembly theme leads to an opportunity for peace and justice through public witness and speaking to power. The Church in Africa has actively monitored the African governments and has been part of a very active civil society that calls the governments to be accountable to its own people. The church has played the role of monitoring democratic elections in many African countries. The church has also been in the forefront issuing pastoral letters to governments to condemn acts of injustices. Their actions have been grounded on the mission of Jesus in Luke chapter 4 where Jesus made it clear that the mission of the church is to be in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized of the society. When criticized by the church, governments have opted for separation of powers between the church and the society.

On the part of the church, they have focused on upholding the constitution, where its values have coincided with the values of the Christian faith.
Nevertheless, in matters of human sexuality and gender, the dominant voice of the church has been conservative. The churches diakonial work in the area of HIV and AIDS has forced the church to open up dialogue on human sexuality and gender. Already this has shown to be an issue that is threatening church unity in Africa. What is clear is that human sexuality and gender will not go away from the agenda of the church. The members of our churches, the civil society and government institutions will keep bringing human sexuality and gender back on the agenda of the church until it is dealt with. The church has an opportunity at least to set up a study commission to engage the issue and speak from informed theological and human rights positions.

Linked to human rights is the third opportunity for the church in Africa to bring peace in conflict areas and justice to people who have been traumatized through political and domestic violence and HIV and AIDS. The South African truth and reconciliation commission is a good example of the role of the church in bringing justice, peace and human dignity. The success or failure of this commission is not part of our conversation in this paper. It suffices to argue that healing and reconciliation had been a role that the church has taken to bring peace with justice in many parts of Africa. In addition to all the replicas of the truth and reconciliation, where religious leaders have played leading roles, worth mentioning is the work of Fr Michael Lapsley is an Anglican priest who serves as the director of the Institute for the Healing of Memories based in Cape Town, South Africa. 

In his book Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer, Fr. Michael Lapsley “continues to work to develop a model that will assist faith communities in the process of healing the psychological, emotional and spiritual wounds of violence. His ministry in South Africa addresses the ongoing trauma from the apartheid period, and he also travels the world to work with communities seeking to emerge from violence and injustice to nonviolence and just relationships”. Fr Michael is an example of a person who has taken wounds of injustice and turned them into an opportunity for healing many people. This is an example of stories of hope that Katongole was writing about. While Fr Michael started with survivors of political violence, his work has extended to touch the lives of rape and domestic violence survivors and People Living with HIV and AIDS who are victims of stigma and discrimination.  There are many wounded people in Africa. The processes of turning wounded people into healers is in my opinion an area where the church still needs to make a huge impact in solving the problems of Africa.

Fourth opportunity of the church to build peace, justice and dignity is in the area of humanitarian ministry: Just like the case of healing and reconciliation, the church’s ministry of sharing is of the very nature of the church. The World Council of Churches’ 6th Assembly report puts it well when it said: sharing “demands of individuals and churches a giving which comes not out of what they have, but what they are." This means every African church has something to share and it is a command from God to share in one another’s burden. This sharing of resources goes beyond a focus on material transfers from rich to poor. It also means enabling practical partnerships which involve people as well as funds.” The ministry of accompaniment means being there for each other in whatever way possible. In addition to sharing being a command, it also promotes human dignity because of the concept of agency that moves everyone into action and not waiting to receive help.

The dignity project of the AACC has already shown that Africa has the resources to help Africa. Therefore when people in Africa are suffering as a result of natural and human made disasters, while the accompaniment of partners from the global North is highly appreciated, it should not be viewed as the only solution to the problems of Africa. The local, national and regional churches should mobilize their members and be the first to respond with humanitarian aid.  What the governments fail to provide, the church and para-church organizations should bring to their own people.

The fifth opportunity for the churches in solving the problems of Africa is the provision of social services to the people, especially at the grassroots level. Most people in Africa trust the church social services much more than the government ones. For example, in a research that I conducted in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa on “Domestic Violence in Christian homes” (2000), all the participants in my study indicated that if in trouble, they would want to use counseling facilities provided by the church rather than by a government or a secular NGO. Yet unfortunately, not many churches provide such facilities for survivors of gender based violence.

Notwithstanding the above mentioned shortfall, as observed by Katongole:

“In fact, the growth in Christian churches’ social services ministries, combined with the failure of most governments in Africa, have made the sector of Christian social services the single biggest employer in many African countries, with organizations like the World Vision International topping the list. Given the growing involvement of Christian agencies in this area, it is not surprising that many churches in Africa now require a degree in development studies, project management, or some other such certification as a prerequisite for ordination or ministry” (37)

Two observations can be made here. The first is that as an employer, the church in Africa has the opportunity to lead by example in the campaign for decent work by paying their own workers well. decent work as a source of human dignity, social justice and peace. Work is connected to a person’s sense of identity. Indeed, almost all spiritual and religious traditions recognise that work is a source of personal dignity. People measure themselves in society through their relationship to work. Hence the growing figures of unemployment and underemployment in the context of the on-going global financial and economic downturn are nothing less than tragic. Social crises can be triggered by the lack of jobs and livelihoods as there is a relationship between family instability and social turmoil on the one hand and joblessness on the other.

When fathers or mothers lose their jobs or when young graduates are unable to find work, the family goes through tremendous crises: sometimes young children are forced to quit school or are even pushed to find illegal work; the incidence of substance abuse and domestic violence also tends to increase (where women are usually the victims), etc. On a larger scale, the exploitation of workers in an economic system that seeks to maximise profits and minimize costs is an important aspect of social injustice that needs to be addressed. Work is intrinsically linked with social justice and with peace. A community that works is a community at peace, and a community in which there is not enough work constitutes a threat to peace.

The sixth opportunity deals with women leadership of the AACC. Yesterday as we were celebrating the opening of the two buildings, I could not help but notice how male dominated the leadership of the AACC has been for the past 50 years. We were told that in 1963 the AACC and the AOU were born and had similar themes: AOU theme was Freedom and Unity. The AACC’s theme was Freedom and Unity in Christ. The AU, which has replaced the AOU has chosen to declare 2010 to 2020 as African Union decade for women. Two years into the decade, Africa is celebrating the existence of two female heads of state, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Malawian President Joyce Banda, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as the Chairperson of the African Union. It is my prayer that AACC will take the opportunity to lead by example by having a woman General Secretary during our lifetime.

All the suggested opportunities are in line with AACC’s strategic plans to position itself as a prophetic body that is guided by the signs of our times. Transformative ecumenical theological education and formation is the key to turning the opportunities into action.


Bediako, Kwame. 1995 Christianity in Africa, The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion. Maryknoll: Orbis books.

Katongole Emmanuel 2011The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Mugambi, Jesse. 1995. From Liberation to Reconstruction: African Christian Theology After the Cold War. Nairobi: East African Education Publishers.

Phiri IA “President Frederick J.T. Chiluba and Zambia: Evangelicals and Democracy in a Christian Nation?” in Terence O Ranger ed. Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 95-129.

Presentation by Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri
WCC associate general secretary for Public Witness and Diakonia