The Origin of Orthodoxy in East Africa
“I have come as a light into the world,
that whoever believes in Me
should not abide in the darkness.”
Orthodoxy is the expression of Tradition and the Teaching of Jesus Christ from the time of Pentacost when tongues of the fire of the Holy Spirit were sent to the disciples. From Pentacost to the present day, Orthodoxy has adhered to the Apostolic Tradition.
Orthodoxy in East Africa had a rather unique origin as it was not the result of missionary evangelism, nor was it originally inspired by European/White introduction.
East African Orthodoxy had two focal points: Uganda and Central Province Kenya
The 1930s - the Colonial Missionaries
In the 1930s it was the attitude of the Colonial government and the foreign Missionaries, particularly from the Colonial Motherland, the United Kingdom, that the African should be given minimum education experience and that this should be under the direct supervision of the Missionaries. The Colonial government did not hold enfranchisement as one of its goals, nor did it have the finance to assume the responsibilities of educating Africans.
It was the Missionaries who held that Christianity must be linked with a cultural transference. In the Kikuyu areas this led ultimately to confrontation.
Increasing pressure by the Missionaries, with the consent of the Colonial regime, to force the Kikuyu to give up their traditions was strongly opposed. The matter of female circumcision was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Kikuyu in large numbers boycotted the Mission schools and churches. They then set up their own schools in a process known as Harambee.
Boycotting the Mission Schools - Kikuyu Breakaway Groups
There were two groups: the Independents - the Kikuyu Independent School Association (KISA) and the Karinga - the Kikuyu Karinga Education Association (KKEA).
The word “Karinga” in Kikuyu means “orthodox” or “pure” and the members of this group wanted to maintain their cultural traditions, identity and beliefs, but they also wanted Christianity in its purest form.
The Kikuyu community firmly supported their schools and soon they were quite numerous not only in the area of Nairobi, but in the rural areas as well. The established Missions were much opposed to these schools and tried to pressure the government to close them, but they were allowed to continue and flourish.
At this time schools were church sponsored, so once the Kikuyu had abandoned the Mission churches they had no schools. The organisation of the Karinga schools provided for the educational needs of their children, but they were without church affiliation.
Between 1935 and 1937 the Independent KISA and the Karinga KKEA were drawn closer in their efforts.
Bishop Daniel Alexander
The African Orthodox Church in South Africa
The local organisations of KISA and KKEA had heard of a Bishop Daniel Alexander from South Africa. They raised funds and arranged for Bishop Alexander to come to Kenya and provide religious instruction to members of both organisations with the aim of establishing an indigenous church based on legitimate origin.
Bishop Alexander was the leader of the African Orthodox Church (AOC) in South Africa. This church was independent of any white-dominated church organisation and had association with the Afro-American African Orthodox Church.
Bishop Alexander spent 16 months in the Kikuyu areas operating from a base in Muranga. He baptised and lectured and provided specific religious training to four young men who had been proposed by both the Independent and the Karinga associations. Two of the men, from Kiambu and Nyeri, were ordained priests. These became the first priests of the African Orthodox Church in Kenya. The others, from Embu and Muranga, were ordained deacons, but they chose not to follow Orthodoxy and eventually they established the African Independent Pentecostal Church (AIPC).
During the 1930s Bishop Alexander had also ordained two priests in Uganda. They too had rejected the foreign dominated churches. In their case, they left the Anglican Church.
The Origins of the African Orthodox Church
After World War I, in the United States of America, there was a strong demonstration of black independence and cultural nationalism. Out of this wave for recognition of black rights the African Orthodox Church was formed by blacks of West Indian origin and it was closely related to the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
The African Orthodox Church was comprised mainly of black Anglicans/Episcopalians who were disaffected by the white dominance of their religious lives. The church made use of UNIA’s official information service. The Negro World to send out its message of the creation of a black church based on Apostolic tradition.
In 1924, William Daniel Alexander petitioned the AOC to open its doors in South Africa. Alexander was a black South African former Anglican clergyman and a member of an indigenous church which was of schismatic nature. Eventually, he became the first bishop in the African Orthodox Church in Africa.
The African Orthodox Church in America was headed by George Alexander McGuire, who came from the British West Indies. He had been baptised an Anglican, educated by Moravians and had become a pastor of that sect in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Later he immigrated to the United States and worked for a period of time with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. From there he moved to the Protestant Episcopal Church and became Archdeacon for Coloured Work in the Diocese of Arkansas, the highest position, as a Black, to which he could aspire.
McGuire broke with this Church in New York and became deeply involved in the Black Nationalist Movement being instituted by the UNIA. He became the organisation’s Chaplain General in 1920 and within one year had established the African Orthodox Church.
This was a period of black disillusionment and disenchantment with their status and with the enactment of discriminatory laws. This was not only true in the American South, but also in the Northern cities where the discrimination was often worse.
It was also a time when the idea of separate development of the races was being aired. The mainline churches, such as the Episcopal Church (Anglican), wanted to bring the faith to the Blacks, but did not want to be seen as advocates of “political and social equality”.
McGuire, motivated by his elevation to Chaplain General of the UNIA movement, conceived the idea of a universal Black Church which would unite Blacks of all denominations. The leader of UNIA strongly opposed this concept of a universal Black Church and with the proposed church affiliation to his movement. McGuire resigned from UNIA and set up the African Orthodox Church, having himself been declared its bishop by the local membership.
Why Orthodoxy as the hope for goal ? Orthodoxy was unlike all other denominations. It was never associated with racism, colonialism or religious imperialism. It had not involved itself in universal missionary activity.
Further, in America, the Orthodox were not associated with the establishment and often faced the same discrimination as did the Blacks. Orthodoxy also existed in Egypt, Ethiopia , India and the Middle East and in the eyes of the African Orthodox Church members, Orthodox Christians from these areas were kindred souls.
Previous encounters with the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches had been futile. Neither wanted to recognise or include the African Orthodox Church in its communion. There were discussions with the Russian Orthodox Church, which was agreeable, except for the wish of Russian Orthodoxy to reduce the AOC to that of mission status.
Bishop Rene Vilatte - The Old Catholic Church
Finally McGuire made contact with a bishop of a schismatic Catholic Church, known as the Old Catholic Church, and he received consecration. This bishop of the Old Catholic Church in his own turn received consecration from one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches.
This bishop was Rene Vilatte, titled Mar. Timotheos, Old Catholic Archbishop of North America and First Primate of the American Catholic Church. He was one of the occasional individuals who have valid episcopal orders, but was never recognised by any of the established churches.
Rene Vilatte was born in Paris, France and educated by Roman Catholics. For many years he vacillated between Catholicism and Protestantism. Later he emigrated to Canada and from there went to the United States.
He was very active in the sense of Missionary zeal and eventually was recommended too be ordained a priest in the Old Catholic Church by the Bishop of Bern, Switzerland, Edward Hezog.
Rene Vilatte returned to the United States where he continued to work, but met many difficulties, particularly in achieving the episcopy. Since he could not induce either the legitimate Catholic Church to consecrate him as a bishop, nor the hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. He looked far and wide for an alternative.
In 1880, Roman Catholics, led by a loan priest, in Southern India broke with Rome. The priest, Antonio Franscisco Xavier Alvares, sought consecration as bishop from the Syro-Jacobite Church of Malabar, which is an Oriental Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch. Patriarch Ignatius Peter III of Antioch gave his blessing to this consecration. Rene Vilatte requested that Alvarez elevate him to the episcopate. Alvarez agreed and Vilatte pledged his church and himself to the authority of the Patriarch of Antioch and in return was made Archbishop of the Old Catholic Church of America and granted the privileges and rights of a Metropolitan.
Rene Vilatte as bishop made more than twenty subsequent consecrations of new bishops and of new churches. These consecrations became doubtful because they were made outside the authority of the Church. This prompted the Syro-Jacobite Church to officially withdraw recognition of the secession churches in 1938. Further, Vilatte was accused of not upholding the canons, nor did he remain within the jurisdiction of the Church of Antioch.
The Rejection of Vilatte - Implications for Uganda and Kenya
This rejection of Rene Vilatte and his secession churches did not have much impact on the African Orthodox Church in the United States, but it did have serious implications on the churches in Uganda and Kenya.
The Ugandans severed relations with Bishop Alexander when they came to realise that he was not really Orthodox and immediately they entered into communication with the Greek Patriarch of Alexandria, Meletios Metaxakis. His Beatitude was sympathetic and able to guide the Ugandans well.
In 1946, His Beatitude, Christophoros II, Patriarch of Alexandria, accepted the Ugandan Orthodox Church into his flock. In 1959 a diocese was created for East Africa and a bishop given the title of Irinoupolis (in honour of Dar es Salaam). At that time the bishop resided in Uganda and looked after both the African work and the Greek planters who came to Africa after the dispersion of Smyrna.
The situation in Kenya was very different. By October 1952, both the KKEA (Karinga Association) and the KISA (Independents) were charged with subversion and their schools were closed. It was widely thought they were connected directly with the MauMau who sought independence from Great Britain.
The government offered to reopen the schools, but only under the direct supervision of the government or the Missions. A few of the schools of KISA did opt to reopen, but non of the Karinga schools.
The African Orthodox Church was forced to keep a low profile. For ten years Karinga Orthodox were not allowed public worship, yet their faith sustained them until the State of Emergency was lifted. Independence came and President Jomo Kenyatta lifted the ban on the Orthodox.
The Kikuyu Orthodox, under the leadership of Fr. Arthur G. Gathuna, chose to revive the Orthodox Faith in Kenya. Further, linkage was made with the Orthodox in Western Kenya who had received the Word initially from Uganda. Like the Church in Uganda, the Kenyan Church now sought the legitimacy of the Patriarchate of Alexandria.
Read other writings by His Eminence Metropolitan Makarios in Adventures in the Unseen