3 October 2012
The faithful celebrate the liturgy at the Church of St. Nicholas in Kampala, Uganda. (photo: Tugela Ridley)
“Orthodox Christianity is not new to Africa,” noted Andrew Rice in his article appearing in the March 2006 issue of ONE. “According to tradition, the Evangelist Mark arrived on the continent around A.D. 43, and founded the Church of Alexandria and, by extension, all Africa. But ‘all Africa,’ for most of the church’s history, effectively ended at the Sahara.”
Rice described how an Orthodox Christian identity in sub-Saharan Africa — the Ugandan Orthodox Church — was shaped by colonialism in the 19th century, two African rebels and just a bit of confusion over a name:
[Anti-colonial rebel Reuben] Spartas was, in short, a man in search of a vehicle for his nationalist passions. As it turned out, that vehicle was to be a church. He was a devout man, but by the mid-1920’s Spartas had grown increasingly frustrated with what he saw as the established church’s compromises and inconsistencies. He and an army buddy, Obadiah Basajjakitalo — Metropolitan Jonah [of Kampala and All Uganda]’s grandfather — began exploring other religions. What happened next has taken on the air of a creation myth: Spartas supposedly ran across an entry for the word “Orthodox” in the dictionary. “Like another Archimedes,” a subsequent church leader wrote, “he ran out into the streets shouting: ‘I have found, I have found!’ ”
The real story is a bit more complicated, involving an iconoclastic early civil rights leader and a case of mistaken religious identity. Sometime in the 1920’s, Spartas got hold of a copy of a newspaper called the Negro World, which was published by Marcus Garvey, the West Indian progenitor of the “back to Africa” movement. Spartas learned that Garvey had championed the creation of an African Orthodox Church. Other than sharing a name, Garvey’s church had no relationship to mainstream Orthodoxy. But Spartas did not know that. In 1925, he wrote African Orthodox Church leaders in America, saying he wanted to join up and convert other Ugandans.
After a long courtship-by-letter, Spartas announced that he had left the Anglican Church and declared the establishment of a new church “for all right-thinking Africans, men who wish to be free in their own house, not always being thought of as boys.” In 1932, one of Garvey’s bishops traveled to Uganda and ordained Spartas and Basajjakitalo priests. The kabaka of Baganda donated a section of his personal estate at Namungoona to the new church, and within a few years, it claimed 5,000 members.
There was just one problem — the church was not really Orthodox. Spartas discovered this when a Greek expatriate in town came to baptize a child and told him he had the rituals all wrong. Worried correspondence with Alexandria ensued and, after some confusion, all links to Garvey’s church were severed, and Spartas traveled to Egypt to be ordained by Patriarch Christophoros II. The Ugandan Orthodox had Alexandria’s recognition. Acceptance would be longer in coming.
For more of this fascinating story, read Orthodox Africa.
Tags: Christianity Africa Orthodox Church Orthodox