What’s in a name? The Church of Uganda and the Question of Identity

What’s in a name? The Church of Uganda and the Question of Identity

Revd Amos Kasibante

The large number of candidates for confirmation in the Church of Uganda has never ceased to surprise me. When I hear or read about bishops confirming fifty, sixty, seventy or more candidates, mostly boys and girls in their early teens, not only does my memory go back to my confirmation while I was still in Primary School; I also contemplate the enormity of the bishop’s work. The bishops of the Church of Uganda have their work cut out.

Christian parents in the Church of Uganda take seriously their responsibility of bringing their children to the bishop for confirmation as they were urged to do at their children’s baptism. They see both baptism and confirmation as connected. When you are confirmed you take up your full place in the Church.

By contrast, if a bishop in the Church of England confirms twenty candidates – that would be considered a large number. There are various reasons for this contrast. Firstly, church attendance in Britain in general has seen a steady decline over the years, which does not mean that there are no churches in England that have seen growth in numbers in recent times.  Secondly, and this is related to the first, there are fewer youths in Britain attending church or having a faith than in the past. Thirdly, there are many parents who do not attend church on a regular basis but bring their babies to the church for baptism, and few know or bother about confirmation. Many people who wish to be godparents may have been baptised, but not confirmed. The Church of England makes baptism a condition for anyone wishing to be a godparent, but confirmation is not a condition, although ideally a godparent should be baptised and confirmed. In the Church of Uganda, to become a godparent, you must be baptised and confirmed.

However, as I have realised in my own parish, the increase of the number of children and young people coming to the church has opportunities and challenges. The opportunities are obvious and need no elaboration.  The challenges are to do with appropriate nurture for children and young people. How to get them involved and feel involved in worship and other church activities? How to provide Bible Study that is imaginative and stimulating and motivates them to read the Bible on their own? How to train children and young people’s leaders?

The Church of Uganda faces a challenge with its children and young people. For while it is true that many of them are involved with the Church on a regular basis, a very large number of children baptised and confirmed in the Church of Uganda leave to join the new Pentecostal and evangelical Churches. And when they do, they even begin to question the importance of confirmation. They do not understand or see its biblical basis. Many of the tenets of the Anglican Church are lost on them, such as episcopacy, the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, the historic creeds, and the Book of Common Prayer or its equivalent in the Church of Uganda.

In the pre-independence and early post-independence period, the Church of Uganda only had to define its distinctive identity in relation to the Roman Catholic Church. The other Churches in existence, such as the Greek Orthodox Church and the Seventh Day Adventists were small and their impact was negligible. It was the Church of Uganda and the Catholic Church whose dominance was unchallenged. They ran the schools and the hospitals and the majority of Christians in Uganda were mostly born into them. A Pentecostal-Charismatic movement in the form of the Full Gospel Mission Church started at Makerere in the mid-1960s, but it did not impact the two historic churches in any significant way.

Today, the ground has shifted and there has been a proliferation of Pentecostal/ Charismatic churches everywhere. They are no longer confined to the city or urban areas, but have found their way deep in the villages. They appeal especially to the youth in Secondary Schools and Universities, Uganda’s educated class, and ordinary people trying to find their place and identity in the midst of rapid social change.

What might be the way forward?

Would it be useful for Dioceses or the Province to organise Youth Conferences, say, during the holidays with a focus on Anglican identity and the Anglican Communion, with a bit of history? This might be seasoned with vibrant worship, music and Bible Study.  Catholics have little problem explaining why they are Catholic. They simply say that Catholic means universal. But Anglicans have a little difficulty explaining their tag. So they prefer to call themselves “evangelical”, a loaded term with a cultural baggage which is often just passed over.  For many evangelical churches in the sense of “free” churches do not subscribe to the tenets of Anglicanism. Nor in their approach to Scripture do they give weight to Anglican triad of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason/experience, but may subscribe to the tradition of sola scriptura, sola fide (Scripture and faith alone).