When Paul Simon put out the epic Graceland, one of the most evocative lyrics on the album referred to “under an African sky”. I didn't really understand why an African sky should be any different from any other sky. (There speaks a British city man.)
On my first trip to Africa – to Zimbabwe for a diocesan partnership link visit – I was overwhelmed by the sky at night. Under total darkness – no light pollution out in the bush – the sky appeared to be in 3D: billions of stars filled the night sky, shooting stars appearing and expiring in seconds. It was breathtaking. On one subsequent visit a group of us lay outside on the grass just staring at the sky for ages, silent contemplation squeezing out the distractions of talk and 'stuff'.
Africa is gorgeous. It can also be infuriating. On a diocesan link visit to Tanzania wifi has been mostly non-existent. So, for those of us intending to communicate the experience more widely, we have had to leave the iPad unopened while we immersed ourselves in the experiences and conversations of the moment. In its own way it is very therapeutic.
We have come with a group of thirteen. The historic Diocese of Wakefield had a longstanding and very well developed link with the Diocese of Mara in northern Tanzania. Mara then divided in 2010 and two new dioceses were formed: Rorya and Tarime. We are visiting all three. Now, as part of the Diocese of Leeds (known as West Yorkshire and the Dales – not easy for all Tanzanians to pronounce), Tanzania is one link among several: Sudan and Southwestern Virginia (formed with the historic Diocese of Bradford) and Sri Lanka (with the historic Diocese of Ripon & Leeds). There are also smaller, more specific links with Skara in Sweden and the Kirchenkreis Erfurt in Germany.
Here in Tanzania we have visited people, projects, churches and schools. There are some inspiring people here, and they are doing some remarkable things. From the building of schools to the creation of vocational training centres to help girls avoid FGM and early marriage, the church serves its wider community with commitment, sacrifice and courage. One or two places we have visited are like the Wild West – frontier places that do not look immediately promising for the church.
The church here is growing. Yet, I find myself increasingly annoyed by much of what I have heard over the years that contrasts the church in the UK with the church in Africa (as if 'Africa' was a single entity anyway). For example, here in Tanzania the church is planting churches and congregations where none has ever existed before. They might start a congregation under a tree, but they soon move towards building a church building. In fact, one dynamic bishop went as far as to say that the church grows once there is a building. At the same time as in England there seems to be a rush to get rid of buildings on the basis that they put people off…
Now, this sounds like England over a hundred years ago. The Victorians planted churches and erected buildings where none had existed before and the church grew in many dimensions. But, the church in England – especially one that organises by territorial missional obligation … such as the Church of England – now finds itself in a different culture that holds a different memory about the church and which sees the now redundant buildings as a sign of decline. Yet, many of our buildings are worn out, in the wrong place for today's world or capable only of static worship and use.
In other words, as a bishop said to me yesterday, the African church will probably one day (in fifty, a hundred or two hundred years) face the same situation the English church attends to today. Which means that we English should stop romanticising the African church and recognise that we have to find English ways of growing the church (taking a longer-term view) and not make the simplistic assumption that if we only copied the African church all would be well. There is no simple equation. Technique will never trump inspiration by the Spirit of God.
I always come away from churches in Africa – in Zimbabwe, Sudan and now Tanzania – inspired and energised. But, I never come away thinking there is some simple equation that can be applied in Leeds just because it works in Musoma or Tarime. What gets fired up is the imagination to look afresh at the context in Leeds and, having stepped back, to reimagine how the priorities in Leeds might now be addressed.
Now for the market – after a week of intensive engagement and travel, today is the closest we will get to a day off. Tomorrow I preach in Musoma Cathedral.That said, however, respite from the cold, wet and miserable English winter doesn't half help that imagination get stimulated.