Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion
Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion
Dana L. Robert
Wiley-Blackwell, 2009
232 pp., $31.95

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Jason Byassee

Holy Space in Uganda

Anglicans, Catholics, and martyrs.

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The Catholics have built a magnificent shrine at Namugongo. It is shaped like a traditional Bugandan hut, with 22 pillars reaching to the heavens, symbolizing the 22 Catholic martyrs. If from the outside it looks unfortunately like an enormous lunar module, on the inside it looks like heaven, with oceans of dark mahogany. The altar is built over the spot where one Charles Lwanga died, and his bones and ashes are visible if you kneel down low enough (not a bad posture for any Christian). A photo on the wall shows Pope Paul VI kneeling to kiss the spot, as millions have since his visit. "Two hundred and thirty popes came and went before one visited Africa," a tour guide told us, explaining the continent's love for the pope who canonized of the Uganda Martyrs. A number of nuns seem to spend all their time at the shrine, like Simeon and Anna in the temple, awaiting their savior.

To say the Anglican shrine was a letdown would be a vast understatement. The Anglicans had no commemorative structure until the announcement of Paul VI's upcoming visit in the late 1960s. So they built a historic reconstruction of the event. Statues of martyrs bound in reeds lie in a hut, as though about to be burned. In another corner of the yard sits a re-creation of the executioner's hut. A plaque says a certain tree grows in the spot where a previous tree stood which had been a site of torture before the martyrdoms. Another commemorates Paul's visit. Other plaques teach of famous conversions: the executioner of the Ugandan martyrs and eventually the kings of Buganda who succeeded Mwanga.

The church in the place is in pitiful shape. The cross above the steeple is crooked. Windows in plastic, not stained glass, are shattered. Pews are arranged haphazardly. Chickens and dogs wandered the yard. No tour guide was even present when we arrived, so we showed ourselves in. Even if one wanted to kneel or pray, there is no place to do so. This is Protestantism to the nth degree: historical re-creation, stories of famous conversions, and no provision to hallow ground or bones.

Things were little better at the magnificent Anglican cathedral of Namirembe, one of the grandest ecclesial structures in east Africa. I went in and asked to see the tombs of Bishop Hannington and of his successor and fellow martyr-bishop Janani Luwum, killed for standing up to the dictator Idi Amin. In a beautiful gesture, he was originally buried beside Hannington—one Episcopal opponent to tyrants at rest by another.

The receptionist at the cathedral glared in response to my question. "Luwum has been moved. Hannington is out back." I went looking for the cemetery and found it in disarray. Vines grew over stones. The grass was not cut. There was far more mud to traverse than sidewalk. I couldn't find the man whose last words were "Tell the king I die for Uganda." I almost gave up, till I saw his stone off to the side, out of view, with nothing to distinguish it from any of the other graves. At least his last words were etched there. Perhaps the dying words explain the lack of reverence: they can be interpreted a bit too messianically for Protestant taste.

Anglicans have long claimed that their church occupies a middle ground between Protestant and Catholic, with elements of each. To my mind, why be Anglican at all if not to worship with smells and bells—and, among some Anglo-Catholics, with Latin and bones? But the Church Mission Society that evangelized East Africa was as low-church as one can be, and that heritage persists in Ugandan Anglicanism.

Ugandan Anglicans are right to be wary of pagan elements in drinking holy water and kissing bones. Catholics themselves have pastoral admonitions they'll make against moments of excess, even if they don't heed them as often as we might like. It would be hard to argue against money going to evangelism or feeding Uganda's legions in poverty. But I felt deprived of a place to pray at Hannington's grave, a kneeler at the Anglican Uganda Martyrs shrine, maybe even a place to touch reminding me of the quite physical death of the martyrs in imitation of Christ.

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