Memory of slave trade puts Anglican rows in perspective

By staff writers
19 Feb 2007

A slave market whipping post once stood where the high altar now rises inside Zanzibar's 127-year-old Christ Church Cathedral. Here the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, began the Eucharist on 18 February 2007 with prayers asking "forgiveness for the past, mercy for the present, and humility for the future" - writes Bob Williams for Episcopal News Service USA.

More than 600 people overflowed the historic nave. Some, seeking shade from the equator-hot sun, filled a tented area on the cathedral close, grounds that were until the 19th century a nexus of the Arabian-European-American slave trade.

Fellow Primates - the Anglican Communion's chief presiding bishops, archbishops and moderators - joined Dr Williams around the copper-and-wood paneled chancel as he asked God to "help us to find hope at times of bondage and fear."

Gathered in Tanzania for their five-day meeting, which ends today, the Primates are expected to close their proceedings with a communiqu?© addressing topics including a proposed covenant that would ask the 38 autonomous Anglican Provinces to deepen their communion amid differing viewpoints, notably on human sexuality and same-gender relationships.

"Grant that we may be faithful witnesses against violence, hatred and oppression," Dr Williams prayed, adding later that his own Church of England joins this year in observing the bicentennial of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade -- an occasion to be marked in a late-March 2007 liturgy in Westminster Abbey.

It was to the Abbey for burial that the body of English medic-explorer David Livingstone was dispatched from Tanzania, carried some miles across the bush, in 1873, the same year English missionaries bought the slave market for the cathedral close. Memorials to Livingstone and his advocacy against slavery grace the nave of Zanzibar's cathedral.

"Today it is very appropriate to think how God makes us see," Dr Williams said in his address. "One thing we might reflect upon today is what thing are we blind to - who is it now whose suffering we cannot see, we cannot understand.

"In some societies it may be women, the elderly, or children," he said. In others, "it may be minorities of one kind or another.... It is the case in our wealthy countries that we don't see the realities of suffering in other parts of the world."

These international connections were underscored at the service's conclusion when the Archbishop installed Ugandan-born Hellen Wangusa as Anglican Observer at the United Nations.

God's love helps believers see "who we really are" ... and "truly because of that we see others in new ways. ... So we begin to be able to set about the task of setting others free ... the chains, the shackles of our own fears fall away."

Hymns and prayers alternated between Swahili and English during the liturgy, with loudspeaker calls to prayer from the neighbouring mosque occasionally overheard between organ strains.

Most Zanzibaris are Muslim, dating from when the island was colonized and under the rule of Oman's Sultan before becoming a British Protectorate. In 1964, Zanzibar and the mainland Tanganyika were joined into the united nation of Tanzania.

Provincial officials joined in presenting gifts to all of the visiting Primates, including Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church "in the United States and 15 other nations."

After the service - and the Primates' seaside-hotel luncheon with Zanzibar's President Amani Abeid Karume - Bishop Jefferts Schori returned to the cathedral's chancel for several moments of reflection at the high altar.

There she had been among the Communion's 13 newest Primates seated in choir stalls facing the congregation. Seated on the chancel steps were other more senior Primates, except Nigeria's Peter Akinola, who absented himself from the morning's service - and the two-hour Indian Ocean boat trips to and from Dar es Salaam.

For his part, Uganda's Archbishop Henry Orombi - although he opposes other provinces' inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians - exchanged the peace by cordially shaking hands with several Primates, including Jefferts Schori.

Returning through the cathedral's traditionally carved Zanzibar doors, the Presiding Bishop was met by cathedral volunteers who took pride in showing her the high altar's mosaic of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.

"This church is seen as God's intervention in human affairs through men and women of good will," notes diocesan secretary Nuhu J. Sallanya, writing about the cathedral. "The place of horror and despair has been transformed" into an "area of worship and praise."

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