April 5, 2011

A Visit with Archbishop Henri Isingoma

I was intrigued by a couple of Bishop Kirk Smith’s tweets from the recent House of Bishops meeting:
Archbishop of Congo is hopeful about the future.
46 seconds ago

Archbishop of Congo now speaking in French: Does not feel that there has been adequate discussion of the Covenant among the Primates.
6 minutes ago
When I realized that Congo’s Archbishop Henri Isingoma was in Pittsburgh for a few days, I decided that it would be interesting to talk with him. (Actually, a friend suggested that I interview him, but I recognize a good idea when I see one.)

Isingoma’s big public event in our diocese is his preaching tonight as part of the Tuesday Night Lenten Preaching Series. (Apparently, the archbishop, whose preferred language is French, gave his first sermon in English Sunday at Calvary Church. Presumably, that was a trial run for tonight’s service at St. Thomas Memorial Church in Oakmont, Pennsylvania.)

Lenten Preaching Series logo Archbishop Isingoma was at Calvary last night. He took part in a brief Eucharist before addressing Diocesan Council. The service, which freely mixed French—the dominant language—and English, was a bit disorienting for me, who knows a little Latin and a little German, but no French. There was no homily.

Before the Diocesan Council meeting began, I was able to have a little time with Archbishop Isingoma in the sacristy. The Rev. Dr. Harold T. Lewis stood by to act as translator when my questions perplexed the archbishop. (I was surprised that his restatements in French often seemed very much longer than my original questions.) The archbishop answered my questions in passable English.

I can report that Archbishop Isingoma was charming and forthcoming. His visit to the U.S., which is not his first, will last about three weeks. He is a relatively new primate, having been elected only in 2009. He explained that he missed the recent Primates’ Meeting in Dublin, however, due to a visa problem.

I asked the archbishop a few questions about his church. He told me that there are about half a million Anglicans in Congo, making it a small, though hardly the smallest, church in the Anglican Communion. Services in Congo are conducted primarily in Swahili, but also in French and in several indigenous languages.

Because Episcopalians are perpetually trying to explain to other Anglicans that we elect our bishops, I was interested in learning how Province de L’Eglise Anglicane Du Congo selects its archbishop. Isingoma was, in fact, elected by secret ballot by the church’s House of Bishops.

This information offered an opportunity for me to ask Isingoma’s impression of our own House of Bishops. His answer was a bit surprising: at Kanuga Conference Center, he was struck by encountering so many bishops in one room. (His own church has but eight dioceses!) He noted a fact I had never considered, namely that our own church’s House of Bishops is one of the largest in the Anglican Communion. (Nigeria’s is probably larger.) Anyway, he described the size of The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops as “a good thing.”

Of course, I was especially interested in what Archbishop Isingoma thought of the Anglican Covenant and how his church might respond to it. I learned that the Congo dioceses are in the process of studying the covenant, a process that is going on in The Episcopal Church, the Church of England, and, presumably, in other Anglican churches as well. The House of Bishops will discuss the Covenant in June, the archbishop explained, and the Provincial Synod will take up the matter near the end of 2011.

When pressed about his own view of the Covenant, Archbishop Insingoma responded in much the same way as did Katharine Jefferts Schori when asked about the prospects for Covenant adoption. (See ENS story here.) He suggested that the process that got the Communion to where it is now is actually more important than the Covenant itself. Some are satisfied with changing slowly, but others, he asserted, have been in a hurry and have wanted to end discussion quickly. He described the issues being dealt with by the Communion as “complicated,” and he is clearly pleased that there is a lot of listening going on.

Following the lead of our own presiding bishop, Isingoma ducked the question of what he though the Provincial Synod would do. (“That’s why he’s an archbishop,” Dr. Lewis suggested.) Isingoma did, however, say that his church is concerned, that its identity is very much tied to the Anglican Communion, and that he, personally, loves the Communion. He wants to continue in communion with The Episcopal Church and with the Anglican Communion.


It is interesting that many bishops are expressing satisfaction with the discussion and deepening relationships that have seemingly been encouraged by the Windsor Process and development of the Covenant. (I am reminded again of Bishop John Saxbee’s remarks in the Church of England’s General Synod about favoring the process—as long as it never ends.) One can only be encouraged by this. Perhaps our churches were scared into talking with one another. (Of course, some primates continue to turn blue from holding their breath until everyone else agrees with them.)

Wouldn’t it have made more sense to encourage discussion among Communion churches before concluding that a covenant was “the only way forward.” Perhaps we would have discovered another, and assuredly better, way forward.

N.B. When I first posted this piece, my paragraph breaks were somehow lost, decreasing readability. I apologize for the problem and have now restored the originally intended formatting.

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