By Hannah Matis Perett
The Rt. Rev. Dickson Chilongani was elected sixth Bishop of Central Tanganyika by a landslide in October 2014, winning more than 90 percent of the vote in a country where episcopal elections are often hotly contested. I was honored to attend Bishop Chilongani’s consecration service and installation on November 23 and 24, through Virginia Theological Seminary’s Center for Anglican Communion Studies.
Born in 1966, Chilongani grew up in the capital city of Dodoma, finding a spiritual home near what is now Msalato Theological College. At the time he had few resources and was largely self-educated. Ultimately he took an opportunity to study at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, where he completed both a master’s degree and a doctorate. He completed another master’s degree at the University of Durham. He told me of retaining a fondness for Manchester United Football Club. He and his wife, Pendo, have two sons, Imani and John.
Because of his travels, education, and experience, Bishop Chilongani relates to a wide variety of people. Before his election he was the diocese’s provincial secretary. He was among the scholars who created Bible studies for the Lambeth Conference in 2008. As a member of the Anglican Consultative Council, he has worked for greater cooperation and information-sharing across the Anglican Communion. He has participated in Continuing Indaba, the project for enabling conversation and continued mission across differences in the Anglican Communion.
The Diocese of Central Tanganyika is estimated to be among the largest in the Anglican Communion. Dodoma is located in the territory of the Wagogo people, who are majority Anglican, comprising approximately half of the area’s population. Unlike the coastal port of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, Dodoma is located in fairly arid country. In North American terms, traveling from one to the other is like a journey from Miami to Santa Fe. Water has never been abundant, but it is now even more scarce and precious. While still an overwhelmingly rural country, Tanzania is developing quickly, and deforestation has further contributed to the country’s water shortages.
Dodoma is among the three areas of Tanzania most vulnerable to drought, and 2012-13 was particularly devastating. In recent months violence has erupted between farmers and pastoralists. Water, rather than conflict between Christians and Muslims, has been the primary cause. People moving to seek better land to grow crops inevitably bring their differing religious allegiances into play, however, and one of the challenges Bishop Chilongani will face is to help lead his people in a time of complexity, stress, and social change.
During the consecration service in Dodoma’s Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, a Muslim imam urged Bishop Chilongani to remember the poor. The Most Rev. Jacob Chimeledya, Archbishop of Tanzania, likewise exhorted him to help protect the poor of the region in clashes with the city of Kibaya to the northeast. The Rev. Canon Philip Groves, one of Bishop Chilongani’s former tutors, read a personal letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Choirs sang both in Swahili and in their local languages. Mizengo Pinda, Tanzania’s prime minister, gave the concluding address.
I have pondered our many conversations, and one brief exchange in particular, that occurred at Msalato Theological College the day before Bishop Chilongani’s consecration. Several American visitors had driven out to the college to meet and drink tea with the students, and we ended up exchanging questions in Msalato’s small and open chapel. Many of these students are very young; they will be put in charge of parishes of up to 800 people; and they are from locations so remote that walking is the most efficient and reliable means of reaching them. There are about 500,000 Anglicans in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, although exact figures are impossible. By comparison, there are approximately 2 million members of the America-based Episcopal Church. Central Tanganyika, unlike some dioceses of Tanzania, ordains women to the priesthood. Ordained or not, young women provide important rudimentary pastoral care in rural areas.
Students at Msalato had been asking us about certain differences between the Episcopal Church and their own situation. One of our group, the Rev. Ranjit Mathews, asked them: “Do we need each other?”
They responded with an unequivocal yes, but not because of American money, resources, or leadership, which can help but so often come at a cost. These students said we need one another because as Christians we are called to relationship, and because the ties of relationship between us — between local congregations, between institutions, between people — are themselves of great value. There is much that we can do for one another, provided that cultivating these relationships is our central priority.
Hannah Matis Perett is an assistant professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary.
Image of Msalato Theological College’s grounds by Hannah Matis Perett