By Mark Michael
Rwanda’s Anglican church recently changed its name, removing the word “province,” which it sees as a colonialist relic, according to a letter released on September 30 by the church’s primate, Archbishop Laurent Mbanda. This is the third name for the Francophone church, which was called ‘Province de l’ Eglise Episcopal au Rwanda” (Province of the Episcopal Church of Rwanda) when founded in 1992, and renamed as “Province de l’ Eglise Anglicane au Rwanda” (The Province of the Anglican Church of Rwanda) in 2007. According to Mbanda, it will now be known as ‘Eglise Anglicane du Rwanda’ (The Anglican Church of Rwanda).
Archbishop Mbanda described the change enacted by the church’s provincial synod as “part of the continuing biblical realignment of our Anglican Communion.’ He announced the change in his monthly missive as vice-chairman of the GAFCON Movement, a group which describes itself as “the global movement of bible-based, orthodox Anglicans in gospel mission.” The movement, which is chaired by Archbishop Foley Beach, primate of the Anglican Church in North America, is viewed by some of its members as an alternative to the Anglican Communion and the historical focus in the ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In the letter, Mbanda wrote, “Removing the word ‘Province’ is a significant change. We are not subjects. Some want us to accept that it is essential to being Anglican that you are recognized by Canterbury, but we find our identity first and foremost through our Biblical and Anglican doctrinal inheritance in Christ.”
Archbishop Mbanda’s terms echo the rhetoric of the 2008 Jerusalem Declaration promulgated at the GAFCON Movement’s initial gathering. The statement construes Anglicanism as a “global fellowship” of believers who hold in common 14 “tenets of orthodoxy.” These include acknowledgement of the 16th century Thirty-Nine Articles as “the true doctrine of the Church,” of the “1662 Book of Common Prayer as a true and authoritative standard of worship,” and of “the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman.”
The Jerusalem Declaration, notably, makes no mention of the historic role of the Church of England or the Archbishop of Canterbury within Anglicanism. It also sets out a doctrinal, instead of a geographic or historically continuous, standard for authorized ministry. It states “we recognize the orders and jurisdiction of those Anglicans who uphold orthodox faith and practice” and “We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed.”
Mbanda’s letter about the Rwandan church’s name change directly quotes the Jerusalem Statement, a companion document to the Declaration. Mbanda wrote, “The Jerusalem Statement and Declaration of 2008 concluded ‘We can only come to the devastating conclusion that ‘we are a global Communion with a colonial structure.’’ We seek only to be a colony of heaven!”
The sentence that Mbanda quotes from the Jerusalem Statement directly references the inability of the Global South-dominated Primates’ Meeting and the Lambeth Conference to effectively discipline the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada for actions it describes as “overt heterodoxy.” In the Jerusalem Statement’s construal, the colonial character of the Communion is seen in the failure of wealthy Anglo provinces to obey Communion-wide strictures.
The Jerusalem Statement itself uses the phrase “province” in a neutral way to denote an autonomous national Anglican church seven times. It describes the signatories of the document, for example, as “a fellowship of Anglicans, including provinces, dioceses, churches, missionary jurisdictions, para-church organizations and individual Anglican Christians.”
In total, eleven of the 39 member churches of the Anglican Communion include the word “province” in their official name. They include Central Africa, Congo, Indian Ocean, Melanesia, Myanmar, South East Asia, Sudan, South Susan, Uganda, West Africa, and the West Indies. Four of these churches (Congo, Myanmar, South Sudan and Uganda) are formally affiliated with the GAFCON Movement.
Unlike most nations which have a significant Anglican presence, Rwanda was never a British colony. Like neighboring Burundi, it was ruled by the Germans and then the Belgians from 1884-1959. Anglicanism came to what is now Rwanda through the evangelistic work of the Church Mission Society, which first sent missionaries from present-day Uganda into the region in 1914.
The Anglican Church of Rwanda has about a million members and eleven dioceses. It will host the next GAFCON gathering in Kigali in June 2020, several weeks before the Lambeth Conference. Archbishop Mbanda indicated in his letter that he looked forward to welcoming delegates to the meeting from around the world. He also hinted that the June gathering may take action regarding ecclesial bodies, saying that it would seek to meet a present need: “we do need to ensure that we have global Anglican Communion structures which are fit for purpose.”
The Anglican Church of Rwanda’s decision to redefine itself in light of the GAFCON Movement parallels the larger GAFCON-oriented Church of Nigeria’s 2005 decision to amend its constitution to redefine the Anglican Communion in doctrinal terms, eliminating the necessity of communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Nigerian church’s constitution now defines the Communion as “Anglican Churches, Dioceses and Provinces that hold and maintain the ‘Historic Faith, Doctrine, Sacrament and Discipline of the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church’.”