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Celebrating autonomy and freedom of worship

In spite of the uncertainty in Zimbabwe, celebrations have never been left out of our calendar. At birth we celebrate through singing, when someone has died we celebrate the life of the deceased in style.  On most of our celebratory occasions, there is a lot of singing, drumming and dancing. The Methodist Church in Zimbabwe (MCZ), which came to Rhodesia in 1891, is celebrating 40 years of autonomy at the National Sports Stadium on August 17-20 2017, having been weaned from the British Methodism in 1977.

The Bornwell Chakaodza column By Rev Dr Levee Kadenge

August is a traditional month of celebrations. After celebrating Heroes’ Day which is followed by Defence Forces Day, the remaining days in the month are taken by various church organisations where they meet for annual conventions. These gatherings mark the end of one year and the beginning of another. New leadership takes over and preparations for the following year’s celebrations begin in earnest.

Traditionalists also exploit the month of August by encouraging all those who will be considering honouring their dead by holding kurova gura/umbuyiso, bringing back of spirits of the dead ceremonies. This month is packed with these activities. The month of November will be out of the question because it is a month of taboo. There should be no celebrations of any kind ranging from weddings or even graduation parties for the month is considered holy because that is “when ancestors are on break”.

August then becomes the busiest month in the year when people are free to engage in their rituals, be they church or traditional. The month becomes a month of renewal.  Schools will be closed and parents have time to take part in activities of one’s choice. No wonder some call the month of August the month of happiness, it is a month of laughter, it is a month of joy.

From August 21 to 26, there will be another celebration of the Harare Agricultural Show under the theme: Climate resilience — The new Agricultural Frontier. No other month can beat August this year with all these activities that will see their days.  Both the spiritual side of life and the material side will be catered for in a big way. Those who have gone will also be remembered and celebrated in these activities.

The Methodist Church in Zimbabwe also chose this month to celebrate 40 years of autonomy. Previously the church was run from the mother church in UK. On October 18 1977 the local church was given independence to run its own affairs at the former Municipality Sports Centre.  The first leader of the church was the Rev Andrew Majoni Ndhlela who had been its leader from 1965.  The missionaries had seen that their time of leading the church had to come to an end and left the locals to do their own thing.

This meant a lot of responsibilities being put on the shoulders of the local leadership. Some of those issues the church was grappling with was the indigenisation of the church.
local support had to be solicited for and developments had to be done in terms of raising the status of its schools. The church leadership then had taken heed of the “winds of change” speech by Harold Macmillan on February 20 1960.   

The speech resonated around the world. “The wind of change is blowing through this continent.  Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” Macmillan was giving a warning to the resident administrators of the African colonies.

The church shows that it was ahead of those who were in charge of the colonies by handing over the leadership of the church to local leadership. Rev Ndhlela was appointed to superintend the local church in 1965, just five years after the call. Indeed, the writing was on the wall and it could not be ignored any longer. Its sister church, the United Methodist Church appointed Bishop Abel Muzorewa as its first black bishop in 1968.  Bishop Jonasi Shiri became the first Evangelical Lutheran Church missionary in Rhodesia in 1975.

The missionaries planted churches in this country. At some point all the denominations banned local traditional instruments from churches. Members were expected to just sing.  The fear was that since these were used in African traditional worship, members would be attracted back to their religion, which was seen as heathen.

Things changed gradually when the missionary churches started one by one to allow the use of instruments. One can only say it was God himself who brought these back.  David says, “Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.  For the Lord takes pleasure in his people: he will beautify the meek with salvation.” (Psalm 149: 3)

Dance was also forbidden. Worshippers were required to sing without much movement. Worship atmosphere had to be sombre. On the other hand, Africans found that to be very prohibitive. 

Most of our cultural practices were considered evil, but in secret the Africans made their way to these gatherings. During the day they would behave saintly.  This created a Christian who was always hiding many things from the missionary.

Earlier on missionaries had devised a form which every black aspiring pastor/minister was required to fill in upon entering ministry.  The form required that he would pledge that he would not allow his daughter to be married through the payment of lobola. It was considered as selling them.  These black candidates exchanged notes with their kith and kin in different denominations and discovered that the missionaries had agreed on the use of the form across the board.

The black candidates conspired to sign the forms but agreed en-block to do the right thing according to their culture. In most of their cultures, fathers of girls who were getting married did not preside over the marriage of their daughters.  It is either the young brothers or elder brother who were in charge.  Upon being asked whether they had received lobola, they would emphatically say no.  Such was the relationship between the superiors and their juniors.

new converts were discouraged from involving themselves in rituals of death and mourning.  The first ritual was that of chenura/ndongamabwe or doro remvura. This is a ritual done a month after a relative has died.  Relatives and friends would come back to reminisce with those who had lost a relative.  They brewed some beer and drank with neighbours in commemoration of the departed.  The other ritual was kurova guva.  This is a ritual done after a year of one’s departure.

Christians found it very difficult to abandon these rituals completely. The best they could do was to go and attend these rituals in private. The members were not satisfied by what they were doing.  gradually, the two ceremonies changed from being radically traditional to a kind of compromise. The idea behind the laity was that they wanted their ministers/pastors to attend these ceremonies or to even preside over them.

To cut a long story short, these ceremonies/rituals have been renamed nyaradzo — remembrance and unveiling of tombstone respectively. As a result of this, ministers now come and grace these occasions and preside over them.  This has been a win-win situation. Most of these gatherings discourage the brewing of beer and the traditional requirements have been abandoned.  They are now Christian services with a lot of preaching and testimonies around them.

The Methodist Church in Zimbabwe has every reason to celebrate its autonomous status.  It has indigenised itself fully and can now worship in truth and in spirit.  Much more can be done, though.

Those with ears, let them hear!

Levee Kadenge is a theologian based at United Theological College.  Can be contacted at leveekadenge@gmail.com

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