Remembering All Saints Cathedral in the struggle for democracy

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The Late Bishop Henry Okulu

Dr Joseph Wandera

When the history of Kenya’s democratisation process is written, the Anglican All Saints Cathedral – now celebrating its 100 years of existence – in the heart of Nairobi, will be part and parcel of that story.

In 1963, Kenya celebrated independence from the British colonial rule. A “second independence” in the early 1990s was realised, with the return of multiparty politics, an achievement that owed much to intense clerical critique of authoritarian, corrupt, and extravagant one –party rule.

During Kanu’s single party regime, there was limited scope for public discourse. The body politic was rent by surveillance, censorship, abductions and detentions without trial, among other forms of systematic torture by the police.

Clerical leadership at All Saints Cathedral provided a strategic platform for national discourse in the unfolding democratisation process. The Cathedral’s proximity to Uhuru (Freedom) Park made it a natural place of refuge for public protesters at the park, fleeing police brutality.

The engagement of the clergymen took the form of sermons, publications, the stimulus of critical national debate and the provision of refuge for political activists.

As a member of the National Council of Churches of Kenya, the Anglican Church was represented on the management boards of influential church-related publications – like Target and Beyond magazine.

In 1971, a soft-spoken cleric by the name Henry Okullu resigned from the position of Editor at Target and Lengo newspapers, to become the first Indigenous Provost of the All Saints Cathedral. His sermons were based on Old Testament books of the prophets; he consistently challenged the vices of corruption, land grabbing and ethnic bias in the context of employment and education opportunities, as well as detention without trial. Predictably, the sermons were not well received by pro-establishment personalities.

In May 1990, following the brutal demolition of Muoroto informal settlements, the Reverend Peter Njenga, Provost of All saints Cathedral, strongly protested. His statement helped to focus the attention of the nation to this abuse of the poor by the State.

In March 1992 the Moi government forcibly dispersed a group of Kenyan women who had gathered at Uhuru Park to agitate for the release of their sons, detained as political prisoners.  The women regrouped and were offered sanctuary in the All Saints Cathedral.

Police followed the women inside the Cathedral, occupying the grounds for three days as the women hid in the basement. Archbishop Manasseh Kuria protested police presence stating that “idlers” were officially barred from the cathedral grounds; the cathedral, according to the Archbishop, was serving as a “sanctuary for the mothers of political prisoners”.

In July 1997, Kenya’s security forces stormed the All Saints Cathedral, and physically abused and tear gassed worshippers and activists who were camping there. Pews were bloodied, furniture was destroyed and the floor of the cathedral was littered with tear gas canisters.

Clerical leadership of the All Saints Cathedral were not alone in agitating for change. The Rev. Timothy Njoya presented an opening salvo that set the stage for a tumultuous year of 1990. In his New Year’s Day sermon, the Rev. Njoya denounced one–party political systems in Africa, predicting that they were doomed to fail just as they had done in Eastern Europe. His sermon of October 5 1996 called on the repressive Kanu Government to enter into dialogue with its restive citizenry. His sermon, based on the Old Testament book of Habakkuk, was titled, “ God’s Justice Triumphs by Reason Through Faith”.

In February 1997, Njoya was transferred to the Kirimara Presbytery in Nyeri, which he declined on “grounds of conscience”. Amidst the tensions of the aborted transfer, he was defrocked.

For a long time, the theological and public critique of the power structures in Kenya had been the concern of only a very small number of clerics with outstanding personalities, strong intellect and intimidating courage. Among these were Okullu, David Gitari, Alexander Muge, Timothy Njoya and Nding’i Mwana a’Nzeki.

Church leaders from the Evangelical Fellowship of Kenya (founder of Redeemed Gospel Church) provided invaluable support to the Moi regime. Archbishop Arthur Kitonga of the Redeemed Gospel Church of Kenya openly supported the establishment. In his sermons, Pastor Dennis White of the Valley Road Pentecostal Church sustained a subtle support of the establishment.

According to Cambridge historian Professor John Lonsdale, “Kenya’s evangelical churches, with a conservative theology, were more pre-occupied with a call for the personal brokenness of being born again to a salvation that did not depend on political activism but upon faith”.

As the Anglican All Saints Cathedral celebrates its centenary, let’s ponder on its rich history, including the remarkable exercise of civic responsibility. Now, as then, Kenyans live in challenging times.

Other endemic challenges include the ethnicisation of Kenyan politics, the struggle for better education and healthcare, as well as the ongoing war in Somalia.

Over the years, many civil society interest groups have been mobilised as guardians of the body politic, sometimes with international support from donor countries. Nonetheless, churches, led by courageous clergymen, can indeed claim to have acted as defenders of the people of God against predatory regimes of the day.

Clergy and laity across Kenya must recognise the continuing mandate of the church as a space for political discourse, social reconstruction and integration.

Writer is an Anglican Priest and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies, St Paul’s University, Limuru. Email: wandera@spu.ac.ke.

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