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Born into ecumenism, Esther Mombo says African Christianity is ‘young and vibrant’

Born into ecumenism, Esther Mombo says African Christianity is ‘young and vibrant’

Photo: Peter Kenny/WCC

05 November 2019

Kenyan theologian Esther Mombo was born into an ecumenical environment in East Africa. She has a transcontinental education and told students of ecumenism this week that African Christianity is “young and vibrant”, but that it needs to listen to the “women in the pews”.

“My father was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and my mother was a member of the Religious Society of Friends. I was brought up by a Quaker grandmother, my first pastor, and theological educator,” she told students at Bossey on 23 October.

She was speaking to September’s intake of students for the 2019-2020 academic year at the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Institute at Château de Bossey at its annual Dies Academicus. The day is held at European tertiary institutions when they showcase their institutions with a special speaker.

After students listened to Mombo’s engaging and comprehensive talk on “Understanding World Christianity Today - The Case Of Africa,” they understood why she was chosen as the keynote speaker.

In introductory remarks, Fr Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca, WCC deputy general secretary and director of the Ecumenical Institute at Château de Bossey said Mombo’s topic had gained much recent attention. Still, he said, “it is not new.”

He mentioned that the late John Mbiti, a Kenyan Anglican priest “already wrote about it in 1975”, so while the subject is old, the approach of Mombo is new “because our faith...takes root in different contexts in response to the problems of the world.”

‘Emblematic figure’

He said Mombo was present as “an emblematic figure of the ecumenical movement,” to help us start our process of reflection and is one of the moderators of the WCC’s Commission on Ecumenical Education and Formation.

Mombo is an alumna of three schools. First, she attended St Paul’s University, formerly St Paul’s United Theological College in Kenya. She then entered the Irish School of Ecumenics, an Institute of Trinity College, and she has a Ph.D. from Edinburgh University.

She said that Christianity in Africa had produced male and female leaders “in different spaces of world Christianity, not to forget the ecumenical movement. Some of whom are present here today”.

She rattled off some “random names of theologians in African Christianity in different branches such as Mercy Oduyoye, Isabel Phiri, Musa Dube, Nyambura Njoroge, J.S. Mbiti, John Pobee, Kwame Bediako, Lamin Sanneh, Sarojin Nadar and Tinyiko, Amanze and others.

“It is a Christianity that has produced a theology- African Christian theology, black theology, circle theology. It is a Christianity that is young and vibrant, most churches and church-related institutions have celebrated centenaries – one hundred years old,” said Mombo.

She sketched a link between ecumenism and nationalism in Africa that arose during the colonial era.

“The history of the ecumenical movement in Africa is integral not only to mission history but also to the rise of nationalism in most parts of the continent in the mid-1950s and 60s. Oduyoye argues that African nationalism played a role in the development of African ecumenism,” explained Mombo.

She said that owing to influences from the missionary movement as well as the Pan-African movement; the early 1960s saw the birth of several ecumenical structures such as the 1963 inauguration of the All Africa Conference of Churches.

Challenges for theological education

Photo: Peter Kenny/WCC

She noted, however, “Theology and theological education even in the private universities, continues to struggle with the challenges of relevance and the link between the church and academia.”

Mombo also spoke of the “manifestation of misleading theologies”  posed by the styles of leadership such as the Gospel of Prosperity or Gospel of Materialism, Prophetic and Prayer ministries”.

She also noted, “Information about Christianity in Africa is that women are in the pews and men are at the pulpits.”

“The church in Africa is held together by women, they contribute immensely to the growth and sustenance of the church, they constitute a huge vital resource to the community of faith, but they are still downplayed.

“It is a church in which the ideology of patriarchy is alive and well in church and theological colleges, and in society. There are different groups of women in the church in Africa, including the women in uniform identified with the different uniforms they wear,” she said.

A second group in the church in Africa is the Circle of Concerned African Women theologians. In 2019 the circle celebrated 30 years.

“Over the last 50 years, the church in Africa has made great strides on women’s leadership, providing leaders for international organizations, but it is still a drop in the ocean compared to the male counterparts,” asserted Mombo.

She said their full role is “not yet felt because the ideology of patriarchy is still at work”.

“To understand African Christianity, means listening to women in their work as they serve God and humanity in society,” said Mombo.