Very close to the church I served in Brighton, England was a department store named “Hanningtons”. Next to its main door was a plaque in honor of a Hannington who met his death in 1885 in a part of Africa we now call Uganda. The Hanningtons were Nonconformists but James and his parents became Anglicans just before James went up to Oxford. James Hannington became a “Church Missionary Society” missionary in Africa and in 1884 was consecrated as “Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa” a see with somewhat imprecise borders and few if any parishioners. The CMS was a stoutly “evangelical” missionary society at odds with the Anglo-Catholics whose group was called “The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.” In typically Anglican fashion, those on the extreme edge of these theological and spiritual groupings within the Anglican comprehension formed even more precise organizations. The CMS spawned the “Bible Churchman’s Missionary Society” while the SPG created “The Universities Mission to Central Africa.” It is futile to begin to fathom contemporary African Anglicanism without remembering its roots. It’s not a long history. Hannington was martyred during the lifetime of my grandparents.

Hannington’s episcopate was short lived. He was captured by the tyrannical and perverted Kabaka of Buganda, Mutesa and with his companions were tortured and executed. The following year, on this date, 32 young men, who had spurned the king’s sexual advances and clung to their CMS faith, were put to death cruelly. Some of these martyrs were Anglican and some Roman Catholic.

When the late pope, Paul VI canonized the RC Ugandan martyrs he made mention of their Anglican companions. His remarks signalled something of a breakthrough in Anglican/Roman Catholic relations.

I have no idea whether this is true or not but I was taught as a young boy that the Ugandan Anglican martyrs died singing one of Sabine Baring Gould’s hymns -he wrote “Onward Christian Soldiers”- which begins with the words, “Daily, daily sing the praises/Of the City God hath made;/In the beauteous fields of Eden/Its foundation-stones are laid.” Each verse finishes with the chorus “O, that I had wings of Angels/Here to spread and heavenward fly;/I would seek the gates of Sion,/Far beyond the starry sky.”

Each time we sang that hymn, my imagination soared as I contemplated the brave Ugandans as they gave their life for Jesus. Whether they sang this hymn or not, it’s a good story. I have a feeling that my own vocation in part was nurtured by the story.

The Ugandan church demonstrates the truth of the old saying “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Only a few decades ago the Archbishop of Uganda, Janani Luwum was assassinated by Idi Amin a tyrant perhaps more bloody than Kabaka Mutesa.

The present leaders of the Ugandan Province of the Anglican Communion have decided that their church is longer in full communion with the Episcopal Church. (Whether a Province in the Communion is competent to take such an action is another matter; our communion as Anglicans is symbolized not by inter-provincial accords but by our common communion with the See of Canterbury.) One gathers that this does not mean that all Episcopalians are no longer in communion with Uganda. There’s some complex ecclesiology here and one perhaps may say gently that ecclesiology has never been a strong point of evangelical theology just as evangelism sadly remains a weak part of our own collective psyche as Episcopalians.

The story of the Ugandan martyrs and of the very large Christian community which grew from the sacrifice of James Hannington and the young martyrs should not be obscured or forgotten in the miasma of contemporary controversy. British Christians have long forgotten their own martyrs who died at the hands of Anglo-Saxon and Viking raiders. While there are many saintly Americans in our Episcopal story, not one, to my memory, was martyred for the faith in Colonial or post revolutionary America. Perhaps it is because Anglicanism took root over here fairly easily that we have appropriated words like “suffering” and “sacrifice” and applied them to lesser painful states.

Perhaps we just don’t “get” the history which precedes the positions Ugandan, Nigerian, Kenyan and other Anglicans take as they view our small Province and some of its actions because “our light afflictions” pale before the nobility of sacrifice demonstrated by indigenous African Christians and yes even now maligned figures like Bishops Hine and Frank Weston and many others, who travelled thousands of miles, lived lives of self-denial, and brought medicine, education and faith to converts and non-converts alike. Were they allied to colonialists and imperialists? Indeed they were. Should they have stayed at home and left Africa to the Africans. or Africans to the governmental colonists? That is one of the “ifs” of history about which enough time hasn’t elapsed to perhaps make a balanced judgement. Yet James Hannington and his successors were followers of Jesus and were obedient to his instructions. They went and baptized. They went and preached. They broke bread and blessed wine “in remembrance” and they sought to extend God’s love even in losing their own lives. In so doing they were faithful to our Lord’s essential commandments.

We too are called to such an obedience. Faith is not extended by structural, political or legislative strategies but by lives committed to obedience.The next time I find myself grumbling about “persecution” I’ll try to remember Hannington and the Ugandan martyrs and pray that my “light affliction, will win so great a prize.”

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