Lambeth: Rwandan interlude

However important sex may be, it does not really define the difference between North and South. That comes out best in a joke which is ecumenically Jewish: a foreign correspondent moves to Jerusalem and is placed in an apartment overlooking the Wailing Wall. Every morning he sees an old man come to the wall, place a few slips of paper in it and pray for an hour; every afternoon the man returns and does the same. Finally, after three weeks, the journalist, sniffing a story, approaches the old man as he leaves the wall. What are you praying for? World peace, an end to hunger, and justice for everyone, he replies. He doesnít look insane, so the journalist presses on. How long have you been doing this for? Twenty five years, and I havenít missed a day. I come every morning for an hour and every afternoon for another hour to pray. The journalist considers this. Looking around the world, he says, there doesnít seem to be much result from your prayers: can you really be sure that God is listening? I know what you mean, says the old man: some days itís like talking to a wall.

The central feature of prayer in the North is that itís like talking to a wall. You donít expect a reply. In the South, they hear echoes even when no one has spoken.

Consider their varying attitudes to genocide. The North is haunted by the knowledge of unanswered prayers. It is a truism here that in the century of Auschwitz God is no longer credible as intervening; like most truisms, it is false in important ways: the truth is that faith in a benevolent god can survive the most appalling atrocities, especially when they are committed by your own people, and this was most clearly show by the Rwandan bishops who were at the centre of the conflict at Lambeth. The tribal divides in Rwanda and Burundi are mirrored denominationally: broadly speaking, Hutus are Anglican and Tutsis Roman Catholic.

Churches were the scene of some of the worst massacres in Rwanda. The only time I have ever seen Dr Carey seem less than certain of his opinions was when he came back from a visit to Rwanda after the massacres, when he had also visited the exiled archbishop and tried to persuade him to resign. With his wife, he had visited a former Catholic church where the bodies of 5000 people hacked to death had been left unburied as a memorial and sank unaffectedly to the occasion. "Christianity can only have been skin deep here" he said.

Prudence Ngarambe is one of the four bishops appointed in 1995 to replace men, among them the Archbishop of Rwanda, who are still sheltering in exile, accused of complicity in the genocide. The first time he went to the West it was to the Dallas conference organised in 1997 to mobilise and drill the southern forces. Though Lambeth was only his second visit to the West he already knew what our societies needed. It was Biblical morality. "We are not the ones who are active in homosexuality. It is the concern of the whole conference." He said.

"Because we are preoccupied without our own problems, we cannot shy off from international problems. We are not isolated from what is happening around."

I was having a little difficulty in this conversation, because I could not see any immediate moral equivalence between homosexuality and genocide. The use of Rwandan bishops as shock troops against homosexuality was one of the most surreal things I have ever seen as a religious correspondent. Nothing brought home more clearly the extent to which homosexuals were the chosen scapegoats of the South than the attempted secession of a parish in Little Rock, Arkansas, the town where the National Guard had to be called out to integrate the schools in 1962. They tried to leave the diocese of Arkansas because the bishop there was pro-gay, and put themselves under the protection of John Rucyahane, another Rwandan bishop, who had served ten years in America (which preserved him from any taint of complicity in the genocide.) I wonder would a German bishop in, say 1947, have been quite so ready to dispense moral advice halfway round the world. It seemed to me that a Rwandan bishop could hardly have any moral indignation left over for the rest of the world.

As we talked, though, I began to realise that moral indignation was not the quality on offer here. We were in the lobby of the business school, where the press were supposed to stay. Low, plain sofas surrounded coffee tables. In one corner a huge television relayed soundlessly the debates from the sports hall where the conference was meeting. His manner was catechetical, bureaucratic. He spoke with headings and subheadings all in place, advancing his argument in overlapping phrases like chain stitch; and as the stitches of argument advanced it became clear where he thought the blame for the massacres lay.

"The church has embarked on conciliation. When we talk of conciliation here we are talking about actually educating thousands of people: educating people to understand that what happened was because leaders manipulated peopleís ignorance. We are trying to get things right by showing people that ethnically we have equal share in the life of the country. Education should be for all without discrimination. No region should be superior to any other. All provinces should be the same."

This, he said, was work for the future. From the past there were other problems: "Many people have been traumatised. We have widows, orphans, and men who are traumatised, but it seems men conceal their trauma. Women and children tend to show it up. So we have started a program training the trauma counsellors.

"We have people who have lost almost everyone in their families, and they maybe feel that God has forsaken them so we are trying to bring God into their lives for them. We are asking why did God spare you? He spared you for a purpose. Counselling such people is not easy. It is not something you can do overnight."

What Prudence Ngarambe seemed to be upholding was the need for rules. Hannah Arendtís phrase about the banality of evil is well known; but listening to his careful bureaucratic prose, I began to see the potential for a banality of the good. But to impose that sort of order on the world, you need a rule book. I began to see also the way in which the Bible might serve as a yardstick, reducing the unimaginable tasks of reconstruction to manageable lengths.

Against this yardstick, even evil could be reduced to a force external to Christians. "We bring God into their lives for them and tell them thatís where you understand the source of evil.

"The source of evil:" he repeated, as a sub-heading, "thatís when you get back to the creation story. God created the man and gave him choice between good and evil: in the genocide man chose to do evil instead of good. It was not God who told them to do evil; it was their choice. Now God is saving the remnants."

This is not the God of Job, who cannot be blamed because he is omnipotent. It is closer to the God of the earliest Genesis story, who walks in the garden with Adam and Eve, and who takes part in the world: powerful, but tribal, not omnipotent, and unable always to protect his people from their enemies. Religion of this sort will always flourish where there is misery, because it reduces anxiety. It is only in the largely secure environments of the North that we can see what is worrying about it.

Yet the wickedness that Bishop Ngarambe detected In Rwanda, their enemies had come from the North. It was the colonial powers, he said, who had divided the country between Hutu and Tutsi.

"Rwanda is a monocultural country. Even though we have three tribes we also have one culture. The anthropologists would not understand how the country can be called three tribes when the culture is one and the language is one. So we are trying to correct what was wrongly introduced. And we believe that when people understand what went wrong and how it came about reconciliation will be possible."

The root cause, however, he would only tell me when the laptop was switched off and we were sitting in my car, before I drove him back across campus to the college where he was staying. It was democracy with more than one party. If you start a political party in Africa, he said, the only thing people would ask was which tribe the founder belonged to, and everything else, including the nature and constituents of the opposition parties, followed from that. Without democracy there would have been no massacres in Rwanda.

Itís hard to think of anything which more offends against the pieties of the North. Christianity and democracy are not the same and for most of their history have in fact been considered antithetical. Itís hard for us to see this because in America they are consubstantial and because democracy is linked, if less tightly, with freedom and Protestantism in the English imagination. But the Bible, though it may imply democracy, is not a democratic document; and the emerging undemocracies of the South can find plenty in it to justify themselves.

This is not just an African attitude. The third element in the Southern alliance against Northern liberal pieties, after the Southern USA and most of Africa, is Asia. It is no coincidence that one of the ante-Lambeth conferences, to rally the southern forces before the battle, was held in Kuala Lumpur. An Asian Christianity, deriving its model of authority from managers in disciplined bureaucracies, is one of the fastest growing religious phenomena in the world today. In Korea there is Presbyterian church with a congregation of three quarters of a million.

But there is a curious timelessness about their belief in prophecy, which divides South from North almost as clearly as miracles do. I saw this first at Evensong, early in the conference, when a Pakistani bishop, SK Dass, laid out the biblical line on sexuality. "I personally believe that Sodom and Gomorrah didnít exist 4000 years ago only, but these cities and these men are still having their existence in our world today. We, as bishops and as the torchbearers of the future of generations must raise our voice against lesbianism, gayism and homosexualism. And this is the heart of the bishops attending the Lambeth Conference."

Some of his audience must have looked doubtful at this, for he raised his voice and added, for the benefit of the North Americans, "If we remain silent at this time, belief will come from another place, but you, along with your fathers in evil will perish."

He talked as if Sodom and Gomorrah were cities of the Punjab, just down the plain from him; and as if fire and brimstone waited in heaven to judge us all. Now this is an attitude which has not been seen in earnest in English Christianity since about 1700. This distance from the Bible is not really a consequence of the rise of science, but of the rise of history: the sense that many thousands of years have passed since the stories of Genesis, which is shared even by those who believe them. I know the Bible is a book of stories, but it is also a deeply ahistorical document, and not just because so few of the stories are true. It is extraordinarily hard to plug it into any kind of chronology. It was written in the margins of bureaucratic empires, among the powerless to whom the demarcation of time can bring no profit since the only time they wait for is the hour of deliverance.

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