Why pastors, bishops have to ‘eat’

A Catholic pilgrim holds up a crucifix and a palm branch during the Palm Sunday procession in Jerusalem.

A Catholic pilgrim holds up a crucifix and a palm branch during the Palm Sunday procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on March 20, 2016.

Photo credit: AFP

In recent times, Kenyan church leaders have got a thorough beating for the alleged crime of jumping into bed with the government.

The criticism and ridicule reached new levels with the now-suspended Maandamano (Protest) Mondays and Thursdays.

Church leaders were accused of not just being co-opted by the state but of being silent because their mouths were stuffed with money-filled envelopes handed out by State House.

Yet one can’t escape the feeling that this criticism is an oversimplification, especially if we consider that this is not happening only in Kenya.

In several other Africans, from Uganda to Nigeria, this picture of compromised “eating priests and bishops” is very much the order of the day. If democracy activists and good governance are to succeed in building movements with the clergy, they need to develop a more nuanced view of what is going on.

To begin with, in Kenya, the militant priest and bishop at the frontline of the democracy campaign is primarily a late 20th-century phenomenon. Since we entered the 21st century, this militancy by men and women of the cloth fell sharply.

The image of church leaders as human rights and democracy champions was carved dramatically during the 1990s Second Liberation Movement in Kenya.

Anglican archbishop David Gitari, Anglican bishop of Eldoret Alexander Kipsang Muge, Anglican bishop of Maseno South John Henry Okullu, Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) minister Timothy Njoya, the Catholic Church’s Maurice Cardinal Otunga and Catholic archbishop Raphael Ndingi mwana a’Nzeki, to name a few, became big thorns in strongman Daniel arap Moi’s flesh and among the leading lights of the democracy movement.

International clout

These men, however, were leaders in global or regional churches, so some of their clout was from their churches’ international nature. It also gave them a level of protection that the pastor of the Church of the Kibra Shepherd can’t have. If the state had assassinated Archbishop Gitari or Archbishop Mwana a’Nzeki there’d be trouble. No such risk with Kibra Shepherd.

This becomes particularly important if one considers the growth of the independent African churches, which have stolen millions of worshippers from the establishment of Anglican and Catholic churches.

In the 1990s, the Anglicans and Catholics were far out of the dominant churches. Not in 2023. That means most church leaders don’t have the global cover provided by the Anglican and Catholic churches. They are on their own and exposed.

But even without that, independent African churches are structured differently. They are set up to solve the real-life problems of their followers; to pray for them to find a good wife or husband, get a job, have bouncy twins, win a lottery, banish poverty from the household or regain eyesight or use of their limbs following a car crash that made them disabled.

Independent African churches don’t do the extreme yoga-like soul-searching thing of priests or bishops going to mountain retreats for months, eating nothing but brown bread and water, living in isolation and reading big theological books as they seek to reach a “sublime spiritual” level.

The earthliness of African churches hacks back to the old traditional religions that the colonialists almost extinguished. They sought to deal with ordinary issues—lifting a curse placed on one’s head by an angry elder, protecting warriors during the hunt or getting a stray husband to find his way back home. This salt-of-the-earth streak gives the independent churches social and cultural credibility, but it is their Achilles heel too.

First, they are not going to get a grant from the Vatican. The local worshippers have to pony up the money for the upkeep of the pastor and the church building. These worshippers are not rich enough, though.

And the independent church market is highly fragmented; so, they don’t enjoy the economies of scale that the Anglican and Catholic churches had in some African countries in the past, where up to 60 per cent and more of the population would belong to just one of them.

In this solve-my-bread-and-butter-problem-today Christianity, independent churches, where the notion of the separation of church and state is weak, inevitably establish a transactional relationship with the state as the primary source of patronage.

If you are the Church of the Kibra Shepherd and your member becomes the president of the country, he also becomes the unofficial Pope of the church. If you are the Catholic Church in Kenya and a Mwai Kibaki or Uhuru Kenyatta is elected President, in the global scheme of things, it’s not a big deal. They are just one of many Catholic presidents worldwide and the Pope still towers above them as the top dog.

As African independent churches grow, the separation of church and state, especially if the ‘prophet’ who heads the church is from the same village as the President, will end. The era of Timothy Njoyas and Maurice Otungas is over.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. @cobbo3