A Bishop and a Diocese with a Kingdom vision
Twenty-six kilometers north of the town of Lira in northern Uganda, in the Anglican Diocese of Lango, a quiet displaced person’s camp called Barlonyo lies inconspicuously next to the River Moroto. The tranquil setting belies its horrible distinction as the location of one of the largest single massacres committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) during its 23-year insurgency in Northern Uganda. In the space of less than three hours on the late afternoon of 21 February 2004, over 300 people were brutally murdered by LRA rebels and an unknown number were abducted.
I won’t describe the depth of human evil unleashed by the LRA. You can read the official report here.
Last week, the Very Rev. Andrew Rowell, a trustee of the American Anglican Council, and I visited the Diocese of Lango. We spent time with the Right Rev. Dr. Alfred Olwa, the bishop of Lango, and their leadership teams (clergy and lay). After Dean Andrew laid a wreath at the memorial site, he walked to a church built on land donated by a woman whose husband was killed at Barlonyo. She was among the congregation who met Andrew+ that day,singing, dancing and delighting in the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the Gospel of healing and reconciliation that endures all things, through his blood shed on the Cross for us. How can you explain this powerful witness to the peace of God rising up from the ashes of such evil?
When God’s people share God’s vision from God’s inspired word, hope comes alive. Bishop Alfred Olwa, his wife Canon Susan and the leadership of the diocese are sharing a “Kingdom vision” from the Bible with passion. Grounded in the promises of God’s word—the whole Gospel for the whole person—hope is coming alive. And with hope arises possibilities beyond what anyone might otherwise have hoped or imagined, by the glory and grace of God (Eph. 3:20-21)
From despair to hope. This is what we observed in our visit with Bishop Alfred and his leadership team in this post-war, economically challenged Anglican diocese in Northern Uganda.
Lango is one of 37 dioceses in the Province of the Church of Uganda. The diocese is organized into 10 Archdeaconries, 4 vicarages, 66 parishes and 712 “sub-parishes” (these “sub-parishes” are daughter churches of the 66 parishes; the Parishes are led by clergy, the sub-parishes are led by lay pastors, evangelists and catechists). The Diocese of Lango operates in five government districts with a total population of over one million people. The Diocese founded and operates 188 primary schools, 30 secondary schools, four technical institutes and one University. Within that total population, this diocese serves an estimated Anglican population of over 342,000!
The challenges these biblically faithful Anglicans face daily are enormous:
- Extreme poverty perpetuated by rampant unemployment and lack of entrepreneurial activity;
- Arable lands threatened by population pressures, environmental degradation and lack of knowledge and skill beyond subsistence farming;
- A continuing lack of adequate facilities and programs to address the health needs of all people within the diocese;
- “Social malaise” manifested in crime, substance abuse, teenage pregnancies, youth dropping out of school and a prevailing sense of hopelessness among them.
Despite these significant challenges, the “Kingdom vision” of the whole Gospel for the whole person is preached with passion by Bishop Alfred and his leadership. What does this vision include?
- Reconciliation centered on Jesus Christ, “with service to ALL people and against none”;
- “The Bible and the hoe”: Stewardship of Diocesan lands and property, including model programs of agricultural development and technology that will lift people beyond subsistence farming to capacity building and economic self-sustainability;
- Restoration of families not only through the Mothers Union, but by the creation of a “Father’s Union” and Biblical encouragement of the role of fathers within the family;
- Vocational training, job creation, teaching life skills and entrepreneurial development to the youth;
- Leveraging available resources to build, equip and resource a modern hospital;
- Clergy and parishioners conducting regular visitations to determine the status of the elderly—especially those 60+ who have no government support—and to advocate for them and their needs;
- An annual celebration and prayer ministry at Christmastime (Dec 17) for all those with “special needs”;
But this “Kingdom Vision” reaches beyond the diocese. In a place where the local needs alone could consume all time and resources for ministry, Bishop Alfred sees fields “white for the harvest” beyond the boundaries of the diocese. “One of the most significant commitments of our Diocese is towards the systematic evangelization of the entire region that stretches from Northern Uganda to Egypt,” said Bishop Alfred. “It is a humble call to respond to the pressing needs (for the Word of God) of our brothers and sisters in South Sudan whose time for revival and enlightenment has come and appears unstoppable.”
Bishop Alfred was among the first leaders whom we invited to our American Anglican Council Bishops Leadership Summit (BLS) last October. Although our intent was to link Bishops like +Alfred and others (from Gafcon and the Global South) with our own ACNA Bishops in missional partnerships, we witnessed the beginning of a vision for missional partnerships between Anglican bishops and dioceses in East Africa! Bishop Alfred’s challenge to reach into South Sudan comes out of this conviction—as well as the mission partnerships he formed at the BLS with Bishops Clark Lowenfield (Western Gulf Coast) and Steve Breedlove (Christ our Hope), who visited the Diocese of Lango following the BLS. “These two North American Bishops left such a lasting sense of Christian brotherhood in our community,” said Bishops Alfred, “that makes us happy every time we think about them.”
“Freely you received, freely give!” (Mt. 10:5-8). This is the contagious power of the Gospel, the power that Bishop Alfred and his leadership proclaim as they cast a Biblical, Kingdom vision of healing the sick, raising the dead (the hopeless) and driving out demons both spiritual, emotional and physical. It is a generosity of spirit and practical giving that comes out of their own poverty. Already, after only eight months, they are preparing to lay the concrete slab for a Diocesan Mission Center that will serve as the “nerve center” for missional partnerships and evangelization in Northern Uganda and South Sudan. Already, they have laid the foundation stone (with Bishops Breedlove and Lowenfield) for the construction of a 100-unit apartment block in the regional capital city of Lira, a project that will help generate income for the mission and ministries of the diocese.
Here in Lango Diocese, Anglicans are flourishing because of the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the clarity and authority of his promises. We saw this in the clergy and missional coordinators who worshipped and witnessed with such joy. We saw it in their response to the message we shared from 2 Corinthians 4, that, like Paul, we are all called to preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ and ourselves as his servants for Christ’s sake (4:15)—“and therefore we do not lose heart.!” We saw it in their joyful recommitment to affirm the clarity and authority of the Bible, the very foundation for their Kingdom vision, and like Paul to reject deception, distortion and false teaching in favor of setting forth the truth plainly (2 Cor. 4:2). We saw it in their encouragement of all Christians to participate at all levels of mission and ministry within the diocese, “from the grassroots, to towns and cities and to the diaspora”—including members of the diocese now living in Kampala that hold prayer meetings for the Diocese every Friday!
“When people ask me what has been the most important factor in the growth and success of this diocese in terms of gospel work and development, I say fellowship,” said Bishop Alfred, “fellowship in the sense of a spiritual bond between people who have common convictions and relationships. In the case of Christians, this bond is based upon our relationship with Jesus Christ and is sealed through the Holy Spirit. It is this bond which makes the partnerships we have here so rich and fruitful.” (emphasis added)
You see, when God’s people share God’s vision from God’s inspired word, hope comes alive. It’s not about politics, money or political power. It’s about Jesus Christ, and the transforming power of his love that brings hope and reconciliation out of despair and destruction. This is at the heart of our great global Anglican reformation today, the very place where Biblically faithful Anglicans are flourishing against all odds.
Canon Phil Ashey is the President and CEO of the American Anglican Council