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The church should not be too involved in active politics because it is a conflict of interest, but at the same time, we should see ourselves as having responsibility to guide our leaders rightly.”
By Esther Elijah
Earliest unquestioned historical evidence of an organised Christian church in England is found in the writings of Christian fathers such as Tertullian and Origen in the first years of the third century, although the first Christian communities probably were established some decades earlier.
The acts of Parliament between 1529 and 1536 mark the beginning of the Anglican Church as a national church independent of papal jurisdiction. In 1549, the first Anglican Book of Common Prayer was published and its use required of the English clergy by an Act of Uniformity. The second prayer book, reflecting more strongly the influence of continental Protestantism, was issued in 1552 and was followed shortly by the Forty-two Articles, a doctrinal statement similar in tone.
But, chiefly speaking, the Anglican Church remains that branch of the Christian church that, since the Reformation, has been the established Church of England, propagating its classic influence across the Atlantic into the Province of the West Indies.
And, this brings us, to our story.
I cannot recall ever having a conversation with a more eloquently dignified, morally convicting and strikingly unassuming gentleman as Bishop Randolph Oswald George. From all appearances, he has shown himself to be very accommodating, a true patriarch living a life of Christian servitude in Guyana.
Bishop George still remains the first native, first Guyanese elected Diocesan succeeding five other Bishops, including two Archbishops, who separately served from 1842 until the 1970s.
Historically, a new era began with the election and enthronement in early 1980 of the Rt. Reverend George, who had functioned as Suffragan Bishop of Stabroek since 1976.
It was St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1842, when the Anglican Diocese of Guyana was birthed. On this date, William Piercy Austin was consecrated in Westminster Abbey to be the first Bishop of British Guiana. Prior to this, there was a period of ministry by Chaplainries under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London 1781 to 1824 - the Chaplains being for the most part attached to the military.
Initially, the work of the Diocese was generously supported by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Efforts were also directed at managing elementary schools in the Colony. Thus, the Diocese was not merely facilitating the teaching of the Christian faith but it was critical to the education of natives, the former slaves and immigrants who arrived in Guiana after Emancipation.
Bishop Austin was enthroned in December 1842 and his Episcopate lasted 50 years. In 1883, he became Primate of the Province in which he served. When Bishop Austin died in 1892, the number of Anglican clergy in Guiana had risen to 40. Forty-one places of worship had been consecrated and 37 chapels licensed, while the numbers of the confirmed were in the thousands.
Under Bishop Austin, the Diocese earned the distinction of being the first to institute secondary education for youths and the training of teachers in the corporate life of Bishop’s College, founded initially for training candidates for the ministry.
However, the loss of Bishop Austin resulted also in the Diocese becoming partially dis-endowed, because the State withdrew its payment of the Bishop’s salary.
Reverend William Proctor Swaby succeeded Bishop Austin until 1900, when he was transferred to Barbados. He had inaugurated the Bishopric Endowment Fund and the Sustentation (later Diocesan) Fund that cushioned the eventual total withdrawal of government aid to the Diocese.
Bishop Edward Archibald Parry was the third Diocesan, serving from 1900 until 1917 when he retired. The fourth Bishop of the Diocese, Oswald Parry, was consecrated in St. George’s Cathedral on St. Luke’s Day 1921. It was the first time the Diocesan had been consecrated outside of England. He died in 1936 and was succeeded in 1937 by Rev. Alan John Knight, who proceeded to take effective action to correct the poor financial situation into which the Diocese had fallen. He left his mark on the Diocese and the province after 42 years as Bishop of Guyana and 29 years as Archbishop of the West Indies.
In those days, there was not only sustained partnership with the State in the provision of elementary education, but also a positive attempt to be directly involved again in the area of secondary education, resulting in the conversion of the Christ Church primary school into a secondary school. The government takeover of all church schools, however, brought an end to the significant contribution to the education of Guyanese which the Diocese had made in more than a century and a half.
An epoch in the Diocese ended when Archbishop Knight died in 1979.
Bishop George has since taken the colossal mantle of stewardship in the Anglican Diocese, which has weathered its fair share of challenges, and still does, to a large extent.
Currently, there are 42 parishes in all ten regions of Guyana - some parishes having more than one church. Altogether, 160 Anglican congregations exist throughout the country.
Generally, Anglicans form the largest group of Christians here - around 151,000 at the end of 2001. Figures to be compiled, this year, to record standings for 2002, should have similar projections.
Despite the large numbers, growth in the Anglican Church during the last 20 years has been fairly static.
“There is no significant increase because many people are leaving the country. It is true when they go overseas others fill their places. But, there isn’t that kind of stability in the population that would lead to a significant increase (in the Anglican Church),” Bishop George admitted.
Apart from migration, some Anglicans are increasingly finding Pentecostal churches in Guyana an attractive option.
“That is not surprising because (Pentecostal churches) offer the sort of emotional outlet that you don’t find in the Anglican Church. Many of our Anglican churches have taken onboard the Pentecostal form of worship.
“Some of our people, especially Amerindians in the interior, have been drifting over to the Pentecostal churches. But even there, it’s a very fluid situation, because they drift back and forth (between churches). Many of those who cross over, come back,” the Bishop explained.
“I remember, in the old days in order to get a job you used to get a letter from the Anglican priest and things like that influenced people to remain in the Anglican Church. Now, there isn’t much nominal (beliefs). The people who do go to (Anglican) churches tend to be far more serious in their conviction.”
This year, the thrust of the Anglican Diocese is aimed at “getting people to be a little more conscious of the implications of their membership of the church, not only by way of giving money, but in helping the church to grow in Guyana.
Additionally, there is a heightened emphasis on Christian stewardship in the Diocese.
The Mothers Union, which comprises women in the Anglican Church whose charge is to “uphold the sanctity in family life”, has been channelling its energies to all branches and parishes highlighting aspects of the family.
This group also manages a Daycare Centre to assist several working mothers, without concentrating entirely on profit making.
A worrisome trend, nonetheless, is the fact that married clergy in the Anglican Church are more prone to migrate due to the current economic crisis in Guyana. For them, the prospect of working in America has become more feasible an alternative.
“Right now there are more than two dozen Anglican priests in the New York area, who have left Guyana over the years,” according to Bishop George. Other local Anglican priests have even relocated to West Indian islands, particularly the Bahamas.
“The flow from this country is drying up, or has dried up,” the Bishop added.
He, personally, has no intention of advancing to pastures northward. “I shall remain here until I die,” he says boldly.
In the wake of departures, the Diocese in Guyana has managed to retain 42 functioning members of the clergy. Given the right kind of examples in parishes, it is envisaged that more young people will begin considering the priestly vocation a worthwhile one.
While the Diocese does not yet anticipate having to engage foreign clergy to supplement gaps created in the local church due to emigration, it is receptive to external Anglican priests willing to serve in Guyana.
“Over the years we have tried to build an indigenous clergy, but there is always room for clergy from other places - the Caribbean islands, North America or Britain. We’ve always welcomed them,” said Bishop George.
Interestingly, there is never a lack of enthusiasm from people who want to serve voluntarily in other capacities, such as lay leaders, instead of fulltime clergy, Bishop George said.
Still, the Diocese has a deficit and, hence, a need for persons with accounting and administrative skills, to serve in the church.
A plus point for the local Diocese is that it has preserved centuries old liturgy, the celebration of Mass and the Eucharist with priests sporting their traditional vestment, making the church experience unique and conservative.
“What has been used by the church all these years (originates from) the second or third century,” Bishop George said.
The doctrine of the Church of England or Anglican Church, as it came to be known, is found primarily in the Book of Common Prayer, containing the ancient creeds of undivided Christendom, and also in the subsequent Thirty-nine Articles, which are interpreted in accordance with the prayer book.
The Anglican Church differs from the Roman Catholic Church chiefly in denying the claims of the papacy both to jurisdiction over the church and to infallibility as promulgator of Christian doctrinal and moral truth, and in rejecting the distinctively Roman doctrines and discipline.
On the other hand, the Anglican church and its sister churches in the Anglican Communion differ from most Protestant churches in requiring Episcopal ordination for all their clergy; in the structure and tone of their liturgical services, which are translations and revised versions of the pre-Reformation services of the church; and in a spiritual orientation in which a Catholic sacramental heritage is combined with the biblical and evangelical emphases that came through the Reformation.
“On the whole, I would say the Anglican Church has done very well, especially in the outlying areas of Guyana. One very pleasing aspect of all this is the number of young people and the numbers of men who attend services,” Bishop George noted.
“There is a sort of liberal wing in some of the Anglican churches across the world but we do not belong to the liberal wing, because they have very advanced ideas on sexuality, for example, (condoning) same-sex marriages. We’re not going in that direction,” the Bishop said, reassuringly.
The Anglican Communion is split right down the middle with regards to women’s ordination.
“It has not really been decided that this is the right way to go, but we are not against women,” said Bishop George, “We are in a period of experimentation. It is very uncertain whether this practice will be accepted in the future.”
In Guyana, the Anglican Church has an all-male clergy. No woman has ever been ordained.
Towards its social commitment, Bishop George said the Anglican Church holds the view that unity is one of its top priorities for the nation, since it is “the only way forward for us.”
“We can’t go on stressing differences and acting on those differences,” he remarked.
“We need to learn to accept one another and to see ways where we do not differ, where we have one aim, and look at all the things that unite us as a people. We should contemplate a little more on our motto `One People, One Nation, One Destiny’.”
Bishop George proposes that the way the Anglican Church can influence leadership or the nation for God, is for it to “witness to those things (it) believes in, and make sure the question of moral position is clearly understood, speak out against wrongs, and encourage those things that are right for the nation.”
“The church should not be too involved in active politics because it is a conflict of interest, but at the same time, we should see ourselves as having responsibility to guide our leaders rightly,” the Bishop said.
“My prayer for the nation is that we cultivate the spirit of peace and unity among ourselves. And, whenever there is difference of opinion, we will always remember that we are all committed to finding the way to unity.”
The path to unity, according to Bishop George, can be cultivated by “putting Guyana first; fostering mutual respect and accepting the fact that we differ in many ways yet still desire to look at the things that unite rather than constrain us.”