Troubled times for Malawi's Anglicans

Lilongwe, Malawi - The appointment of a new bishop in Malawi has divided opinions between the liberal and conservative wings of the Anglican Church and, as Petroc Trelawney observes, raised fears of a deep and permanent division.

The table was set for more than 20 guests. It looked a little incongruous in the laid-back, lakeside restaurant.

As they played cards, two Australian aid workers on a weekend break speculated about who might be coming to dinner. A wedding party? A group of businessmen up from Blantyre?

Their question was answered soon enough when a dozen Anglican bishops and senior churchmen arrived and sat down to tuck into a feast of chambo fish and nsima, the Malawian version of the maize-meal that is a staple in parts of Africa.

Prayers were said, there were speeches, laughter and toasts.

In the background, waves broke gently against the sandy beach and a badly amplified children's choir tunelessly serenaded the clerics.

This was a celebratory dinner but it was not to be a late night. The following day, Sunday, one of the group's number, Francis Kaulanda, was to be consecrated as the new Bishop of Lake Malawi.

Three-hour service

By eight o'clock next morning, thousands had already gathered outside the church at Nkhotakota where the ceremony would take place.

Police officers in blue uniforms waved swagger sticks to direct the traffic.

A battered old army lorry deposited a choir, who lined up alongside another ensemble clad in vibrant pink cassocks.

Soldiers laid out benches, a steward in a smart suit struggled to carry several boxes of Zimbabwean-made communion wine.

Two old marquees - once the property of Unicef - provided cover for the VIPs arriving for the three-hour service, including the speaker of the Malawian Parliament and a former vice-president.

Theological divide

Packed though the church compound was, it might have been even busier.

The choice of the new Bishop has split the Anglican Church in Malawi.

Five years ago, an English priest chosen to lead the diocese was accused of being a liberal theologian of "unsound faith".

He was never allowed to take up the position.

The appointment of the conservative Bishop Kaulanda has been equally controversial and the subject of a legal injunction, with detractors claiming he is not qualified for the job.

This is more than just a local row. It comes in the wider context of a battle for the very future of the Anglican Church in Central Africa.

Should it lean in a more moderate, European direction or base itself on so-called "African values", where only men can be priests, scripture is interpreted rigidly, and homosexuality is condemned?

Improving lives

As the churchmen argue amongst themselves, Malawian Christians struggle with more practical issues.

On my way to Nkhotakota, I had stopped at Bandawe, a Presbyterian mission, where a dynamic young priest led a service more akin to a village meeting. Basic health care and subsistence farming were part of his sermon.

"We have to be practical," he told me. "Religion only really works if it encourages people to improve their lives."

A table in the corner of the church was stacked with toys for the children in the congregation. The adults used specially provided banks of electric sockets to charge their mobile phones.

Afterwards the priest showed me the foundations of the community centre the parish was building, before taking me on to the school.

It was exam season. The timetable was on his office wall.

Two and a quarter hours for English and Chichewa (the main Malawian language), two hours for Maths, an hour and a half for Science and Life Skills.

He proudly pointed out a diagram showing how many students he and his teachers had got into further education. The statistics were impressive.

Missionary zeal

But the figures were also high on the chart underneath: 136 of his 700 children were orphans.

Eleven per cent of Malawians have HIV or Aids. Alongside the lake - thanks to tourism and related prostitution - the infection rate is thought to be much higher.

It is nearly a century and a half since Christian missionaries first arrived in Malawi, encouraged by the explorer David Livingstone.

Malaria, dysentery and unwise involvement in a local tribal war wiped out the first settlement in just two years.

But the Europeans soon returned, introducing Africans to Christianity with what can only be described as spectacular success. Eighty per cent of Malawians now define themselves as Christians.

Back in Nkhotakota, the new Bishop of Lake Malawi arrived at 10 o'clock.

A sea of women in blue cotton dresses and white headscarves lined the approach route.

As the diocese's new spiritual leader made his way to a makeshift altar, a pop band and choir performed under a massive baobab tree.

Beneath the tree's majestic branches, Livingstone himself once sat and conducted negotiations with local chiefs aimed at bringing an end to the Arab slave trade.

Hastings Banda, independent Malawi's first president, seized on the tree's historical significance when he made a series of speeches in its shade.

And now once again the old baobab was at the heart of the matter, as a new bishop tried to impose his and his church's authority over this part of Central Africa.