Today a group of us attended worship at St Luke’s, Makongeni here in Thika Town. Built in an area that thirty years ago was simply fields of sisal (makongeni) it is evidence of how the urban population in Kenya has mushroomed and how the church has responded. This thriving parish has grown both in numbers and in spiritual confidence.
St Luke’s is now the second biggest congregation in the diocese with an average Sunday attendance across its three services of 1,500. This doesn’t include the 800 to 900 children in its three Sunday School services. Like the cathedral, this church employs two armed policemen to man the gates of the church compound every Sunday morning who check underneath cars for bombs and screen worshippers in case a suicide bomber from Al Shahab attempts to infiltrate the congregation.
As we went through the security check and pulled into the church car park, we could hear that the first service of the day conducted in Swahili was in full swing – and when I say ‘swing’ I mean swing! This was no quiet 8 o’clock holy communion service for the devout few. I presided and preached at the English Eucharist with a congregation of 700 while James Grier, supported by Dan and Chris from Unlimited Church in Exeter, preached at the weekly youth service held in another building in the church compound. The parish employs a full time ordained youth pastor and a full time Sunday School leader, plus a parish administrator.
Worship in Kenya is full of surprises and flexibility is the order of the day. It was an unexpected bonus to be told just before the service was about to begin that I would be baptizing eleven children during the Eucharist. It was also an unexpected surprise to find the ‘Amens’ of prayers accompanied by the occasional drum-roll or burst of applause. By the time we had got to the sermon slot, we had already been going for one hour 35 minutes. In the end the whole service took just over three hours. Worship in Kenya is not for the faint-hearted.
As Chair of the Liturgical Commission I was fascinated to note in the rite of baptism the stress they place on ‘renouncing Satan and all his works’ and the rejection of ‘evil spirits and idolatry’. Such language often embarrasses English Anglicans, but in African culture Bishop Julius tells me you don’t have to scratch hard to discover traditional religion and an animist spirituality below a Christian veneer or find Christian people still resorting to the local witch-doctor. We look down on such practices from the heights of English sophistication but quietly ignore our own idolatry. Our idols may not be so obvious, but their shrines are everywhere: the exaltation of youth and beauty, our obsession to obtain the latest designer wear or phone. The gods are still with us in England but we call them by different names.
Another surprise was to find that the consecrated wine at holy communion is administered in small plastic cups Methodist-style. This is because of the fear of contracting HIV/AIDS. There is fear as well as joy in the congregations of Kenya which is why the climax of every Eucharist is so powerful. Before the president delivers the final blessing, priest and people turn to face the cross behind the altar. Then with arms outstretched they ‘send to the cross’ their fears, their sins and shortcomings, and claim the victory of Christ to enfold them for all that lies ahead.
All our problems:
We send to the cross of Christ.
All our difficulties:
We send to the cross of Christ.
All the devils works:
We send to the cross of Christ
All our hopes:
We set on the risen Christ
Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine upon you and scatter the darkness
from before your path: and the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you, always.
Our English service was followed by a Kikuyu service, but we were escorted to lunch with the churchwardens and PCC where we heard more of their life together at St Luke’s. The hardest question came at the end of our discussion from Grace, one of their Readers, who had been among those from Thika who visited Devon this summer commented on how beautiful Devon is but worried about how old our congregations are. She told us that when she asked about the church, typically she would be shown around the church building. She said it was invariably beautiful but often felt like a museum. ‘Where are all the young people?’ she asked me. ‘How are you going to attract them? If you don’t, you will be extinct.’ That indeed is the challenge for our generation in Devon and if we don’t wake up to it, there will be no one to pass the baton of faith onto when the Lord calls us home.