Trip to Zimbabwe

Four days ago I returned from a week in Zimbabwe. It was the first trip back to the country of my childhood since 1985, and the first time I had spent more than a day in transit further north since 1971. I was invited by a new Christian university situated in Bindura, 87 km from Harare, Zimbabwe’s biggest and capital city. The Zimbabwe Ezekiel Guti University (ZEGU) was established by the ZAOGA church (Zimbabwe Assemblies of God Africa) in 2012 and is still in its beginnings. I was invited by the Vice-Chancellor of ZEGU, Professor Dominica Mutanga, and by the founder of the church, Ezekiel Guti (now a sprightly 94). I had first met Baba Guti in South Africa in the early 1990s, and then in Sandwell near Birmingham the day before I left for Harare. I was accompanied on this trip by two lecturers from the University of Nottingham, Dr Juliet Thondhlana and Dr Roda Madziva, and together we are hoping to begin a multidisciplinary study on the ZAOGA practice of Matarenda (“talents”), a remarkably successful scheme for getting people into employment and entrepreneurship. So this trip was fact-finding, but specifically for me to advise the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at ZEGU on their curriculum and staff development, and the setting up of a centre for the study of Pentecostalism in the Department. I was warmly received and the discussions were stimulating.

I was housed in the comfortable ZAOGA guest house in Waterfalls, Harare next door to their impressive headquarters. While there I also visited their recently opened Mbuya Dorcas Hospital, their large conference centre and international Bible college, and a secondary school. The university and all these different institutions have been financed entirely by Zimbabwean church members. On the Thursday I gave a public lecture in ZEGU’s Harare campus, where some 200 people attended, including most of the ZAOGA ministers in the district, the faculty from ZEGU, and a few academics from the University of Zimbabwe, one of the latter giving a response to my paper. ZAOGA began in the 1960s in Bindura and the township of Highfields in Harare. I visited the original sites of both these churches, and the cave near Bindura where Ezekiel Guti is said to have prayed and received his calling. ZAOGA Forward in Faith has grown to become the largest Pentecostal denomination in Zimbabwe and one of the largest on the continent. In all my travels I had a driver, Pastor Mike Tagarira, the PR person for ZAOGA who took me twice to Bindura and back, and once to Howard, the Salvation Army mission in Chiweshe, where I spent six years of my childhood. I had a meal in Harare with my only remaining cousin in Zimbabwe, Helena Rose, nee Anderson, and her husband Mick Rose. A wonderful time of catching up after many years.

The trip was both stimulating and nostalgic. The Zimbabwe countryside with its forests, granite outcrops known as “koppies”, and its lakes and rivers, seemed as beautiful as it ever was, at least what I saw. Most of the paved roads are badly in need of repairs, especially in Harare, where most roads are potholed. Heavy rains last season did not help. Especially memorable was my visit to Howard, to go inside the house we lived in for four years in the 1960s and to see again the buildings where my parents worked at the Officers’ Training College, since relocated to Harare. The old hospital still stands, with recent state-of-the-art additions. The old “Howard Institute” including the Officers’ College and a Teachers’ College now houses Howard High School, a boarding school with 900 boarders. I was also thrilled to be able to visit my own old boarding school, Prince Edward School, a boys’ high school where I was a boarder for almost four years before moving to do my A levels at Milton in Bulawayo. The latter was my dad’s old school in the city of his birth a century ago. My hostel, then called Selous House, is still there in all its “glory”. Built 90 years ago, it seems to have stood the ravages of time. The dining hall, the classrooms, playing fields, etc. were all there and seemed to shed some of the secrets I had forgotten about long ago. Memories of that bitter-sweet time came flooding back as I walked around those grounds. The trip was too brief to have much more than a superficial impression, but I was glad I had had the opportunity to visit Zimbabwe again, to me a beloved country.

The Royal Wedding and the 21st Century

This is the text of what I was asked to send to our University media this morning:

The sermon of Bishop Michael Curry at the royal wedding on Saturday caused a stir. Looking at the faces of some of the “dignitaries” said it all — this was very un-Anglican and “we were not amused”. The fact that he is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA, a church of some 2 million members, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, was the reason he could deliver the sermon at this auspicious occasion. This is the church that has approved same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT people. Michael Curry stands on these principles too, and for this the Episcopal Church has been “sanctioned” by a majority of bishops at the gathering of Primates of the Anglican Communion at Canterbury in 2016.

He is the first African American to hold this office in what is predominantly a white Anglo-Saxon church. His style of preaching would be most unusual in most Anglican churches in the UK, but quite familiar to Americans, and especially in that he reflects the spirituality and effervescence of African Americans. This style of preaching is heard in churches every Sunday across the USA. Making references to Martin Luther King and the spirituals, the bishop’s sermon was followed by a gospel choir singing one of those spirituals used in the civil rights movement. Bishop Curry is the descendant of slaves and the lively “Pentecostal” style of his sermon on love certainly reflected his background.

The significance of this sermon and several other events at this wedding, is that traditional rituals and expectations were firmly disregarded. Harry and especially his bride Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, have brought the royal family (and perhaps the national British psyche) into the twenty-first century, where in the words of Bishop Curry, “we are actually family”.

My New Book

My new book, Spirit-Filled World: Religious Dis/Continuity in African Pentecostalism has been submitted to the publisher, Palgrave Macmillan, today. Here you get an idea of its contents in the following chapter abstracts.

  1. The Spirit of Dis/Continuity

The introduction discusses the primary research questions to be addressed in this study, in particular the question of to what extent Pentecostalism in Africa continues the religious enchanted world of pre-Christian African religion, or is in a discontinuous relationship with it, a radical break with the past. The study makes a case for the simultaneous operation of both continuity and discontinuity, making Pentecostalism a contextually relevant form of Christianity in Africa. An overview of Pentecostal growth as a popular religion is given, with some discussion on the shortcomings of western materialism and theological rationalism when dealing with the pastoral realities of Africa. It outlines the key issues to be discussed in the book.

  1. Pentecostalism in the Sub-Sahara

This chapter traces the historical and social context of the study, including the situation of the neglected continent of Africa. The decolonisation that took place from the mid-fifties onwards, urbanisation, the ravaging poverty and natural disasters, civil wars and political and economic instability create a climate for the growth of movements like Pentecostalism. It discusses the growth of Pentecostalism throughout the continent, the literature dealing with African Pentecostalism giving reasons for its growth, and the influences of globalization on both African societies and its religious world. The particular context of South Africa is discussed, including its social conditions, the religious, cultural and political background, and the significance of Pentecostalism in this country. This forms the backdrop for what follows.

  1. Pentecostalism in a South African Township

In this chapter the micro context of the township of Soshanguve is discussed, where the interviews and participant observations took place. Particular focus is placed on the social and religious conditions of Soshanguve and the surrounding dormitory townships north of Pretoria in the municipal area of the City of Tshwane in the period from 1990 up to the democratic elections of 1994. The demographics and religious make-up of the township is outlined with its social and economic conditions. Developments in the following two decades are discussed, the continued growth of Pentecostal churches, and the different types of Pentecostal and independent churches found there.

  1. The Ambiguity of Ancestors

This chapter deals with the central role of ancestors and ancestor commemoration in African religions, manifesting itself in the interpretation of dreams, funeral practices, church exorcisms, and naming ceremonies. The influence of the departed dead on social relations is shown to continue to be a factor in the African understanding of the spirit world. Pentecostals are shown to have some ambiguity in how they regard this phenomenon. The ambiguity is best explained by reference to the continuity/ discontinuity theme. Pentecostals attempt to reconcile western missionary-influenced demonisation of ancestors with their traditional familial respect. The tension between continuation of ancient beliefs and practices, and the rejection (discontinuation) of them as manifestations of evil spirits, is an important part of this discussion.

  1. Witchcraft, Spirits, and Misfortune

The chapter deals with the African world of spirits and their pervasiveness, where the focus is on the disembodied spirits (both good and evil) of African religions. The chapter discusses how questions of evil and suffering are addressed in this spirit-filled world. “African” afflictions caused by curses and witchcraft, for which there is no medical solution, and how Pentecostals deal with this, is examined. The chapter illustrates how traditional beliefs about these spirits still continue. Some forms of Pentecostalism adapt traditional practices in their church liturgies, and these practices are transformed with new meaning and purpose in order to overcome evil powers. How ideas of the “prosperity gospel” fit into the spirit world is finally addressed.

  1. Divination, Healing, and Deliverance

This discusses solutions to trouble, sickness and misfortune, including deliverance from witchcraft-induced affliction, that are used by traditional healers and in Pentecostal churches, and why they are often effective. The widespread belief in the manipulation of power through divination is discussed and how this affects some Pentecostal practices and responses. Some of the methods of healing and exorcism introduced by Pentecostal and independent churches are described and analysed, including the use of ritual objects and rituals of power. The emphasis on exorcism or deliverance, the reasons for this emphasis, and methods used in Pentecostal churches are described.

  1. Translating the Spirit World

This chapter makes a theoretical excursion into the social scientific literature on how African popular religion reappears in Pentecostalism, transforming old views in discontinuity while remaining in continuity with the spirit world in which it is immersed. Birgit Meyer’s phrase “translating the devil” examines whether biblical concepts have simply been transferred without change into already existing traditional beliefs. A comparative discussion of literature from other parts of southern Africa is made, and how ethnographic research and literature can assist a theological analysis. Studies on the spirit world, exorcism and “witchdemonology”, and other literature on African Pentecostalism are analysed. The chapter discusses “responsible syncretism” and intercultural theology.

  1. The Power of the Spirit

The most theological of the chapters in this book, an examination of power in Africa, how it was and is perceived, how it is the “life force” that every human needs, and how it is interpreted and transformed in African Christianity. An exploration is made of the role of the Spirit in African Pentecostalism, and how the discontinuous power given by the Holy Spirit provides the ability to surmount the pressures of a prevalent and continuous spirit-filled world. Biblical precedents of Spirit manifestations, and concepts of power and the Spirit are compared with the findings of this study.

    9. The Spirit World in Global Perspective

The main findings and significance of the research and its relevance to global Pentecostalism is outlined. How the continuity/ discontinuity tension has contributed to the transformation of world Christianity is discussed in this conclusion.


My Life in a Nutshell

Born in London, England, I moved with my parents to Zimbabwe (my father’s birthplace)  aged four. My parents and maternal grandparents were Salvation Army officers, and my paternal grandparents and three generations before them were missionaries in the London Missionary Society (Congregational). I spent the next 17 years in Zimbabwe (with two years in Zambia) and completed my schooling, doing A Levels in English, History and Religious Studies. After working in the law courts for three years I went to South Africa for theological college in a Pentecostal denomination, followed by part-time study with four degrees at the University of South Africa, completing my doctorate by 1992. During the years 1973-1995 I had various jobs in Christian ministry and have worked in theological education since 1978. I got married to Olwen in 1979 (she now lives in South Africa). We moved to Birmingham, England in 1995, for me to work at the Selly Oak Colleges and the University of Birmingham, where I have been ever since. We have two children, Matt, who is a biochemist working at the University of Exeter, and Tami, who works in a hotel near Birmingham Airport.

I have written several books and many articles over the years. My more recent books are: An Introduction to Pentecostalism: Global Charismatic Christianity (Cambridge, 2004, 2014); Spreading Fires: The Missionary Nature of Early Pentecostalism (Orbis & SCM, 2007); To the Ends of the Earth: Pentecostalism and the Transformation of World Christianity (Oxford, 2013); and my latest Spirit-Filled World: Religious Dis/Continuity in African Pentecostalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

I have created this blog to occasionally post things that some people might find interesting, including some of my international travels. I have been extremely privileged to have visited more than 34 countries in five continents in the last twenty years in connection with my work and research, but unfortunately did not write about these trips until my April 2017 trip to Ghana, which can be read here too.

Trip to Ghana and the Church of Pentecost

As I will do a fair amount of international travel this year, I decided to write a blog on each trip, and this is the first. In 2002 Dr Opoku Onyinah graduated with his PhD from the University of Birmingham, one of my earliest PhD graduates and the first African one. At the time he was International Missions Director for the Church of Pentecost, the largest Protestant denomination in Ghana with well over two million members today. He went on to be the Rector of Pentecost University College and then in 2008 was elected Chairman of the church, the highest office in the church. He has led the church with distinction and has become a nationally well-known figure. The story of the Church of Pentecost can be found in the second edition of my Introduction to Pentecostalism, pp.128-9.

I visited Ghana for the third time for a week and am writing this on my last night here in Accra. Dr and Mrs Onyinah have been my hosts. Today I gave a lecture on methodological challenges and the dis/continuity debate at a seminar at the new facility of Pentecost Theological Seminary, on the massive new campus (opened in 2013) called the Pentecost Convention Centre. This was to around 40 postgraduates and academic staff. On Thursday, the day after I arrived, I gave another lecture on Global Pentecostalism, mainly to around 200 undergraduates and pastors gathered for an extension programme. Apart from this, I visited two churches with hundreds in attendance on Friday night and Sunday morning and experienced the vibrant (and loud!) African worship that I have been so used to and missed. I visited Trinity Theological Seminary and my old friend Dr Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, another Birmingham graduate, Regent University College and its Chancellor, Dr Kingsley Larbi, an Edinburgh graduate, and Pentecost University College and its Rector, Dr Dan Walker, another of my Birmingham PhD graduates. Great people and great reunions.

I have spent several hours travelling around the urban metropolis that is Accra. There does not appear to be any shortage of cars, universities, churches of all descriptions, and the ubiquitous street stalls and street vendors. People everywhere busy doing something. Temperatures go up to 34 deg C in the day and around 25 at night, so I am thankful for an air-conditioned bedroom for this week. I have also visited the Kwame Nkrumah Museum in the city centre, and have been treated to lunch at two different hotels, one on the beachfront. When I arrived at Accra airport last Wednesday, after most of the passengers had got onto a bus, there was a Mercedes-Benz waiting for me on the tarmac and I was whisked away to wait in the VIP lounge without having to personally queue for immigration formalities.

What has impressed me most has been the enthusiasm and hospitality that I have met everywhere. The Church of Pentecost is a highly structured and well-governed organisation. The many impressive buildings it owns have been built with Ghanaian money and Ghanaian enterprise. It plants new churches every week. I was told in 2017 they will provide finances for building 1,600 new church buildings each seating 200 people all over Ghana. Those will seat 320,000 people in churches in one year! There are now several of its leaders with PhDs from western universities, with others doing doctoral research now. The future is bright for the Church of Pentecost and Christianity in Ghana is in good health.