October 1, 2007


This Episcopal missionary finally went to an Anglican service in Mthatha for the first time this past Sunday. I went to the English service at the Anglican cathedral downtown. Note the dedication: it’s at 7:30 in the morning! People wake up early here but this struck me as a little extreme. I thought the congregation would be other native English speakers but I was the only white person there and there was only one Indian. You have to bring your own prayer book and hymnal and I had the former, which I recently purchased, but not the latter. I was pleased to see the liturgy is very similar to the American service I know practically by heart. The other Sunday service is at 9:30 and is in Xhosa and is, I have heard, three hours long. I’m not sure I’m ready to chance that yet but someday I shall.

The real excitement of the day church-wise (and any other way) was the evening confirmation service I went to. I saw it advertised in the morning’s bulletin and thought it would be a neat way to see the bishop of Mthatha who I ultimately work for (temporally, at least). Though I had been warned, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the trappings attached to the African episcopacy. It really is as if the bishop is a prince and he is treated with such amazing deference. This particular bishop – the Rt. Rev. Dr. S.T. Mzamane – combined the trappings of the office with a liturgical informality I appreciated. It’s somehow reassuring that after people have bowed and scraped to the bishop and he’s shaken the incense all around, he can look up and say, “What hymn are we on?” or “Should we say or sing the Nicene Creed?” He spoke directly to the newly-confirmed and I was impressed that he spoke directly about HIV/AIDS, though his message, abstinence only, struck me as correct but wishful thinking.

What I wasn’t expecting at the confirmation service was that a lot of it was in Xhosa. I naively assumed otherwise when I made plans to go and was rudely awakened when I heard the opening sentences. But it turned into a really neat experience as I felt like I was a Catholic before Vatican II where I had the sense something important was going on but I couldn’t quite grasp the particulars. It made me realize, though, how important the ritualistic high church “smells and bells” and robes are. The incense and choreographed movements and candles and crosses and colourful robes are all an indication that this event is actually quite important and are a way for people who don’t speak the language to access and understand some of what is going on. Thankfully, the sermon and confirmation was in English.