A Review by Gabriel I.H. Williams
“History of the Episcopal Church of Liberia Since 1980 – A Sequel,” is a captivating story of Christian witness and the role of the Church in Liberia. It is very instructive and insightful. The volume is basically a window to the world relative to the establishment and existence of the Episcopal Church of Liberia (ECL), the ECL’s Christian witness, as well as the role of the Christian Church in the foundation and existence of Liberia from the perspective of the Episcopal Church.
In the sequel, Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, professor of political science emeritus, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, superbly captures the transition of the ECL from a missionary diocese founded and supported by the Episcopal Church in the United States, to becoming an autonomous or a self-supporting diocese. Well-reflected are the issues facing the ECL following the formal severance of ecclesiastical ties with The Episcopal Church (TEC), as the mother church in America is known. These include major loss of funding from TEC, the bloody 1980 military coup followed by 14 years of civil war in Liberia that devastated the church and the country, and how the ECL, like the Liberian nation itself, is in search of a national identity.
The sequel begins with the episcopate (tenure) of Bishop George Daniel Browne (1970-1993), the first Liberian-born bishop, who was consecrated as the 10th Bishop of Liberia at the young age of 37. Browne’s election followed the 1969 assassination of Bishop Dillard H. Brown, the last missionary bishop of the ECL. The volume also covers the episcopates of Bishop Edward Wea Neufville II, the then Suffragan Bishop who assumed leadership of the diocese in 1996 amid controversy within the church following the death of Bishop Browne, and the current Bishop Jonathan Bau-Bau Bonaparte Hart, who has been in office since 2008.
Before further review of the sequel, a brief reflection would suffice on the first volume, “A History of the Episcopal Church in Liberia, 1821-1980.”The first volume focused on the episcopates of the various missionary and diocesan bishops since the church’s founding, also recording that because it was present at the creation of the Liberan state, the Episcopal Church was fully involved with national development.
According to The Archives of the Episcopal Church, though the Episcopal Church’s first official mission was established in Liberia in 1836, there was a presence of Episcopal missionaries as early as 1822. The missionaries included one James Thomson and his wife, who embarked unofficially for the West African coast and founded a mission school, which was well established by 1836 (www.episcopalarchives.org/archives-news).
According to historical accounts, Liberia was founded in 1821 by freed men and women of color from the United States, while the Episcopal Church was first planted in what is now Maryland County, a beautiful coastal territory in Liberia, named for the American State of Maryland from whence many of the settlers originated.
For more than a century, the Episcopal Church and other mainline churches, including the Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and Catholic Churches, operated the best educational and medical institutions in Liberia, focusing on educational evangelism and medical evangelism. The famous Cuttington College now Cuttington University located in Suacoco, central Liberia, established in 1889; B.W. Harris Episcopal High School in Monrovia; and Bromley Episcopal Mission School, once a premier boarding school for girls, which has produced many outstanding women leaders, are just to name a few of the Episcopal Church’s involvement with national development.
Back to the 189-page sequel which covers four chapters, Professor Dunn, a lifelong Episcopalian and a product of Cuttington, propounded a narrative shaped by three contexts. These are the context of the Episcopal Church of Liberia and its Christian witness through the respective episcopacies of Diocesan Bishops Browne, Neufville, and Hart; the context of a modernizing Liberia plunged into unprecedented political violence by a military coup in 1980, and a devastating civil war that ensued and consumed the country for some 14 years; and the context of shifting external ties with the American Church, the Liberian Episcopal community in the U.S., and the Anglican Church of the Province of West Africa (CPWA).
An acclaimed scholar and researcher, Dr. Dunn also examines what the church’s contemporary history uncovers about Liberia’s social history in its juxtaposition of national identity issues with religious syncretism (a mixture of African traditional religions, Islam, some elements of Christianity, and basic human secularism), while suggesting challenges for the Episcopal Church’s Christian witness going forward. His explanation of what is religious syncretism gives me a better understanding of our Liberian way of life, which embraces a combination of different forms of belief or practice, which, for example, are reflected by various traditional rituals and ceremonies.
In the sequel’s first chapter, Dr. Dunn, whose spouse, Matilda is a retired clergy, provides captivating accounts of Browne’s episcopate, takes a measure of the man, and then narrates his ministry under the rubrics of stewardship, evangelism, education, social issues, and the ECL’s external relations such as the formal sevence of ecclesiastical ties with TEC.
According to the sequel, the tragic death of Bishop Dillard Brown and the 1970 consecration of George Browne “seemed a perfect opportunity to complete the rationalization of the American withdrawal, or the Episcopal Church USA (TEC) withdrawal, from the ECL.” In 1970, “the Liberian Diocese was informed that TEC was shifting from overseas support to domestic American issues,” and that the overseas jurisdiction should be prepared by 1973 to work out “a mutually satisfactory plan or timetable to take full support for their institutional and ecclesiastical program …”
Bishop Browne focused the first decade of his Episcopal ministry on the general themes of self-support, self-governance, and self-propagation. After gaining autonomy from TEC, he brought the ECL into the fold of the Anglican Communion in Africa by joining the Church of the Province of West Africa (CPWA), which includes Anglican churches in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia. Browne and the ECL saw the move into the CPWA “as a natural process of growth, maturity and search for identity within their geographic region.” Shortly upon Libria acquiring membership, Browne was enthroned the 6th Archbishop of the CPWA in 1982 at age forty nine years.
Described by the author as a pastor, a scholar, a theologian, an avid researcher, and a prolific writer, Browne was a towering national figure, who joined efforts with other Christian clergy and later an inter-religious council of Christians and Muslims to mediate in the tense political environment during the period of military rule and early years of the civil war. Browne served as a member of the National Constitution Commission which drafted Liberia’s current constitution. He was thus at the center of national crises in the 1970s, 1980s, and the start of the 1990s, even as he collaboratively engaged with social issues in the Province of West Africa through periodic issuance of joint pastoral letters with Bishops of the CPWA. As a Daily Observer reporter who covered various church activities in the 1880s, I recall that Bishop Browne was a powerful preacher who used parables and stories in his riveting sermons.
The sequel deals more extensively with the episcopate of Bishop Browne, which lasted for more than two decades, during which the ordination of women into the priesthood began. However, I have gathered from sentiments within the ECL that the conflict that broke out in the church following Brown’s death in 1993, may have put a damper on his otherwise great legacy. Differences between Bishop Browne and then Suffragan Bishop Neufville before Browne’s death plunged the church into a deep crisis, delaying for about three years Neufville’s election as Diocesan Bishop.
According to the sequel, Bishop Edward Wea Neufville II, whose episcopate as the 11th Bishop, spanned from 1996-2007, was ordained a priest in 1970 and consecrated Suffragan (assistant) Bishop in 1984; and that he had a distinguished background in the history of the ECL going back to the roles of his forebear in the early life of the church in the 1800s. Reflecting on circumstances related to the rise of both men, the sequel states: “While Bishop Browne inherited a Missionary District with umbilical cord tied to the American Church, Bishop Neufville inherited a tragically divided Church embedded in a country at war with itself.”
Described in the sequel as a highly spiritual individual, Bishop Neufville’s focus on education as “a relink to the church’s mission of evangelism” is highly commendable. Beginning his episcopate with a push for the ECL to prioritize education, he wanted the church to “join the government in addressing the crippling education deficit in post-war Liberia.” The sequel recalls that before his ascendency as Bishop, Neufville had already established an enviable record as reflected by the growth of the church and its schools during his tenure as Archdeacon of the Northern Archdeaconry and as Suffragan Bishop with oversight of the Northern Archdeaconry, which comprises the Counties of Lofa, Bong and Nimba.
The sequel refers to Neufville, who retired 2007 after almost four decades of ministry in the ECL and died in 2011, as a man who was “on … a mission made difficult by strife and war and all attending consequences. Though he was not able to fully heal the divided church he inherited, he did make his mark in the area of education and evangelism.”
The fourth chapter of the sequel covers the continuing episcopate of Bishop Jonathan Bau-Bau Bonaparte Hart, who was consecrated the 12th Diocesan Bishop of the ECL in 2008. He had risen through the ranks from a humble priest ordained in 1980 to his meteoric rise as Diocesan Bishop, the second Liberian Dean of the CPWA in 2009, the 2nd Archbishop of the Internal Province of West Africa (IPWA) within the CPWA in 2014, and now the Primate of the CPWA since 2019.
According to the sequel, following his consecration and installation as the Diocessan Bishop of the ECL, Hart said the “number one problem” he had to deal with was “uniting our Clergy, and as a result of the unity of our Clergy, I would be able to unite Episcopalians.” Despite the challenges facing the ECL, Hart’s rapid elevation in the CPWA is a reflection of his leadership qualities and the importance of the ECL in the Anglican Communion in Africa.
The sequel provides a better understanding of the tremendous challenges facing the ECL going forward. Faced with diminished financial support, the ECL’s viability depends on the successful implementation of a strategic plan that would serve as the road map for the diocese to become self-sustainable.
In the 1980s, I was baptized and confirmed in my early 20s at Trinity Cathedral in Monrovia, where I served as a trained and licensed lay reader under the spiritual guidance of the Cathedral’s Dean, the now late Very Reverend Dr. Emmanuel W. Johnson, whose contributions to the Church and State are captured in the sequel. I also served as assistant editor of Trinity Tidings, the newsletter of Trinity Cathedral, under the editorship of Madam Abeoseh Flemister, who later became one of the earliest female priests in the ECL, the first ordained female clergy being the Rev. Teodora N. Brooks, as reported in the sequel. I later served under the editorship of the now late Madam C. Leone Chesson, a pioneering Liberian female lawyer. As a reporter of the Daily Observer newspaper in the 1980s, I covered some conventions of the ECL, as well as many sermons of Bishop Browne and other church activities. While I was immersed in the life of the church and almost decided to enter the priesthood through the nudging of Dean Johnson had the Liberian civil war not erupted, I never learned so much about the ECL as I have by reading the sequel. History of the Episcopal Church of Liberia Since 1980: A Sequel, is a highly recommended read for students of history, and a must-read, especially for Episcopalians or Anglicans. This sequel is a treasure-trove of information. When you pick it up to read, you’re literally glued.