Review of “History of the Episcopal Church of Liberia Since 1980: A Sequel”

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By Cllr. Mohamedu F. Jones 

Dr. D. Elwood Dunn is a Liberian political scientist and historian who has authored a bibliography of publications. He is also a multi-generational scion of a Liberian Episcopalian family, and is married to an ordained Episcopal priest. Moreover, this reviewer believes that it is appropriate to ascribe to Elwood Dunn himself several of the attributes that the author employs to describe one of his subjects in the book: he is a scholar, an avid researcher, and a prolific writer.  D. Elwood Dunn is definitely well suited to author scholarly works about the Episcopal Church of Liberia.

In his “History of the Episcopal Church of Liberia Since 1980: A Sequel” (“A Sequel”), Dr. Dunn brings to “a close this remarkable story of the Episcopal Church as embedded in Liberian society.” As with its precursor, “A History of the Episcopal Church in Liberia, 1821-1980,” he employs the rigors of academic research and writing to “A Sequel,” and provides strong analyses, well-reasoned findings and conclusions. The book is properly referenced and richly sourced. “A Sequel” meets the standard of an academic history textbook that is written for the non-academician in a clear and readable style, making it an engaging read.

Dunn writes about the Episcopal Church of Liberia from 1980, where his earlier book ended, to the present, while also discussing the parallel history of some of the events in Liberia that touch upon the church and its members including relationships with three Liberian presidents, cataclysmic national political unrest (culminating in a brutal military take-over) and a war that engulfed the country during major parts of the episcopacies of two of the three bishops whom Dr. Dunn covers.

“A Sequel” opens with the continuation of the episcopate of Bishop George Daniel Browne who had been thrust into leadership of the church in 1970 following the assassination of the last American missionary Bishop, Dillard H. Brown, and the decision to elect a Liberian Bishop, and close out the “missionary” history of the church.

Browne’s consecration as Bishop of Liberia (the first Episcopal Bishop born in Liberia) a decade before the period the span of “A Sequel” begins at, was a seminal point in the history of the Episcopal Church of Liberia. The “mother church,” the Episcopal Church of the United States, had decided just prior to the dawn of Browne’s episcopacy “to invite overseas missionary districts [like Liberia] to take charge of their affairs as expressed in the three ‘selves’ of governance, propagation and support.” At the very time that Browne becomes Bishop, the American church was saying to the Liberian church, “it’s time for you to be on your own.” One hears echoes of Liberia’s political history, with its founding by an American organization and then eventually declaring independence because the American benefactors had figuratively told them “it’s time for you to be on your own,” primarily through neglect as the years passed.

Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, author, “History of the Episcopal Church of Liberia Since 1980: A Sequel”

Dunn devotes much of “A Sequel” to Browne’s episcopacy, not only because he served  significantly longer than his immediate successor, and the current Bishop is still in office, but also because his election was a monumental realigning event in the history of the Liberian church. The author meticulously traces how Bishop Browne boldly confronts and addresses the new reality that his church faced. In many ways, within its context, the Liberian church had to confront issues that were analogous to what newly independent Liberia had to deal with about a hundred and twenty-five years earlier, in terms of finding her own way, on relatively short notice,  with significantly diminished resources, human and capital.

The author begins his discussion of Browne’s final 13 years as Bishop by examining “the measure of the man.”  He describes the Bishop as “a pastor, a scholar, a theologian, an avid researcher, and a prolific writer.” Tracing how Browne approached the multilayered issues he had to addressed at the onset of his episcopacy, Dr. Dunn demonstrates that the Bishop realized that stewardship in the church had to take on a “new meaning” as he begins his ministry: the largess of the American church would be much smaller and could end. A national church that had been dependent on the American church for as much as 90% of its resources in 1970 was compelled to become self-supporting and autonomous. Browne had faced “a rude awakening” when he became Bishop and was now 10 years in at the start of the period “A Sequel” covers.

Dr. Dunn explains that a “hallmark” of the Liberian Episcopal church “has been its triple ministry of evangelism, education and healing.” He shows how the scholarly Browne simultaneously focused on implementing nationwide Episcopalian evangelism to extend the reach of the church, and instituted a comprehensive theological education plan to significantly increase the number of Liberian priests in the diocese to make up for the very low number of ordinations that had occurred in the Liberian church between 1949 and 1972. He then demonstrates how Bishop Browne systematically developed a sustainable plan of self-support, which of course would be significantly disrupted first by the military coup 10 years into his episcopacy, and then the Civil War that will begin in his 20th year as Bishop.

Noting that the Bishop wanted to continue the various ministries he had inherited, the author documents how Browne was severely challenged by a “[r]adical reduction” in education funding at the very beginning of his episcopacy. Dunn suggests that the very survival of the church was at stake as Browne becomes its leader. In order to meet this challenge, Bishop Browne had to make hard decisions regarding what was then Cuttington College and Divinity School, the Episcopal High School in Cape Mount (St. John’s and House of Bethany), and other renowned Episcopal education institutions, upsetting a large number of his parishioners, some of whom still express resentment today regarding some of those decisions.

Dr. Dunn pedagogically tells the story of how Bishop Browne fostered his church’s identity with the Church of the Province of West Africa and redefined relations with the American church, to bring Liberia into the regional West African Anglican communion at the same time as states in the West African region were developing the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). ECOWAS would subsequently intervene in the Liberian crisis shortly before the death of Bishop Browne and play a pivotal role in the later resolution of its Civil War after his death. One is left to wonder if and how the church connection (Browne was once Archbishop of the Province) might have played a role in ECOWAS’s decision to intervene in Liberia (particularly noting that Ghana was a leader in the Province and in ECOWAS).

Dunn shares several gems with the reader when he discloses how Bishop Browne assessed the three Liberian leaders during his episcopacy: describing President Tubman as ‘a benevolent patron’ and President Tolbert as ‘a herald of a new Liberia,’ which was “then derailed.” The Bishop considered President Doe to be ‘a military dictator who in his last days tried to destroy the church.’ In the view of this reviewer, Bishop Browne was on point regarding his assessment of these three Liberian leaders.

Considering the huge impact of the military coup and subsequent civil war on Bishop Browne’s flock and his church, Dr. Dunn does leave the reader yearning for even more than he provides about that part of the story. It is understandable, however, why it is likely that there is relatively limited discussions about the war, particularly since Bishop Browne is virtually incapacitated as a national church leader by the war for a meaningful period at its start, due to illness and the conditions in the country, and then dies while away from his flock in the third year of the war. In assessing the ministry of Bishop Browne, Dr. Dunn places him in the same rank as the great and legendary bishops of the Liberian Episcopal church: Bishops Payne, Ferguson, and Harris.

Ever the teacher, Dunn threads the history of the church through the difficulties of the interim period following the death of Bishop Browne and the election of Bishop Edward Wea Neufville II, the Suffragan Bishop, as Diocesan Bishop.  Dr. Dunn tells us that Bishop Neufville’s working relationship with Bishop Browne, when he was Suffragan and Browne was Diocesan, was charitably described by a fellow clergyman as ‘not good.’ Dunn describes Neufville as a “shy, perhaps introverted personality with a gifted mind,” who was recalled as possessing “an evangelistic fervor” and a “highly spiritual person,” who “used every opportunity for prayers, Bible study and reflection.” Although Dr. Dunn does not directly compare Browne and Neufville, the reader instantly sees how different the two men were and get an insight perhaps into why their relationship was as the clergy person described.

After Browne’s death, Dunn takes the reader through the intricacies of the resulting “leadership controversy” in the church, oversight by the Church of the Province of West Africa in this period, and the “uneasy relations” between Bishop Neufville and his clergy. In assessing this interim period, Dr. Dunn concludes that the church was left “reeling in division and distrust, [and] ripe for a reconciling chief pastor.” As he proceeds to examine the episcopacy of Bishop Neufville in depth, Dr. Dunn appears to leave the reader with a Socratic thought: would Bishop Neufville be a reconciling chief pastor and how would he accomplish it?

Neufville was elected Bishop and his episcopate lasted a little over 10 years; it was less than half of the 23 years that Browne served as Bishop. Although Dr. Dunn does not expressly describe Neufville’s episcopacy as a “transitional” one, events support that conclusion. The Bishop had to also confront “another challenging beginning,” as Browne had, which Neufville himself described as ‘one of the most difficult and scary periods in the history of our country.’ The scholarship of Dr. Dunn is exhibited by his observation of facts that could go unnoticed by a less thorough researcher; for example, his documentation that no Bishop from the Church of the Province of West Africa, of which Browne had once served as Archbishop, attended the enthronement of Neufville as Diocesan Bishop of Liberia. Dr. Dunn did not explore what if any consequences resulted from this occurrence, including whether it influenced the relationship between the Liberian church and the Province during Neufville’s episcopacy, which would have been educative for the reader.

While Bishop Neufville, like Browne before him also focused on stewardship, evangelism, and education, including Christian education, his landscape was markedly different from Browne’s, who had assumed his position in a very different Liberia. For Neufville, Liberia was entrenched in the midst of a Civil War for much of his episcopacy, which limited the resources that were available to him and his ability to lead a national church. According to Dunn, Bishop Neufville also apparently sought a “return to the notion of the special relationship between the Liberian and American churches,” which ultimately did not appear to amount to the kind of relationship that the Bishop might have envisioned.

When assessing Bishop Neufville’s tenure, Dr. Dunn concludes that “he was not able to heal fully the divided church he inherited,” thus answering the question as to whether or not he would be a “reconciling chief pastor.” He did not turn out to be, as least not fully. The author concludes that Bishop Neufville left his mark in the areas of education and evangelism. Notably, Cuttington University was reopened and revived while he was Bishop. However, for Bishop Neufville, the crown jewel of his achievement was the coming into fruition of his vision for Bromley Mission as a place for the “education of orphaned and other disadvantaged girls.”

The episcopacy of the present Episcopal Bishop of Liberia, Jonathan Bau-Bau Bonaparte Hart had lasted 12 years at the  time of the publication of “A Sequel,” which means that Bishop Hart has already served longer than his immediate predecessor, Bishop Neufville, and a little more than half as long as Bishop Browne. Bishop Hart later became the 11th Primate and Metropolitan Archbishop of the Church of the Province of West Africa following in Browne’s footsteps.

Dr. Dunn provides important details regarding the election of Bishop Hart. His first “election” in 2007 as Bishop Coadjutor (the designated successor to the retiring Diocesan Bishop) was described by the then Archbishop of the Church of the Province of West Africa as “irregular with regard to the Constitution and Canons of both the Province and the Diocese of Liberia.” The election was annulled by the Province, and new elections were ordered which were held in 2008. This time, Hart was duly elected Bishop Coadjutor and subsequently succeeded to Diocesan Bishop. This reviewer, a Liberian Episcopalian, is aware that tensions among Liberian Episcopalians regarding Hart’s election continue to linger to this day in some quarters.

Dr. Dunn looks at the current state of the church and Hart’s vision to meet its challenges. Bishop Hart “acknowledged that the church had fallen on hard times, that it was clearly not what it used to be.” In addressing this situation, Hart’s vision for his church was to develop a ‘framework of encouraging self-sustenance of our church where members are actively participating in the Christ-centered ministries of preaching, teaching and healing (loving, caring, supporting).’ Early on, Dr. Dunn points out that the Bishop recognized that in order to realize his vision, he had to address the “sustainability challenges” which could be met by achieving “economic sustainability.”

Dunn discusses Bishop Hart’s several sustainability efforts that culminated in the church’s Strategic Plan of 2019. The strategic plan encompassed the church’s mission areas, education institutions, development work, health services ecumenism and sustainable economic activities, among other topics. This plan was mandated to be reviewed at the church’s 2020 convention. Dr. Dunn explores the church’s external relations under Hart, including partnerships with specific dioceses of the American church, the Liberian Episcopal Community in the United States of America (LECUSA), and the national American church. An illustration of the depth of Dr. Dunn’s approach to this history was his revelation that some Liberian Episcopalians still have issues with the diocese’s affiliation with the Church of the Province of West Africa, and would prefer to “return fully” to the American church, the very church that told them 50 years ago that they had to carry their own church. Hart assuredly responds that this will never happen.

Dr. Dunn concludes his analysis of the episcopacy of Bishop Hart by offering a tentative assessment considering that Hart, “the most credentialed of all his Liberian predecessors” is still a sitting Bishop of a “church that is spiritual alive but struggling to make functional and grow its many institutions.”

The professor that Dunn is, is on full display in his well- thought through “Epilogue,” perhaps the most intellectual portion of his tome. Dunn talks about the “church that was,” which was fully covered in his first book: a “fascinating story of a transplanted church and mission from the United States into nineteenth-century Liberia.” The most compelling conclusions of Dunn about “the church that is” is that the Episcopal Church like other mainline protestant churches in Liberia is being ecumenically challenged by Pentecostal Christians who are on the “upsurge,”  and the need for the Episcopal Church to recalibrate its ecumenical ministry, while  also developing what he calls an external “genuine partnership” that comprises “mutual contribution of things of equal value.” Dr. Dunn is clearly concerned about the circumstances in which the church of the future will exist considering its “challenges and issues,” pondering, “will religion become a way to perpetuate anger between and among ethno-regional and religious groups” or if there will be increasing occasions for “religious tolerance, inter-faith dialogue and ecumenical engagements.” As a devout churchman, Dunn is apparently deeply concerned about the potential “‘endless denominationalization and fragmentation’ of the Body of Christ.” Dr. Dunn postulates that these are several of the fundamental issues Liberian Christians will have to address going forward. Unasked and unanswered in Dunn’s consideration of the future is the pointed question: Can the Episcopal Church of Liberia survive with its present institutional structure?

“A Sequel” is a narrative of a church that is not in a substantially different position from where it was when George Daniel Browne was elected diocesan Bishop in 1970, nearly 50 years ago, and may even be in more unfavorable circumstances today. This is also arguably reflective of the condition of the country where the church carries out its mission. The parallels of the history of this potentially great church and this potentially great country are uncanny.

“History of the Episcopal Church of Liberia Since 1980: A Sequel” is recent Liberian history told within the context of the Episcopal Church of Liberia, authored by a renowned Liberian history and political science scholar, Dr. D. Elwood Dunn. It should be read by all interested in broadening their understanding of Liberia’s people and the country’s rich history, its trials, and tribulations, as well as its triumphant hopefulness.

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