Friday, February 10, 2012

A milestone for women in West Africa: the consecration of a new bishop in the Gambia

The Right Reverend Hannah Faal-Heim

(Note: I am republishing this post from another blog that I have, although I have revised it somewhat and given it a slightly different focus.)

It is not every day that a bishop is consecrated, and certainly not in the Gambia, a small West-African country with a population less than two million. Earlier this week I had the rare privilege of witnessing the consecration of Hannah Caroline Faal-Heim as the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church in the Gambia.

The Right Reverend Hannah Faal-Heim, to give her proper title, is only the second Gambian to become a bishop in the Gambia and the first woman bishop in West Africa. The former is a major accomplishment already. The first Gambian to do so was the Reverend Dr. Tilewa Johnson, who has been the Anglican Bishop of the Gambia for more than twenty years. 

During that time, his two counterparts from the Roman Catholic and Methodist Churches were non-Gambians. But that has now changed dramatically. With a new Bishop for the Methodist Church, only the Catholics have yet to choose a Gambian national to head their church in this country, which has been independent for almost fifty years. It is high time that Gambians occupy all these senior ecclesiastical posts.

She is also the first woman bishop in West Africa. This represents a enormous milestone for women in this part of the world. Although women clergy are not unknown in this reagion, no woman has until now been elected to such a senior post. In Africa, as elsewhere, women are not always accorded the recognition and honor that they deserve. (This is one of the reasons why I have republished this post in this blog.)

She was baptized and confirmed in the very same church building where she was also consecrated. After beginning her career in teaching in the Gambia, she moved to Great Britain where she became a nurse and a midwife. Later she taught midwifery in London. During one of her return visits to the Gambia she became convinced of her call to the ministry. After some thirteen years experience in lay ministry, and further training in theology, she finished her preparatory work with an MA in pastoral theology, while continuing to minister in various parishes in the UK.

Her colleagues in the Methodist church of the Gambia elected her formally as their new bishop only two days before her consecration. The service in Wesley Cathedral was packed--more than a thousand people attended. Because there was also Holy Communion, it lasted more than four hours.

The newly consecrated bishop

The outgoing bishop, the Right Reverend Professor Peter Stephens, officiated at the service. He was accompanied by the Reverend the Lord Griffiths (he is a member of the House of Lords in England), who was Hannah's pastor in the UK, and preached an inspiring sermon for the occasion. In attendance were several other Methodist bishops from the Congo and Ghana, as well as the Methodist prelate of Nigeria. The Anglican Bishop of the Gambia also participated in the service, which as truly ecumenical in nature. The Roman Catholic Bishop was in Rome and thus could not attend.

The new bishop and her husband flanked by her predecessors

We were happy to attend this celebration not only because we witnessed the very joyful ceremony of the consecration. As the Bishop of the Methodist Church, Bishop Hannah takes over from Bishop Stephens the position of chairing the Gambia Christian Council, the body which has been appointed by the Gambian government to oversee the Christian Studies program at the University of the Gambia. The Vice-Chancellor of the university has asked us to head up this new program. This program is why we are currently in this country, although we are also teaching courses at the Gambia Theological Institute, which trains pastors and lay leaders for the churches here.

During the dinner we briefly spoke with her and her husband (the Reverend Dr. Kurt Heim, a noted Old Testament scholar in the UK), and arranged to meet with them in the near future. We look forward to working together with her in order to make the new program in Christian Studies at the university a reality.

But we also want to extend our congratulations again to Bishop Hannah for reaching this important milestone in the the history of the Christian Church in West Africa. We also wish her God's blessing as she takes up the enormous challenge involved.

The new bishop blessing the people      

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