Mbwana, M.

Episcopacy in the Anglican and Lutheran Churches in Tanzania




Episcopacy in the Anglican and Lutheran Churches in Tanzania


Martin Mbwana



The Lutherans and Anglicans form the major group of non-Roman Catholic Christians in Tanzania, with about 800,000 and 700,000 adherents respectively. Both churches came to Tanzania with the missionary expansion of the nineteenth century and since then have grown to have indigenous leadership. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) was established in 1963 and today has thirteen dioceses (or Synods). The Church of the Province of Tanzania (Anglican) was formed in 1970 and is divided into nine dioceses.

In certain areas of the country, and in the urban centres, the two churches co-exist. There are, however, areas where either church is the main non-Roman Catholic denomination. This is mainly due to an agreement in the past for the missionary societies to have areas of influence. Thus in the north-eastern part the Lutherans are stronger than Anglicans while in the south-eastern part the Anglicans are stronger than the Lutherans. Indeed present-day Christians happen to be mainly Lutherans or Anglicans mainly because of the location of their tribe rather than by theological persuasion.


I. The “High” and “Low”

In either church there are two distinct traditions of churchmanship. Within the ELCT, there are those who would belong to a “high” churchmanship and normally have “dioceses” and “bishops”. There would also be those with a “low” churchmanship and normally have “synods” and “presidents”. Similarly, though the Anglicans have only “dioceses” and “bishops”, four


of the dioceses owe their origin to the work of the Church Missionary Society which is of a “low” churchmanship, while the remaining five dioceses owe their origin to the work of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa which has a “high” churchmanship. In this respect, therefore, the two churches have something in common that affects their understanding of episcopacy.

This distinction was indeed inherited from the missionary period and the fact that it so amicably continues to co-exist in both churches is a sign that the question of “diversity in unity” is not only between denominations but also is to be manifested within a particular denomination. The historical past of the different missionary societies is in a way used to enrich the young churches.

The rivalries and suspicions of the missionary period are being forgotten and both churches are joining together to further the work of Christ in Tanzania. Both churches have now national officers who help in coordination and communication within Tanzania and with their respective confessional bodies. There are national conferences which help to plan the work of both churches in relation to agreed tasks of the dioceses (or synods). There is today less competition between dioceses of the different churchmanships and several institutions are being run for each church (instead of the “mission” of diocese). Both churches are members of the Christian Council of Tanzania.


II. The Episcopé in Practice

I once asked a Lutheran President of one of the Synods what the difference was between him and a bishop of a Lutheran diocese. He replied happily: “Nothing! He likes to be called bishop while I don’t!”

As this paper is intended to be on the practical aspects of episcopacy, and not doctrinal, I would like to restrict myself to that aspect of the subject and refrain from making doctrinal comparisons or judgments.

Episkopé is a central, not just a domestic, question for the Church. The real meaning of the word is “oversight”, and in all churches someone, or a group of people, is charged with this important task. It is with understanding that this short paper approaches the subject as it is manifested by those who have this task in Tanzania. It is, however, one man’s observation and interpretation, and that of neither the ELCT nor of the Church of the Province of Tanzania. I have not had time to share these observations with the leaders or members of either church. Hence these are very preliminary observations.


As far as I can see the distinction is not simply as the Lutheran President quoted above seemed to imply. It has to take into consideration the style of episcopacy, i.e. whether monarchical or presidential. It has to take into account the gulf (where it exists) between those who have leadership and those over whom they have “oversight”. And in the case of Tanzania, it has to take into consideration the fact that most of the bishops (or presidents) have taken over from expatriate (missionary) predecessors. These aspects affect not only the different understanding of episcopacy but also how it is fulfilled in practice.

Throughout the country bishops (and presidents) have been given authority over the affairs of the Church. This authority is derived from the Church and normally is exercised, as far as possible, with the consent and support of the rest of the Church. In practice, therefore, people are given this authority only after a careful process of election and then a service of commissioning (or consecration). The modes of election may differ from area to area. In the case of the Anglicans, an electoral college is set up that is charged with the duty of submitting an initial list of names of candidates to the House of Bishops. When this list is approved, the electoral college votes and the candidate with a majority of votes is declared bishop. The electoral college has both lay and clerical members. Though I am not aware of how the bishops and presidents of ELCT are elected, I would presume that a similar process is followed.

Having thus been duly elected and appointed to the office, the bishop (or president) is then invested with the authority of his office. Both for the Lutherans and Anglicans this authority implies his being able to guard the tradition of the Church and maintain a personal life that is exemplary to the church in his care. It also implies some operational skills in liturgical and administrative matters. Matters of faith and order are explicitly under the care of the bishop or president. This responsibility is helped by the fact that before reaching any decisions, there is the opportunity of consulting with other bishops or presidents in each church. Both churches have synodical governments where matters are discussed before implementation. Recourse can also be made to the worldwide Lutheran World Federation (in the case of ELCT) and the bodies of the Anglican Communion. Such matters, of course, demand study, prayer and witness of not only the bishop but also of other members of the church.

The administrative role of the bishop (or president) is shared according to the structures of the diocese (or synod). In most cases, the bishop is chairman of the governing body of his area. He may also be appointed chairman of other committees in the national church. As chairman, therefore, he fulfills the role of guiding the fulfillment of goals set by the church for that particular period. He sees that personnel is available for the implementation of decisions agreed and where possible assists such personnel to interpret rightly the priorities of the church.


In addition to this administrative role, the bishop (or president) has the responsibility of pastoral oversight in his area. In Tanzania this takes most of his time. The country being basically rural, the bishops travel extensively for preaching engagements and administering the “episcopal” sacraments, i.e. confirmations and ordinations (in the case of the Anglicans) and commissioning new pastors (in the case of the Lutherans). While on such tours, the bishop (or president) also takes the opportunity of “seeing his flocks”; and quite often he may take over the duties of the local minister in order that the latter may take his vacation.



In fulfilling the basic responsibilities of the episkopé, there is no basic difference between the Anglican and Lutheran leadership in Tanzania. They have roles in the administrative and pastoral aspects in the respective areas of which they have charge. They appoint, install and oversee the clergy and other staff of their areas. They administer those sacraments which are exclusively reserved for the bishop or president of the church. It must be pointed out in conclusion, however, that there has been no formal recognition by either church of the episkopé of the other; except in the case of the “high” Lutheran bishops of the north-western dioceses. At the consecration of both Lutheran bishops in this area, Anglican bishops were present and took part in the laying on of hands. There are two Lutheran dioceses in Tanzania with an episcopally ordained ministry.