Rev Bob Milne is a volunteer with the World Mission Council in Zomba Presbytery of the Church of Central Africa, Blantyre Synod, Malawi. Bob was commissioned on 24th February in Comrie Parish Church and will be writing a series of blogs during his time in Malawi.
What were you doing on the evening of Wednesday 24th June 1998? I can tell you what I was doing, I was in Marnoch New Church, Aberchirder, together with family and friends, which included a lot of the membership, for this was my home kirk at the time. The Presbytery of Buchan was there; Rev Rosemary Legge Parish Minister, conducted worship; Rev Fred Coutts who had supervised my placement with Aberdeen Royal Infirmary Chaplaincy preached an inspiring sermon; and last but not least the Moderator of Buchan Presbytery Rev Dr Ian Thom ‘by the power vested in him’ licensed me to preach the Gospel. I entered the church that night a Mr but emerged allowed to add Reverend.
A week, possibly two, later I went to Marischal College to graduate from Aberdeen University with my Bachelor of Theology degree. It was hot and took a long time, other than that I can’t tell you much about it. Why not? You may ask. To me the whole point of going to university was as a means to an end, to meet the academic requirements the Church set before I could become a minister. My licensing service was the culmination of that process, the graduation was to all intents and purposes a side show. The only way it was important was for my family, to acknowledge the love and support they had given me to enable the fulfilling of my call to the Ministry.
Last week saw the culmination of the academic year at Zomba Theological College celebrated by a joint graduation and licentiate service in Zomba Central Church. What a wonderful idea to have both at once and get around the problem of my anticlimactic graduation ceremony. Firstly, the graduation service was held with choirs, prayers and a superb sermon from a very distinguished churchman from Livingstonia Synod in the North of Malawi, Rev Dr Howard Matiya Nkhoma. Speeches from the College Principal and the Chair of Board of Trustees led up to the presentation of degree and diplomas to those who had worked so hard to earn them. When the students came forward so too did their wives or husbands, to also receive a congratulatory handshake. A nice gesture and recognition of the support given by them. It was a very dignified and solemn ceremony.
Immediately it was over, the congregation was dissolved (and you think the Church of Scotland has strange procedural terms) and Blantyre Synod took over to award Certificates of Licentiate to those who would be ministers under their auspices. This too was serious and solemn until the actual presentations. When each licentiate received their certificate and blessing friends and family ran forward to embrace and kiss the new Ordinand photos taken by the dozen. I couldn’t help thinking the old Head Porter at Marischal College would have had kittens were such scenes to take place there! Here though it was accepted, this was a joyous occasion to be celebrated and if Malawians know anything, they know how to celebrate. When all the ceremonials were over, the Synod processed out of the Church in due form. They were followed by the new ministerial licentiates who once out of the door, as the Synod posed for a formal photo, began their very noisy post service celebrations.
So, where next for the new Ordinands? The eight men and two women Licentiated (if such word exists!) by the Synod of Blantyre now move on to a period of supervised ministry. Not dissimilar to the Scottish Probation system except an Ordinand may well find themselves in an actual Parish flying, to all intents and purposes, solo with supervision being provided by a nearby minister. When their probation period is ended there are huge differences between Scottish and Malawian procedures. In Scotland of course new ministers apply for a Charge they feel called to and, if that call is confirmed by congregations and Presbytery, then off they go to a long happy and successful tenure (we pray) until they feel called elsewhere or retire! (1)
In Malawi, the power of placement rests not with individual parishes, or even Presbytery, it is entirely in the gift of the Synod of which in Malawi under the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) there are three; Blantyre in the South, Nkhoma in the centre and Livingstonia in the North (there are another two synods one in Zambia and one in Zimbabwe). Ministers under each Synod can be placed anywhere within any of the Presbyteries that make up that Synod. Typically a minister will serve in a Parish for three to five years before being moved to pastures new, usually, but not always, with plenty of notice.
In conversation with ministers here many envy the Scottish system. I could see some benefits in the Malawian method although, on balance, I prefer the Scottish. One of the plusses of the Malawian system is it ensures rural parishes get a minister. Here rural can mean remote, with limited access to urban areas often hours away meaning the Manse may well not have running water and mains electricity (although more and more are installing solar panels) whereas, many of the ones in the town are of a very high standard.
As a former minister in rural parishes I was used to the gift of a brace of pheasant now and again, sometimes ducks and on one occasion a goose was found hanging from the door handle on my return late at night (I hasten to add it had been shot prior to being suspended on my door!). Last weekend though, I was the very grateful recipient of a Manse Visitation. A Malawian tradition where a delegation from the congregation call to meet the Manse family and pray for the minister and their ministry. As well as prayer they also bring gifts of groceries and household items, to me they were a very welcome gift but to the resident ministers here they are a life line and make a huge difference to their lives. Perhaps in Scotland now there is not the pressing need for the gifts but all ministers, wherever they are, always need support in prayer.
Rev R B Milne
Zomba Theological College
- I know many Charges in Scotland are Reviewable Tenure but it would have spoiled the flow to explain that there!