The Anglican Church in Maseno

The Emergence of a Fully African Congregation in Maseno, 1906-1964

The Anglican Church, whose missionaries were present at the founding of the town of Maseno, has a long history in this part of Kenya. The Anglican Church in Maseno has its foundation in traditional Christian teachings. However, spirituality, tendencies, beliefs, and practices infuse the activities of the church, creating a wholly local African religious experience. The Church also maintains a historical tie to the Maseno School since both represent the confluence of local African and European elements. These are the complex components that form the vibrant and unique Anglican Church in Maseno experience as a fully African church.

The Anglican Church of Kenya in Maseno is a distinct and vibrant local expression of faith that seeks to ensure the salvation of the body, soul, and spirit of man through expressions of Christian practice and African piety. The Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) in Maseno combines the goals of Anglican spiritual evangelism with a heightened awareness of the Church’s social responsibility to positively impact the spiritual lives of the people of Maseno.

The ACK in Maseno began as the local extension of missionary zeal for converting indigenous peoples of British colonial Africa. The ACK and the Maseno Dioceses in particular grew into wholly African religious institution that combined the Christian dogma of English Protestantism with the vibrancy and spirituality of the African religious tradition. The result is a Communion that plays a pivotal role in how 4.5 million Kenyans today express their Anglican Christian faith. The Maseno Dioceses serve their communities in a continuous show of religious devotion spoken with a uniquely African spiritual character and voice. The story of how the Anglican faith came to this part of Kenya and became a fully African church is really a story about the determination and commitment of the first missionaries in Maseno, and the dedication and engagement of the local people in the activities of the church at Maseno.

The religious journey of the ACK in Maseno started at the intersection of a dynamic East African local culture and the first European missionaries who came to the region in the late nineteenth century. After hundreds of years of growing communication between Africans and Europeans, missionaries came to prominence in East Africa. At the arrival of Dr. Johann Ludwig Krapf and his wife Rosine of the Christian Missionary Society (CMS) in 1844, these missionaries first initiated contact with local Africans for the purpose of religious conversion. Dr. Krapf’s goal during these excursions was to introduce the Anglican faith to this region of Africa. Rev. Johann Rebman joined him two years later and together they founded a local CMS station. Eventually Dr. Krapf learned to speak with the local people well enough to translate Genesis and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer into Swahili. Consequently, the missionaries’ conversion efforts proved successful when two years later they baptized their first African convert, Mringe, and initiated him into the Anglican faith.

Dr. Ludwig’s and Rev. Rebman’s mission continued. While working with the CMS colony in Free Town, they began to instruct ex-slaves in the teaching of the Anglican Church. This marked the start of the long relationship that emerged between the Anglican Church and formerly enslaved Africans. Eventually the Anglican Church, along with other anti-slavery interests, successfully lobbied the British government to sign the Frere Treaty ending the export of slaves. While not a complete Abolitionist victory, since it left in place the domestic practice of bondage, the agreement did substantially expand the role of the church in controlling slavery in the region.

The Church authority in London consciously connected its mission to the anti-slavery efforts and its desire to increase the educational opportunities available Africans in Kenya. The Church began a practice that saw many ex-slaves being elevated into positions of leadership in the religious community. The theology of the Parousia of Christ and his intervention in human history influenced the Church and how it served the Kenyan society and the world as a whole. In this capacity, the Anglican Church in Kenya began a trend to combine both its evangelical and fundamentalist aspects into a solitary ideological whole.

Over time, additional missionaries came to East Africa and their presence impacted the region greatly with respect to the introduction of the local Anglican church into more aspects of local life. Missionaries such as Mr. Hugh Osborn Saville and Rev John Jamieson Willis arrived in western Kenya in 1906. After the missionaries interacted with the local African population for a short period time, a new group of missionaries extended their mission into Vihiga, western Kenya, where the Abahando, Abasakami and Abamutsa peoples offered land to the missionaries for their settlement.

Not long after, while traveling on the road to Uganda, Rev. Willis pitched a tent under a tree in Chief Ogola Wuod Ayieke’s compound. Chief Ayieke as the leader of the Luo people of that area, considered the land around what is now the town of Maseno to be under his authority. Impressed with the generosity and hospitality of the Luo people, Rev. Willis decided to maintain a good relationship with Chief Ayieke. After a short while, Rev. Willis oversaw the relocation of the CMS station from Vihiga to Maseno.

The bond between Rev. Willis and Chief Ayieke was so durable and congenial that, together, they named the new religious station, Maseno, after the Oseno/Oluseno tree located near where the first missionaries resided. Chief Ayieke generously gifted this land to Rev. Willis. In return for the leader's gift, Rev. Willis promised to begin a school there to instruct the sons of local leaders in the process of governing properly. Mindful of this task, Rev. Willis went to Kaimosi to meet his first class of four students. Returning with the boys, Orao, Owiti, Onduso, Odindo, the Rev. Willis said a first prayer with them under that same Oseno tree. This reverent act of prayer with the pupils foreshadowed the expression of faith that followed when the Reverend oversaw the construction of the first grass-thatch roofed Anglican church near the Oseno tree in Maseno. According to many credible reports, these four boys, taught under that fig tree, became the first class of students in what became the Maseno School. With that, Maseno started its well-known function as an Anglican religious outpost and educational center of excellence in the region.

This first class of students at Maseno initially learned basic masonry, carpentry, and simple mathematics from Rev. Willis. (Rev. Willis later repeated this teaching process for the Christian Missionary Society at Kings College in Bado, Uganda.) Local parents initially proved reluctant to have their sons instructed in some topics. Because of that fear, African leaders initially offered the children of their other subjects for full instruction while limiting the curriculum taught to their own progeny. By 1909, the local students protested and the missionary teachers made technical subjects optional and opened up other subject for instruction. This reduced the tension that existed between missionaries and the people in the local town regarding the school, and brought the curriculum of the African pupils on par with the subjects taught to the children of white settlers.

Indeed, the first church and school in Maseno prospered and grew into the institutions that remain in existence today. More people began to accept the Church and the School and both grew to be quite prominent. In 1908 Rev. Willis oversaw the the construction of a new CMS Station for western Kenya. Rev. Willis also supervised the construction of a second church building in Kisumu. By 1912 the Kisumu church building named St Stephens Church opened. Construction of other Anglican churches became a crucial part in the expansion of the Anglican Church as they interacted with their respective Kenyan communities.

The other Anglican Churches originally existed as part of the Diocese of Eastern Equatorial Africa (DEEA). The DEEA then divided its own districts into two separate administrative areas, the Diocese of Uganda and the Diocese of Mombasa. The Diocese of Mombasa comprised the area of Kenya that included Maseno. The twentieth century saw many changes in the ACK as Africans began to rise into positions of real authority in the local branches of the Church. This represented the gradual increase of local African influences in the Anglican Church and in its rituals and practices. By 1955, the first African bishops were admitted to the ACK religious hierarchy and thus cemented the full infusion of Kenyans into all levels of Church authority.

The Church also began to recognize local preachers for example. The arrival of independence in Kenya coincided with the complete transformation of the ACK into an entirely African entity, under local direction but connected to the global Anglican Communion. By 1964, the ACK’s St. Stephen’s became known as the Pro-Cathedral of the Diocese of Maseno under the leadership of the Rt. Rev. Festo H. Olang, Bishop of Maseno. Rev. Olang has a special place in the history of the Anglican Church, according to Rev. Josh Owila Amayiesto. As the first African bishop in the church, people remember him for being beloved by the people and revered for how well he administered church affairs. He was a teacher at St. Phillips Theological center and played a pivotal role in uniting two local tribes by resolving their longstanding dispute. The administrative and personal skills possessed by Bishop Olang helped him in his drive to build more churches for the purpose in providing easy access to representatives of the Anglican faith. One of the churches specifically associated with the bishop is the Diocese of Maseno South.

As the Anglican Church cemented its presence in Maseno and in Kenya in general, several local elements found their way into the regular service. Once missionaries completed the translation of all of the elements of the Anglican Church service into local languages of the Luo and the Luhya, other officiants incorporated other local practices into regular church use. African songs became the music of the service in an attempt to more closely connect Anglicanism to local Africans practicing their faith.

The Maseno Dioceses and the Anglican Church of Kenya adapted, grew, and changed over time to serve the new and independent Kenya that emerged from the remnants of the British Empire in East Africa. The Anglican Church and other European religious organizations remained as institutions in the newly independent African nations like Kenya and Tanzania. These colonial vestigial religious institutions, however, existed in the increasingly complex relationships that formed between Africans, their leaders, and former colonial organizations.

Anglicans took comfort, though, in the fact that they believed they played a pivotal role in helping to lay the foundation for Africans to assume sovereignty in the years following the end of colonialism. In this, the Anglican Church and its teachings influenced many sectors of these emerging indigenous societies. It is, however, in the liturgy and the practices of worship that the Anglican Church in Kenya in Maseno continues to reflect a dynamic blend of European religious legacy combined with prevalent local Kenyan contemporary attitudes. Therefore, the Anglican Church in Maseno is a unique representation of Kenyan and British religious and cultural traditions. The Anglican Church in Maseno in its purpose and history represents “Biblical truths interpreted by local experiences.”

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