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August 10, 2013

Tracing the Roots of the Orthodox Church in Uganda

The modern Orthodox Church structure in Namungoona. It was built between 1956 and 1957 after the church had been registered in accordance with the incorporation Act. Photo by Abubaker Lubowa 

Frederic Musisi
August 8, 2013

In the dusty neighborhoods of Namungoona on the outskirts of Kampala, stands St Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral. The 57-year-old house of worship is the Metropolia (main church) of the Orthodox faith in Uganda. This sanctuary which also accommodates a hospital and a school has transformed the hilly village drawing admiration from residents.

The 2002 Uganda National Bureau of Statistics report lists Orthodox Christians as a mainstream religious group. The sect commands a one percent following of the 24 million population interviewed at the time.

Theodore Kato, the church’s Secretary General estimates the faithful to be 1.4 million. He also says the church has common traits with other Christian sects like the belief that God revealed himself through Jesus Christ, the incarnation of Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection - only differing in lifestyle, worship and aspects of spirituality.

The word “Orthodox” is derived from the Greek words orthos (right) and doxa (belief). Hence Orthodox literally means correct belief or right thinking.

In Uganda, the faith is marking 81 years of existence and its foundation is commemoratively attributed to the relentless efforts of Bishop Christophoros Reuben Spartas Mukasa Ssebanja, a former Anglican faithful.

The man behind faith in Uganda

Spartas was born Reuben Sebbanja to Anglican parents in 1899, in Mulawa village, present day Luweero District. By virtue of this affiliation, he was baptized in the Anglican Church and at the age of eight he was enrolled in an Anglican school at Nakanyonyi in Mukono District. He later received a scholarship to attend Kings College Budo, an all Anglican school at the time.

While at Budo, he volunteered to serve at the library of the Anglican Theological College. During this time, he considered ordination into the Church. He gave up this ambition after discovering that the Church was actually a splinter from the Catholic Church and a branch of the “True Church”.

“This left a stir into his mind of what the True Church was,” Bishop Macharios, a Kenyan Orthodox clergy, wrote in his 2010 memoirs of the Orthodox.

In the 1920s, he joined the Kings African Rifles, where he trained as a clerk and was dispatched to Bombo. He adopted the name Sparta after being intrigued by the actions of the Greek Spartans whom he read about widely during his early education, but later envisaged it would help him make contact with the Greeks.

The 1966 African Orthodox Journal states; “During his education, Spartas read an article in one of the English books titled Orthodoxy, which explained the teachings of the faith and in which he found out that there is a 'True Church' – the Orthodox Church. This marked the beginning of everything.”

Bishop Macharios notes: “It was indeed a sad commentary on Orthodox missionary endeavor in the 20th century that Africans had difficulty in becoming affiliated canonically. Searching for every prospect in Uganda and Kenya, it seemed a long hard journey he had set upon, not until he (Spartas) came across the Negro World, a book published by Marcus Garvey.”

The Birth of the Orthodox Church in Uganda

Spartas read extensively about the Garvey movement and the African Orthodox Church in America. In 1925, he wrote to Archbishop Alexander McGuire, who headed the Orthodox Church in America asking for instructions on how to read and preach from the Bible.

In 1928, he was appointed Group Scoutmaster for Bulemezi Sub-county, an office he utilized to spread African Orthodox ideas in Buganda. That very year, he got his response from the Archbishop.

With renewed zeal, Spartus sought audience with the Katikiro of Buganda, Martin Luther Nsibirwa, to explain his “True Church” ideology.

On January, 6, 1932, after a service at an Anglican Church in Degeya, a village in present day Luweero District, Spartas announced that he was breaking away from the Anglican Church to form the Orthodox Catholic Church. He stated that the church was “for all right thinking African men who wished to be free in their own house and not always being thought of as boys”.

This assertion brought fierce criticism and heated arguments, but this did not deter him. Shortly after this pronouncement, he wrote to the British Colonial Provincial Commissioner, informing him that the African Orthodox Church in Uganda did not intend to interfere with any political affairs. He also requested for permission to spread the doctrine. When permission was granted, Spartas along with his friends, Obadia Bassaja Kitalo, Irenaeus Magimbi and Theodoros Nankyama, set out to launch the church.

According to the church archives, the first Orthodox Church was a modest grass-thatched structure in Degeya which also housed a junior training school for young men. Young but zealous for the new faith, Spartas wrote to the Church leadership in Greece, requesting Archimandrite Nicodemus Sarikas to visit Uganda. He honored their request and visited the budding church in 1933.

The African Orthodox Journal says this visit was instrumental because Sarikas mapped the way for the church’s growth including teaching the new converts the Seven Sacraments and the working of the Liturgy. The church then took on the name of Eastern Orthodox African Church of Uganda and East Africa.”

Turning point

Bishop Macharios says of the visit: “This visit was a turning point in Spartus’ life. On October 5, 1933, he left Degeya on foot for Namungoona to start a covent - St Sophia”.

The land there had been given to him by King Daudi Chwa to enhance his evangelistic works. He went on to set up Chwa II Grammar School as the educational headquarters of the Church, along with a convent and a primary school. The covent was funded by His Beatitude Meletios, the Pope and Patriarch of the Church in Alexandria (Egypt) who largely donated books, which Spartas was tasked to translate to Luganda. And in 1935, the first Luganda book was published.

In 1937, The Orthodox Church in Uganda was fully recognized by the Orthodox Church Council. And by the end of 1938, the Church had claimed close to 5,000 followers in the central region with substantial expansive plans to other regions drawn.

Spartas embarked on a series of trips to several Orthodox leaning countries seeking additional support for the Church in Uganda. His efforts were not in vain, because according to the Orthodox journal, in the 1940s, Spartas was ordained as the Patriarch Vicar General of the African Orthodox Church.

In the 1950s, the church was registered in accordance with the Incorporation Act of 1953. Kato says this paved way for a new modern Church structure to be constructed in 1956-57. The new structure was renamed St Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral and was consecrated in 1959 by Metropolitan Nicholas.

Bishop Spartas passed on in 1989 at the age of 90 and was laid to rest adjacent to the Cathedral. He was succeeded by Archbishop Theodoros Nankyama who died in 1995. Archbishop Jonah Lwanga took on the mantle and is still the reigning head.

Countrywide, the church has 90 communities overseen by 27 priests.

Kato, the church’s Secretary General, adds that the church is facing a number of challenges like declining numbers of believers, shortage of church headsmen, and financial setbacks.