Anglican centre director offers message of tolerance

Archbishop Ntahoturi (left), the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis

 ROME-- Running the Anglican Centre in the Eternal City may sound like a quixotic task pursuing elusive ecumenical unity. But Burundian Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, the first African in the post, hopes to use his office atop the Palazzo Doria Pamphili as a springboard to resolve conflicts in Africa, nurture joint policies with Roman Catholics to combat people smuggling and modern slavery in the war torn Middle East, and foster the education of the poor. 

  “My work has an element of ambassadorial work, it’s true," he told the Italian Insider in an interview. "I am an ambassador in so far as both sides want the same thing," he added with a chortle. "Coming from Africa, my three main objectives are conflict resolution in countries like Sudan or Zimbabwe, creating a unified voice with the Catholics in order to help with issues that I believe go deeper than human dignity such as trafficking, and tackling issues such as religion being used for violence - people killing in the name of God.”

 Archbishop Ntahoturi, 69,  has experienced pushback in the past from those who do not accept his message of tolerance. In 2015, the prelate was criticised by a group of anti-gay Anglican preachers from Africa who viewed a purported meeting between himself and pro-gay Christians in America as “unbiblical” and called for him to repent. While the meeting at the centre of the scandal never actually took place, the archbishop spoke about the importance of listening to other’s points of view.  

   The Archbishop studied at Mukono Theological College, Uganda, before undertaking a BA in Theology at Cambridge and a Masters in Diplomacy at Oxford. But his main inspiration came from South Africa.

  “The person that inspires me in terms of leadership is (the late ANC leader Nelson) Mandela, and not because he is Mandela, because of his attitude towards the prison officers. When he said, 'you are my prison officer, you are holding me.' As soon he got out he invited his prison officer to his presidential ceremony. That, for me, is a sign of forgiveness and reconciliation. That prison officer was representing a structure, the oppressive, but Mandela turned and said ‘we are together.’"

 "It shows that he was breaking those structures and that we are not retaliating against the individuals. Yesterday's enemy should be today’s friend, yesterday’s colonialists should be today’s partners, and although there may be people who don’t share the same view, we will share the same space in heaven.”

 For a man who was the former director of the civil service in Burundi, imprisoned for four years after a regime change in 1987, and witnessing genocide in 1993, the second that the country saw with a combined death toll of 250,000, reconciliation is not an empty word. 

 “Prison life is not gentle. When you talk about the prison life in the Western world it is very different from the political upheavals in Africa for public figure. So when people ask what I bring to this work and I say to them that I bring my life and my public life, having been at the centre of that, as well as my other experiences outside of the public life. These experiences build you and I am a product of those experiences."

 "I understand, if I talk from an African point of view, what a person is in the public life, in the political, but I also understand them as someone who has come out of that and lived a spiritual life, can I talk to that person? I think now that I am equipped to be able to advocate for those for who are suffering, who are in power, and those who are in the church. How these people can live a compassionate life. With all these backgrounds I can serve and understand and that’s why I advocate tolerance today.”

  Being the first African to direct the Anglican centre gives the Burundian emissary a broad international perspective. “One key difference between Anglicans and Catholics is that there is no central figure in Anglicanism," he sais. "The Archbishop of Canterbury could advise Anglicans in Burundi but he could not order them to do anything in the way the Pope can order Catholics.”

 While the archbishop told me that there is no fundamental gulf between the teachings of Anglicans around the world, even between High or Low Church, the representation of the international face of the Anglican Church is one of his chief concerns. Representing a diverse congregation from across the globe cannot be an easy task and, while the archbishop assured me that the Anglican dogma is a firm basis for a shared identity, rifts are always evident in such matters.

 Interdenominational projects that the archbishop is passionate about pursuing including stabilising the great lakes region in Africa, as well as assisting impoverished regions in Canada. Ongoing projects that have sprung from the Anglican Centre’s collaboration with the Vatican led to an international initiative against modern slavery in which faith leaders from the world over, including the foremost Shia and Sunni clerics, denounced historical and modern slavery. A joint Anglican-Catholic effort has put 40 bright and impoverished children through secondary school in Malawi.

 Archbishop Ntahoturi's role in facilitating reconciliation has translated into tolerance. Interdenominational differences are not yet completely set aside, however. 

 “My passion would be for the Anglican church, the Anglican communion, and the Vatican and Roman Catholic Church to work passionately together for reconciliation; political social culture and even spiritual reconciliation," he said. "For there to be moments that we can say we are on the same journey and from the authorities, the pope and archbishop of Canterbury, to create change at the parish level.”

 Rather than going out with the intention of converting Catholics, or vice versa, the relationship fostered between the two churches leaves out the old fashioned “we are the best, you are wrong” mentality of the past. Instead, as he told me, starting from the position that both churches are centrally concerned with the wellbeing of people, mutual understanding is imperative if one hopes for joint efforts to be effective.

 Clearly tolerance is an area that must be improved within these communities in order for productive conversation. Speaking about the different political leanings of the Anglican and Catholic Church, Ntahoturi said “you must remember that what it means to be conservative in one denomination in one place means something entirely different elsewhere."

 "I try to hold on to the best of both worlds, connection with tradition while also being open to new ideas.”