The newest member of the teaching staff at CMS in Oxford is Angus Crichton. He works one day a week alongside undergraduate course leader Sarah Clarke, lecturing, tutoring and supervising students. I met up with Angus on Zoom recently to find out a bit more about what makes him tick.
Angus, what do you do when you’re not teaching on the pioneer course?
My background is supporting African colleagues in research and publishing on African theology. SPCK employs me two days a week to work on that and I do that with colleagues in Uganda for the rest of my time on a voluntary basis.
This came out of my experience as a CMS mission partner, teaching in a theological college in Uganda, seeing that all books came from the West. I thought, where are the books written by Ugandans on matters that are relevant for Uganda? Lots of people have valuable things to say, they’ve done research, but haven’t got published.
So we set up a publishing consortium, got a book published (a series of case studies on how the Ugandan churches have responded to political power) and on the basis of that experience, I ended up working with SPCK, where we are trying to develop a network press to make African theological publications available in different parts of the continent. I’m working with African theological institutions and essentially doing myself out of a job because we will shift everything onto the continent, which is where it needs to be. I’m supporting Kyama Mugambi who’s heading that up in Kenya.
So what unites your interest in African theology with pioneering in the UK?
As part of my responsibility for SPCK, I began to do some work for them to say, well, here we are as a mission agency in the 21st century and actually, our biggest missionary challenge isn’t the African continent. It is on our own doorstep. So what would it mean for SPCK to be thinking about publications which engage with people where they are at now, not where we think they should be, and journey with them towards Christ? Perhaps not expect people to approach Christian faith in the ways that we within the church are familiar with. In other words, asking pioneer-ish type questions.
But of course, what encouraged me to ask those kinds of questions was a long engagement with African theology, realising the kind of questions that the pioneers are asking here are questions that missionaries and African Christians and African Christian thinkers have been asking on the African continent for the last 150 years.
What would you say your own life journey so far brings to the pioneer team?
I think my experience teaching in Uganda taught me that you have always as much, if not more, to learn from your students as they do from you. I’ve already found it very stimulating to be among individuals who are pioneering.
My background is in history so I would want to create that dialogue between students’ pioneering experience now and the wisdom, the struggles, the failures, the opportunities from other times and places.
I think I realise that I’m a reluctant pioneer myself. Lots of the things I’ve done have been pioneering: setting up a publishing programme, encouraging SPCK to move to a model where the work’s being done on the African continent rather than off.
I never particularly saw myself as a pioneer but I suppose there is that sort of personal experience of realising how hard it can be, because we have a long haul, there are a lot of frustrations, disappointments, and the cost of it. But I think that’s part of what being faithful in Christian mission involves – being prepared to go to the margins and realising that that’s a hard place to be.
Who’s been a particularly inspiring or influential person in your own mission journey?
Andrew Walls. Without a shadow of a doubt. I was told to read him by a former CMS Africa director, Zac Niringiye, way, way back when I was completely ignorant about world Christianity, African Christianity and Christian mission. Reading Andrews Walls on Zac’s advice pretty much changed my view of the world.
If I’ve got insights to bring, most of them at some point can be traced back to reading Andrew Walls and engaging with what he said.
Tell us how or where to start with African theology. Is there one person to read? Or is there a good place to begin to get an overview?
It’s challenging because there’s an awful lot out there. I suppose the kind of material that I benefited the most from and which I want to encourage students to read is the kind that actually opens windows onto the lived experience of African Christians and African Christian communities. I think the most significant African Christian thought is reflection that rises out of that kind of engagement. That is not always easy to find but I think it is the richest material, where you are getting windows onto lived experience: people making Christian choices in the midst of African realities.
A book like Emmanuel Katongole’s Sacrifice of Africa, published by Eerdmans, which is on the face of it a book about political theology in Africa – the last third of the book is just amazing. You get these incredible stories of people whom the Lord has enabled to bring genuine transformation. And you read these stories and they make you cry. That’s where it’s really at, where the ideas become enfleshed in communities of practice, where we get glimpses of Christ in the midst of African realities.
But other stuff is buried away in publications, which you have to dig out, to find bits in people’s PhDs, or even CMS Archives – there’s some real treasure there. And that’s the kind of stuff which I’m in the process now of typing up for students because it’s not readily available.
But then, you ask, why are students reading this here? What about students back in Uganda? How can they read these stories that are in the CMS archives?
But that’s a whole other story.