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Janani Luwum

Archbishop Sentamu at York Minster

Thursday 23rd February 2012

Writing in the Methodist Recorder this month, The Reverend Dr Collinson reflects on Archbishop Luwum for his commemorative day - 17 February.

In 1971 Idi Amin deposed the President of Uganda, Milton Obote, while he was attending a Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in Singapore.  In the reign of terror which followed 50,000 Ugandan Asians were expelled and some of the leading figures in Uganda’s public life were murdered.  Among them were a former Prime Minister, Kabiru Kiwanuka, the Vice Chancellor of Kampala University and the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, Janani Luwum.  For Janani Luwum it was the price of his discipleship and he has become one of the twentieth century martyrs of the Anglican Church.  His witness is celebrated each year on February 17, the anniversary of his death.

The Anglican Church of Uganda is no stranger to martyrdom.  It had begun promisingly in 1877 with the work of two CMS missionaries, Shergold Smith and C.T.Wilson, just two years after Henry Morton Stanley made contact with Muresa I, the Kabaka of Buganda.  Between 1885 and 1887, however, successive Christian leaders, both Anglican and Roman Catholic, met their deaths at the hands of Muresa’s son and successor, Mwanga.  Archbishop Luwum was killed in 1977 just one hundred years after his Church was founded. 

Janani Luwum was born to Acholi parents in northern Uganda, near the Sudanese border.  He became a teacher and was converted to Christianity in 1948.  After attending Buwalasi Theological College he was ordained in 1956 and served in parishes in the Upper Nile.  His abilities were recognized in 1966 when he became Provincial Secretary of the Church of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire.  He was consecrated Bishop of Northern Uganda in 1969.   President Obote and Chief of Staff, Idi Amin, were in the congregation.  Two years later, Amin was in power.

Bishop Luwum was known as a faithful visitor to his parishes and also had a growing influence at international gatherings of the Anglican Communion.   He was elected the Archbishop of Uganda in 1974.  He must have known the likely outcome of standing up to the President, saying on one occasion, ‘I do not know how long I shall occupy this chair.  I live as though there will be no tomorrow…While the opportunity is there, I preach the Gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God.’

In their A Century of Christianity in Uganda, Tom Tuma and Phares Mutibwa describe Archbishop Luwum as ‘a gentle, peaceful and humble man’, a determined shepherd who ‘was capable of searching for the hundredth sheep even if that meant risking his own life’.  This is what he was doing on 7 February 1977, when he and Dr Sam Wills went to the notorious Naguru prison to look for the medical superintendent of Mengo Hospital, abducted from his house by Ugandan soldiers.   

On 12 February 1977, Archbishop Luwum delivered a note of protest to the President about the regime’s acts of violence.
President Amin summoned him and other religious leaders, including the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop and a prominent Muslim leader, to the presidential palace on 16 February.  After being harangued by Amin they were allowed to depart one by one, leaving Archbishop Luwum alone.  As Bishop Festo Kivengere left, the Archbishop said to him, ‘They are going to kill me.  I am not afraid.’

He was not seen alive again.  The next day, 17 February, the announcement was made that Archbishop Janani had been killed in a car accident.  In fact, he had been shot. He left a widow, Mary Lavinyo, and nine children.

Adrian Hastings in his A History of African Christianity wrote that it was the power of personal prayer, so much a part of African traditional Christianity, which ‘gave Janani Luwum the divine calm to face Idi Amin, the Thomas of Canterbury of the twentieth century.’

In 1998, the statues of ten twentieth century martyrs were unveiled above the West Door of Westminster Abbey, amongst them Archbishop Janani Luwum next to Manche Masemola, a sixteen year old Anglican catechumen from South Africa who was killed by her parents in 1928.  Flanking them are the Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Maximilian Kolbe, Lucian Tapiede, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Martin Luther King, Wang Zhiming and Oscar Romero.

In his address at their unveiling, the sub-dean, Anthony Harvey said, ‘There has never been a time in Christian history when someone, somewhere, has not died rather than compromise with the powers of oppression, tyranny and unbelief.  But our century, which has been the most violent in recorded history, has created a roll of Christian martyrs far exceeding that of any previous period.’

Archbishop Luwum contributed both a Foreword and an Epilogue to Tuma and Mutibwa’s history of the Ugandan Church.  The Epilogue is dated November 1976 and in retrospect is heavy with meaning; ‘What will happen in the next hundred years or so?...we have seen that the Church is founded on the belief in the sure foundation who is Jesus Christ, the Saviour.  He is the sure Rock of our Salvation and therefore we will not fear any evil.  Jesus is not only the rock of our salvation or our refuge, He is also the Way, the Truth and the Life…There is no better assurance for the next journey than this.’

Another of those who fell foul of the Amin regime is Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York.  In 1974 he was imprisoned and subsequently forced to leave Uganda.  Archbishop Sentamu has kindly added these words about Archbishop Janani Luwum on the eve of his commemoration day;

"Martyrs like Janani show us that following Christ, his teaching to love and serve others is costly.  When Janani was brutally murdered by Idi Amin, the heart of Uganda was prized open.  It has not fully healed. I am glad I counted him as a friend and a great leader.  His love of Jesus Christ was self-evident."


This article appeared in 16 February 2012 edition of The Methodist Recorder.

Nigel Collinson is a retired Methodist minister.  In 1996 he was President of the Methodist Conference and was its Secretary from 1998 to 2003.

The piece on Archbishop Luwum is one of 12 monthly articles written for The Methodist Recorder about significant twentieth century figures and their spirituality.  Others include Martin Niemoller, Simone Weil, Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Ferens of Hull, R.S.Thomas and Gladys Aylward.

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