The Old and the New – Blantyre Revisited

For me it is always a special moment to come to the city of Blantyre and arrive at St Michael and All Angels, southern Malawi’s Presbyterian Cathedral. Not only is it a national monument but has international importance as the first permanent church building between the Limpopo and the Nile.

Even more remarkable is the design of the building, with its Byzantine domes and Moorish turrets. It expressed the missionary philosophy of David Clement Scott, who led the Scottish mission in the 1880s. He was determined that Malawi’s Christianity would grow not as a matter of copying Scotland’s but rather by drawing on the whole breadth of the Christian tradition as it found its own way to follow Christ. 

I suspect Scott would be pleased to discover that the St Michael’s congregation has built a magnificent multi-purpose hall next to the church to accommodate the large numbers coming to worship today. This was where today’s united service was held – a blend of traditional Presbyterian worship and a much freer style of praise with raised arms and dancing feet. 

In our European tradition of worship we have tended to put a premium on the intellectual dimension of faith.  “For Africans,” Lamin Sanneh suggests, “the call for explanation was not equal in its drawing power to the appeal of the living God before whose eternal mystery explanation must exhaust itself in worship.” It is not only the building that is new at Blantyre, the worship too has undergone renewal.

Still, I could not miss the intersection of Scottish and Malawian life and worship that is represented by Blantyre. When the St Michael’s choir sang the great Scottish psalm tune St George’s Edinburgh a cappella, I could feel the hairs rising on the back of my neck. 

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