Sunday 24 January 2021

Homily for the funeral of Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya

Preached for the funeral in Mbabane on January 23, 2021:

2 Corinthians 4: 7-18; Psalm 42: 1-7; John 6: 37-40

May I speak in the name of God, our Redeemer and our Sustainer. Amen. 

First, let me on behalf of the Church throughout this sub-continent, express our heartfelt condolences to Henry, to your children and your wider family, as well as to the family of the Diocese of Eswatini as we mourn the devastating loss of our sister. It has sent a ripple, no, a wave of grief across our Church, here and across the Communion. In chapter 4 of Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, we learn of the treasure protected in clay jars, the treasure being the power of Jesus and his mission to be the light coming into a world of darkness. Today I think of Bishop Ellinah as an outstanding witness to that light, not only in this Diocese, but in the Province of Southern Africa and around the world. 

Grief counsellors often note that the human heart goes to odd places in moments of shock and grief. It does so in order to make sense of that grief, to find solace and to strengthen memories. In these sad days since the death of our sister Ellinah, I think of that huge memorial to Queen Victoria, the British monarch, outside Buckingham Palace in London. If you have seen a photo of that Palace you cannot but notice the memorial in front of it, 25m high, the biggest memorial for any monarch anywhere in the UK.

The memorial comes to mind because it also tells the story of our sister’s life and ministry. To all of us, but especially to those of us who sat with her in the Synod of Bishops, Ellinah was special: a leader, a pastor, a theologian and an activist. She was gentle, she was kind, but she also courageously spoke her mind. She loved fairness and was forceful in her advocacy, no push-over, but combined it with a warmth and tenderness. Her family have testified to me how precious she was to them and of how she loved our Church. But the reason that memorial in London reminds me of Bishop Ellinah is because it speaks to what we loved about her and will miss: namely her love, her commitment to truth and her passion for justice. Around the main statue on the memorial are three other figures. First there is the figure of a mother, holding her children close, looking on them with deep affection. The way the figure is carved reflects the nurture which motherhood symbolises, the importance of relationships, the holding of diverse people in one’s heart. The writer Henry Ward Beecher says that ‘a mother’s heart is a child’s classroom.’ We remember our sister as a mother and a grandmother to her own children and grandchildren – to those whose lives were shaped in every way, in the tiniest loving detail, in the classroom of their mother’s heart. 

The playwright James Barrie says that ‘The god whom little children pray to, has the face of their mother.’ That is so true for Ellinah's children, grandchildren, family members, and others she drew into her heart, but it is also true for all of us. We learned so much more about God, fathomed more deeply the depths of love, understood the mercy of an embracing, caring God because we were schooled in the heart of this bishop.

This Diocese was blessed to have her as a mother and to experience in her ministry the same tenderness, the same measures of love, the same graciousness as her children knew every day. Let the Diocese ponder today those words of Abraham Lincoln that ‘No person is poor who has a godly mother.’ In those terms, this Diocese can count itself as exceedingly rich.

That statue in London is surrounded not only by the great statue of motherhood, but also by the angel of truth. Powerfully, truth carries a mirror and crushes a serpent with her foot. Seated below her is a figure seeking the truth in a manuscript. At Bishop Ellinah's ordination, she committed to discerning the truth, to seeking actively that truth which the church holds out as a mirror to the world, offering it spiritual depth, the transformation of the heart and vivid glimpses of the God who is the author of all truth. As priest and as bishop, Ellinah was a teacher of truth. So we can read the statue as symbolising her lifelong ministry, from her childhood to her death, of learning and teaching age-old truths as they speak to every generation, that truth that the tradition holds in the great book, in the Word of God. The preacher Charles Spurgeon put it well when he said, ‘Nobody ever outgrows Scripture; the book widens and deepens with our years.’ Our sister understood the words of the spiritual writer who said: ‘The language of truth is always unadorned and simple.’ This is what made her preaching and the witness of her life so unforgettable, so attractive to so many and so rich in its public witness.

The third figure on the memorial is the figure of justice, indeed the figure of a warrior for justice. Bishop Ellinah's great blessing in the world of public witness was her passionate commitment to issues of environmental justice. Across the world, the loss of one who so powerfully promoted the integrity of all creation, so crucial to our planet's survival, is especially mourned. As news of her death spread, advocacy workers and activists wrote eloquently about her passion for environmental justice. Our colleagues from ecumenical and inter-faith platforms paid glowing tributes to her leadership. For example, Lovedonia Mkansi of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office wrote of the 'authority and passion' with which she spoke.

Her leadership on the environment also testified to her generosity of spirit because one cannot be immersed in issues of environmental justice without being committed to gender justice, to economic justice, to racial justice and to overturning the other injustices that dehumanise people. In her heart and in bringing her public actions into alignment with her inner convictions, she heard over and over again the words of the prophet Amos, ‘let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.’ We will honour her international engagement as well as her local advocacy in this area by continuing her work, rooting out environmental injustices and degradation and creating the new earth which St John sees in his vision.

For Bishop Ellinah, all of this was woven into a rich prayer life, a constant seeking of the face of God, a determined strengthening of her inner self. For her, God was not an abstract intellectual proposition or a mystical escape but an encounter based on a living presence. I have many images of her at prayer, at meetings and at the Eucharist. 

Today at this funeral it all takes on a deeper meaning: her witness, her faith, those sculptures on the statue, her ministry, her activism, her energy for the new earth. Her quest for the new earth which the Book of Revelation talks about so poetically is linked to the new heaven. It circles very poignantly for John around the emergence of new life. New life on this earth, yes, but also the celebration of the new life that comes to its fullness in heaven. For the bishop, today ‘life is changed not ended.’ She lives with the Lord and therefore lives with us. The spiritual writer Bede Jarrett reminds us that ‘just as God lost nothing of her in giving her to us, so we lose nothing of her in giving her back to God. For what God gives God does not take back.’ 

This is our core conviction as the Christian people that in dying Christ destroyed death and in rising restored our life. We say this over and over again at the Eucharist as a foretaste of the reality to come. In this hour of sorrow that must give the family comfort just as it must console our church family. When we look at so rich and joyous a life, at the way the Spirit of God used her to extend the Kingdom, we can only believe in the power of the Resurrection. John Whale once said: ‘Resurrection of the dead is not an appendage to the Christian faith, it is the Christian faith.’ What consolation that gives us amidst our understandable grief. 

She will rise in glory. To God be all praise.


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