Donald Arden: Religious leader who made a significant and lasting impact as Archbishop of Central Africa

He tasted what life was like for ordinary Africans on the eve of apartheid

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The Independent Online

Donald Arden, who died peacefully at his home in Romsey, Hampshire at the age of 98, will be best remembered by friends and admirers in the worldwide Anglican Communion as a man who notched up 50 years as a bishop. He will also be remembered and respected as a senior cleric who played a significant role in the indigenization of the churches in central and southern Africa during the 1960s and 1970s.

When he was consecrated Bishop of Nyasaland (Malawi) on 30 November 1961, the region was in turmoil. The British imposed Central African Federation (CAF), which linked the two Rhodesias (Zambia and Zimbabwe) with Nyasaland (Malawi) between 1953-1963, was running out of steam. Hundreds of Africans hade been imprisoned after a state of emergency had been declared by the British Governor of Nyaslaand in 1959. Millions of blacks were demanding that white church leaders come down on their side – the side of Uhuru (freedom).

In his seminal work Church, State and Society in Malawi: the Anglican Case, the Malawian church leader and academic James Tengatenga observed that the in-coming bishop faced a formidable task. “Arden arrived the year Nyasaland got internal self-government,” he wrote. “The Central African Federation was ending. He was the last white bishop in the diocese... His responsibility was to bring the church into a position where it was no longer stigmatized as anti-Malawian, but one which co-operated with the government of the day. To do this became the controlling principle of Arden’s twenty-year ministry in Malawi.

Donald Arden was born in Boscombe (then in Hampshire, now in Dorset) on 12 April 1916, the youngest of three sons. When he was nine, the family moved to Australia – but in 1934, he returned to England.

After attending Leeds University, he trained for the priesthood at The College of the Resurrection at Mirfield – and its monastic discipline stayed with him throughout his life. He was ordained in 1939 and served first as a curate in London, moving to South Africa in 1943 when he joined the Pretoria African Mission. He ministered in several rural and city parishes, tasting what life was like for ordinary Africans on the eve of the National Party’s victory in 1948 and then the birth of apartheid.

Between 1951 and 1961, Arden was director of the Usuthu Mission in Swaziland, before stepping in the footsteps of the outgoing Bishop, Frank Thorne, in Nyasaland. A form of gentle English apartheid (based on class rather than race) existed in the Nyasaland churches with five “white” congregations known as the European Chaplaincy. Arden merged them into the diocese and set about training African priests, taking into account their varying academic qualifications.

In June 1962 Donald met a young English schoolteacher, Jane Riddle, who had gone to Nyasaland in 1959. Three months later they married. The service was conducted by Archdeacon Habil Chipembere, whose son, Henry, was to lead a revolt against President Banda soon after Malawi’s independence on 6 July 1964. The marriage broke the tradition that missionaries attached to the United Missionaries of Central Africa (UMCA) did not marry. In 1963 the couple embarked on a tour of parts of England and America to raise funds for the diocese and were instrumental in forming a number of healthcare organisations in Malawi.

In 1971 Arden was elected Archbishop of Central Africa following the death in a motor car accident of Oliver Green-Wilkinson. During his archbishopric, Arden frequently visited Botswana, Rhodesia and Zambia, which were all in the Province of Central Africa.

Following Ian Smith’s UDI in November 1965, Christians had a tough time meeting up with one another – and provincial meetings organised by Arden were sometimes the only chance Christians had of laying future plans for the Christian communities in their respective countries.

Donald, his wife and two sons, Bazil and Chris, left Africa in February 1981 and returned to England. Donald became priest-in-charge at St Margaret’s Church in Uxbridge, on the edge of London, and was there until 1986.

For the next 25 years, he was an Honorary Curate on the staff of St Alban’s in North Harrow, London where he played an active role promoting Anglo-Malawi associations, acting as an observer of the first truly democratic election in Malawi’s history in 1994.

As an active member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, Arden witnessed the ordination of the first women priests at Saint Paul’s in 1994. In 2011 in the same cathedral, the Dean and Bishop of London celebrated Mass to mark the 50th anniversary of Arden’s consecration as a bishop – and when Arden died, services were held in several parts of Malawi, which he loved so much and served so well.   

Donald Seymour Arden, archbishop and campaigner: born Boscombe, Hampshire 12 April 1916; married 1962 Jane Riddle (two sons); died Romsey, Hampshire 18 July 2014.