THE LONG and painful illness of George Browne, Archbishop of West Africa and Bishop of Liberia, never kept him from his chief task of being with his people in their mutual struggle and survival amidst the civil strife and war in Liberia.
The saga of Liberia continues, while this chapter of the life of the Episcopal Church in Liberia closes until a successor is chosen. Amid the political dealings of his day, Archbishop Browne was hailed as a possible interim president - a suggestion which almost cost him his life. Following the assassination of the former Liberian President Samuel Doe in September 1990, Browne opened seven Episcopal churches in the capital of Monrovia, offered help and spiritual guidance to a terrorised people, and made himself emissary and peace negotiator with leaders of the warring factions. His life was threatened repeatedly. The trauma of these threats, arrests, and harassment, even the pointing of a gun to his brow, never stood in the way of Browne's vocation to be alongside his people, as their Father in God.
It was inter-religious and inter-family conflict which set George Browne on a path that eventually led him to the priesthood. Although his maternal grandfather was an Americo- Liberian Episcopal priest, his paternal grandfather was a high priest of African traditional religion. When Browne was three his mother spirited him away in the middle of the night so that she could raise him as a Christian and provide for an education. In a brief autobiography, he wrote that a childhood of poverty had fortified him for his ministry in later life. 'I was sent to school in the afternoons and in the mornings I either went around town selling biscuits a penny a piece or went in a canoe up the river to fetch firewood,' he said.
He had been acclaimed as a 'mediator' in his country and he was instrumental in drafting the constitution for the second Republic. Yet the stress of the situation in Liberia did affect his health. When he appeared in London in 1991 his weight had dropped by 50lb. His absence from the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Wales in 1990, the Primates Meeting in Northern Ireland in 1991 and at the recent joint meeting of these bodies in South Africa, gave a clear indication that his health was failing.
Following a recent hospitalisation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the home of one of his children, George Browne came to my office in London on his way back to Liberia, accompanied by his faithful wife Clavendar. His physical appearance showed a man who had endured much, yet his mien was that of a man full of faith, commitment and determination to be with his people.
In the Anglican world Browne was respected by his fellow archbishops. He was the first native Liberian to head a diocese. He was among those who were in the forefront of leadership for the emerging African churches following upon the inheritance from the missionaries. (The Episcopal Church in Liberia was, at one time, a missionary district of the American Church.)
'It says a great deal about Archbishop George Browne, and his understanding of Christian ministry, that he deliberately chose to stay in Liberia with his people though he had the opportunity to leave,' said Edmond Browning, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, on his death. '(He) was a true shepherd in the deepest sense of what that means. In some sense our dear brother was the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.'