Founder: Alexander McGuire/ D.W.Alexander Country: North America/Africa

The African Orthodox Church (AOC) represents a rarely successful move of African Independent Churches to join a mainstream denomination. It provided the best available legitimation for black Christian leaders to counter racial discrimination.

Origin: USA

In 1866 Alexander McGuire was born in Antigua, the eldest son of an Anglican plantation manager. He succeeded as a teacher, then as a minister in the Episcopalian Church of America. Seeking ecclesiastical freedom, he became Chaplain-General of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association in New York. Neither it, nor the Roman, Orthodox, and Episcopal churches, would endorse his plans for a black church, so he convened a synod of all the Independent Episcopalian Churches. Over five days in September 1921 he underwent all the rites from baptism to enthronement as archbishop at the hands of Archbishop Metropolitan Joseph Vilatte of the American Catholic church, who enjoyed unbroken apostolic succession through the Syrian church of Antioch. However only one bishop assisted in the consecration, leading later to criticisms that ‘Patriarch’ Alexander I’s consecration was valid, but illegitimate. Clergy of the African Orthodox Church would emphasize the documentary evidence for its apostolic succession. It was not ‘a little sect’. From the beginning it sought as a church, ‘perpetually autonomous, autocephalous and controlled by negroes…particularly to reach out and enfold the millions of African descent in both hemispheres’.

South Africa

The African Province only began with enquiries from well-educated men there, who learned of the AOC through reading Marcus Garvey’s The Negro World. This contact with black theology made any African suspect with the colonial authorities. In South Africa Daniel Alexander was able to cross boundaries with his French passport and his coloured classification, being the son of a Roman Catholic of Martinique and a Cuban/Javan mother. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1903, but left the church 11 years later to join the African Political Organization, soon ministering to a coloured church in Kimberley. He struggled for funds, members, and official recognition.

With the AOC Alexander believed that Africa belonged to the black races of the world; if the white colonial masters refused to leave the continent, they must be ousted. In 1924 McGuire appointed him Vicar Apostolic for South Africa, but Alexander had to take a £200 loan to go to New York for his consecration as Archbishop and Primate of the African Province in 1927. He received a rousing reception across southern Africa, being joined by Anglican priests and laymen. Yet buildings and funds eluded his authoritarian approach.


Mukasa Spartas also became disenchanted with the Anglican church, seeking leadership in the redemption of Africa. He replied to McGuire that he wanted to be ‘like that active son of South Africa’, so Alexander made him a lay reader. On 6 January 29 Spartas formed the AOC in Uganda, and when he had paid his fare, impressed on Alexander to come to Uganda to ordain him in 1931. Spartas was made Archpriest and Vicar-General, but not the bishop that Alexander said that he desired. After a Greek told Spartas he was not using the Greek rite, he severed relations with Alexander in 1932 and sought recognition from the Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria. By 1936 Spartas was claiming thirty centres, twenty-three church schools, and 5,000 members, spreading from Buganda to Busoga and Lango.


In 1929 the female circumcision crisis provoked the exodus from the mission churches to the Agikuyu Karinga movement. Though they started schools, they resolved that for seven years, they would do without church organization, as they had no well-educated men to take on the missionaries as equals. However the Kikuyu Independent Schools Association (KISA) responded to the desire of its pupils like Kimani wa Kibero for baptism. They asked the Anglican Bishop of Mombasa to take two men for ordination training, but the mission churches did not want to foster an independent upstart. So they applied to Alexander for an apostolic church, as in the case of the AOC in Uganda, governed by Africans, of and for Africans. In November 1935 Spartas arrived bearing the hope that the ‘Negro Race will set an example to the world, indicating what the race can do itself without any external assistance of another race’ (Johnson 1999:98).

Spartas survived the usual church disputes over money and translated McGuire’s Divine Liturgy drawn from Roman, Anglican, and Orthodox sources. Meanwhile they used the Gigikuyu Anglican prayer and hymn.In nineteen months he baptized 8,000, including 646 on one Sunday, confirmed 300, married 150, and ordained five. Only two were well-educated, Philip Kiande, and Arthur Gatungu Gathuna. They accompanied him back to the coast and then set up the AOC of Kenya. The others resented Gathuna being ordained, when his Karinga people had refused to contribute to Alexander’s fare, so formed their own church.

In 1938 the Syrian Patriarchate of Antioch excommunicated Vilatte and repudiated the AOC. Though Gathuna had already attracted a membership of 20,000, he soon joined with Spartas of Uganda to seek pure Greek Orthodox legitimation from the Patriarch of Alexandria. It took until 1946 to recognize their apostolic succession. Spartas became Bishop Christophoros of Niloupolis. By 1953 there were 30,000 members in Kenya, including 309 congregations and twenty-eight schools, but these were then banned for connections to Mau Mau oathing. Gathuna, to Spartas ‘a pure Kikuyu’, was arrested and detained until 1961. After post-independence growth to 250,000 members Gathuna was consecrated bishop in 1974, only to fall out with the Archbishop of East Africa on the issue of African accountability to ‘foreign missionaries’. Gathuna was defrocked in 1987, while the leading clergy were reconciled to the Patriarch of Alexandria, who claimed authority over 300,000 Kenyans and 200,000 Ugandans in 2004.

In the USA the AOC has only 6,000 adherents, and perhaps 50,000 worldwide. Virtually all the AOC in Africa has been absorbed by the Greek Orthodox Church. Under a Cyprian Pope and Patriarch only Jonah of Uganda of the fifteen Metropolitans in Africa is black.

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