The Right Reverend Hannah Faal-Heim
It is not every day that a bishop is consecrated, and certainly not in the Gambia. This past Sunday, February 5, we had the rare privilege of witnessing the consecration of Hannah Caroline Faal-Heim as The Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church in the Gambia.
The Right Reverend Hannah Faal-Heim, to give her proper title, is only the second Gambian to become a bishop in the Gambia, and she is the first woman bishop in West Africa.
She was baptized and confirmed in the very same church building where she was also consecrated. After beginning her career in teaching in the Gambia, she moved to Great Britain where she became a nurse and a midwife. Later she taught midwifery in London. During one of her return visits to the Gambia she became convinced of her call to the ministry. After some thirteen years experience in lay ministry, and further training in theology, she finished her preparatory work with an MA in pastoral theology, while continuing to minister in various parishes in the UK.
Her colleagues in the Methodist church of the Gambia elected her formally as their new bishop only two days before her consecration. Since we had heard of this event we made it our priority to be present at this service, never mind how long it would take - more than four hours, in fact - with more than a thousand people in attendance.
The newly consecrated bishop
The outgoing bishop, The Right Reverend Professor Peter Stephens, officiated at the service. He was accompanied by The Reverend the Lord Griffiths (he is a member of the House of Lords in England), who was Hannah's pastor in the UK, and preached an inspiring sermon for the occasion. In attendance were several other Methodist bishops from the Congo and Ghana, as well as the Methodist prelate of Nigeria. The Anglican Bishop of the Gambia also participated.
Aside from the joy of being able to attend and participate in such a service, we found the singing impressive, for the liturgy included many beautiful and stirring hymns, obviously well-loved by the congregation, whose voices filled the church to the rafters. Where we were sitting, on one of the balconies, it felt as if we were literally being uplifted by the music! A combined choir from several Methodist churches added to the beauty of music offered, particularly when they concluded the service by singing the Hallelujah Chorus; but this was by not just an offering of the choirs only, for large sections of the congregation joined in to sing with them.
When we left the church after the service we noticed that a large video screen had been set up for the many who could not fit into the church and were sitting outside under an awning. But everyone was invited to the reception held in the school yard next to the church, where food was served to all those who attended.
The new bishop and her husband flanked by her predecessors
We were happy to attend this celebration not only because we witnessed the very joyful ceremony of the consecration of Reverend Hannah as the first woman bishop in West Africa. As the Bishop of the Methodist Church, Hannah takes over from Bishop Stephens the position of chairing the Gambia Christian Council, the body which has been appointed by the Gambian government to oversee the Christian Studies program at the University of the Gambia. During the dinner we briefly spoke with her and her husband (the Reverend Dr. Kurt Heim, a noted Old Testament scholar in the UK), and arranged to meet with them in the near future. We certainly look forward to working together with her, to bring the new program in Christian Studies at the university closer to reality.
The new bishop blessing the people