Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Chipembere, Habil Matthew (B)

Anglican Communion

Habil Matthew Chipembere was one of the most outstanding Malawian Anglican leaders of the twenty-first century.

Habil was born around 1900 [1] five years after the Anglican missionaries of the Universities Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) [2] had established their first permanent mission on Likoma island. His father’s name was Chipa Chipembere but he was also known as Faida. The Chipemberes belonged to the Nyanja tribe which settled along the shores of Lake Malawi in what is now Mozambique. Early in life, as a result of their hard work in the trading industry, the Chipemberes had become prosperous and had gained considerable social status in the community.

In 1915 Habil Chipembere attended St. Michael’s College [3], an Anglican institution on Likoma island. He was not able to finish his studies on schedule because of the first World War and the structure of the course.[4] After teaching from 1915 to 1921 he qualified as a teacher in 1921. He was married in 1919. He did his early pastoral work at Nkhotakota, Visanza in Central Malawi.

He was one of the first two mission teachers to pass the first grade government teachers’ examination. [5] As a result of this and of his outstanding work as a teacher and evangelist, Chipembere was promoted to the rank of reader, a position granted to teachers likely to be chosen to train for the priesthood.

Training for the priesthood

During his training at St. Andrew’s College, Chipembere came under the formidable influence of the principal, Arthur G. B. Glossop, a conservative Oxford-educated Anglican priest and a fanatical believer in order and in the excellence of the British system. Like others, Chipembere went through seminary under the watchful eye of the missionaries. The strict regimen sought to teach the students loyalty and submission to authority. Fear of a bad report, that could lead to dismissal from the college by the principal, dominated their lives. Training at the theological college lasted three years. Chipembere became a model product of this system. Out of seven graduates, Chipembere was one of five called to go on to study for the priesthood.

In 1935, Chipembere was ordained a deacon by Bishop Alston May of Zambia. [6] He was first assigned to Lungwena, a Yao dominated village in southeast Malawi, [7] a place known for its strong adherence to Islam. Realising that the success of his work depended upon the good will of the local Muslim chiefs and leaders, Chipembere did not condemn their religion as the missionaries had done, causing antagonism. Instead he respected Islam and its faithful adherents, and was thus able to cultivate a healthy relationship with the Muslim community. In turn he earned their admiration and respect.

On January 21, 1938, after five years of further training in college and in service, Chipembere and his four classmates were ordained priests in Likoma Cathedral by Bishop Frank Oswald Thorne. [8]

The Making of a great leader

After ordination, Chipembere was sent to Liuli, in southwestern Tanzania, for his first pastoral assignment, under a missionary named Father Claude Seargent, a man five years younger than Chipembere. One particular episode sheds light on the racial prejudice the missionary sometimes showed to his African subordinate. The morning Chipembere and his family were to depart on leave, Seargent sent African workers to Lakeshore to search Chipembere’s suitcases and bags and baskets for money which Seargent said had been stolen from the mission. It was rumored that Chipembere might have taken it hoping to escape discovery because he would be soon out of reach. Apparently, the search only turned up money which Seargent himself had paid Chipembere for his leave.[9] There is no record of Chipembere’s response to this incident but it is likely that Chipembere resented Seargent’s action though he never protested openly. It is possible that the seminary mentality that fostered loyalty to authority might have restrained him from speaking out publicly.

Destined for a high office

Chipembere’s life ran parallel to that of the future first Malawian bishop, Josiah Mtekateka, who was also rising in the church’s corridors of power in the diocese of Southwest Tanganyika.[10] Chipembere served in many parishes including Malindi and Matope. It is possible he was asked to open new parishes-most notably, Namalomba-because he was so reliable. Consequently, he rose rapidly in the church hierarchy.

In the 1960s, the church in Malawi was going through tremendous changes as the missionary church began to hand over church leadership to African leaders. For UMCA missionaries it was critical to choose the right African priest for bishop-someone who would fulfill the function according to UMCA tradition.

From the 1950s on Chipembere was one of the few highly respected priests in the Anglican church in Malawi. As a result, the UMCA gave him important assignments. In 1957 Chipembere and Stanley Mandala represented the church in Malawi [11] at the UMCA’s centenary celebrations in England while Josiah Mtekateka represented the Anglican diocese of Southwest Tanganyika. [12] During the proceedings Chipemebere was given a five-minute slot to express thanks on behalf of the people of Malawi for the work of the mission. [13]

On January 15, 1961, Bishop Thorne appointed Chipembere archdeacon, [14] the first Malawian priest to hold this position, just below bishop in the Anglican hierarchy. In June that same year, Thorne appointed Chipembere canon of St. Peter’s Cathedral. [15] Chipembere thus became the most senior Malawian priest in the Anglican Church in Malawi and one of the bishop’s chief advisors. Obviously, the missionary church in Malawi, and particularly Bishop Thorne, thought very highly of Chipembere. Also in 1961, for a short period during the absence of the vicar general, Christopher Lacey, Bishop Thorne appointed Chipembere vicar general. [16]

Meanwhile, after Malawi attained self-government status in 1961, with the approval of his bishop and some of his colleagues, Chipembere worked as a member of parliament [17] in place of his son, Henry Chipembere, who was serving a prison sentence under the colonial government. Chipembere became a confidante of Banda. Chipembere had reached the summit of his career but his involvement in national politics suggests he yearned for a higher position not open to him in the Anglican Church.

In 1963 Chipembere and a few others pressured Bishop Thorne to find a Malawian bishop. In his correspondence to Frank Thorne, Bishop Donald Arden stated, “The meeting at Nkhotakota of all the clergy of the Archdeaconry, Chipembere and a couple of others have given me five months to find and have consecrated an African bishop for the area.” [18]

After Malawi’s independence in 1964, Dr. Banda had a fall-out with some of his Cabinet ministers-an incident called the “Cabinet Crisis”- and Henry Chipembere was exiled to Likoma island but later had to flee to Tanzania. [19]

In 1965 when it came time to elect the first Malawian bishop, Josiah Mtekateka, a Malawian working in the diocese of Southwest Tanzania was elected rather than Chipembere. In the interim, responding to Bishop Arden’s letter on the election of Mtekateka as the first Malawian bishop in the aftermath of the “Cabinet Crisis,” Thorne stated,

I have no doubt now that I ought to have made an African assistant bishop while I was still Bishop of Nyasaland, - incidentally if I had it would have almost surely been Chipembere and it is an interesting but entirely academic speculation what would have been the position now if I had.

Thorne’s comment seems to suggest that his decision not to appoint Chipembere bishop was right. He may have believed that Chipembere’s son’s troubles would affect not only his position but also the church. On the other hand, Thorne may have considered his son’s political involvement, in particular his opposition to the British colonial rule, as a factor that counted against Chipembere. This suggests that even though the authorities admired Chipembere’s leadership qualities and initiatives between 1961 and 1964 they never really trusted him. His direct participation in Banda’s government seemed to have reduced his chances of becoming bishop.

Henry Mbaya


  1. Rotberg, p. 46.

  2. The Universities Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) was the missionary society of the Church of England which had been formed in 1858 to evangelize Central Africa

  3. Rotberg, p. 49.

  4. Rotberg, p.49.

  5. Rotberg, p. 51.

  6. Rotberg, p. 55.

  7. Rotberg, p.55.

  8. Rotberg, p. 66.

  9. Rotberg, p. 190.

  10. See Blood, Vol. III, p. 389, 390, 391.

  11. Blood, Vol. III, p. 385.

  12. Blood, Vol. III, p. 389.

  13. Blood, Vol. III, p. 387.

  14. Nyasaland Diocesan Chronicle, vol. 34, no. 27.

  15. Nyasaland Diocesan Chronicle, vol. 21, no. 17.

  16. OR/38/2/1, Archives of the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Bishop Arden, A letter to Archbishop Oliver-Green Wilkinson, 18/9/63, Archives of the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi.

  19. Tengatenga, chapter five.


Blood, A. G. The History of the UMCA 1907-1932, Vol. II. London: UMCA, 1957.

Blood, A. G. The History of the UMCA 1933-1957, Vol. III. London: UMCA, 1962.

Rotberg, I., (ed.). Hero of the Nation Chipembere of Malawi: An Autobiography. Kachere Book no. 12. Blantyre: CLAIM, 2001.

Archives of the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi, Malosa Zomba, Malawi.

Nyasaland Diocesan Chronicle, vol. 34, no. 27. Archives of the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi, Malosa, Zomba, Malawi.

Nyasaland Diocesan Chronicle, vol. 21, no. 17. Archives of the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi, Malosa, Zomba, Malawi.

Tengatenga, J. “Church, State and Society in Malawi: An Analysis of Anglican Ecclesiology.” Unpublished doctoral thesis, Chancellor College, University of Malawi, 2002.

This article, received in 2004, was researched and written by Henry Mbaya, a doctoral student at the University of Natal School of Theology under the supervision of Dr. Philippe Denis, professor of the History of Christianity and DACB liaison coordinator.