I have no response to that

0512 cnIt has been a very busy week for me as we ended the spring term at the Washington Journalism Center. I have been away from my keyboard quite a bit.

Thus, for several days I have been wondering what in the world to say about Ruth Gledhill’s story in The Times about the death of Father Rodney Hunter, a missionary in Central Africa who was a player in the worldwide Anglican war over creedal doctrine, sacraments and, of course, sexuality. The question is whether he is its first casualty — literally.

I really do not know what to say about this and, to my shock, the story has drawn almost total silence.

How does one research cause and effect in this story until it reaches a court, if it does? The plot is quite complicated and there is really no way to untangle it in a few lines. So, read the story. You can also read some background at Gledhill’s Articles of Faith weblog. But here is a starting point:

Relatives of Canon Rodney Hunter, 73, believe that his food was contaminated by supporters of the Rev Nicholas Henderson in a battle between the liberal and conservative wings of the Anglican Church.

In November Canon Hunter was found dead at his home in Nkhotakota, Malawi, with a strange black substance around his mouth. The day before his death he had complained of severe stomach pains, and postmortem examination has now shown that he was killed by three poisons. Malawi police have charged his cook with murder and are investigating rumours that the poisoning was organised by supporters of Mr Henderson, who had no knowledge of the alleged plot.

Canon Hunter was an outspoken critic of plans to appoint the liberal Mr Henderson as Bishop of Lake Malawi. The Province of Central Africa is at the heart of conservative evangelical opposition to the liberal Anglican outlook in the West on homosexuality.

Who knows what is going on here. Still, it is hard to believe that — outside the blogosphere — it has received no attention. Am I missing something online somewhere else in the mainstream?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • andrew

    That is amazing. For this forum it is interesting that such an amazing story would be overlooked. Maybe in time it will be noticed and hit the papers here.

  • Jerry

    The only story I found on google news was http://www.nationmalawi.com/articles.asp?articleID=21323 From what I can see so far, the religious motive is alleged but not proven.

    I guess I can’t understand why the story is such a big deal to you. People have been murdering others in the name of religion as far back as we have records. Just the other day, someone was arrested for attempting to bomb a clinic which performs abortions in Texas.

    If it does turn out to be a religiously motivated murder, it’s one more sad example of how far we are from really living up to the ethical and moral teachings the human race honors.

  • George Conger

    This story has received extensive coverage in the church and specialist press. The Church of England Newspaper and Church Times both ran stories about the murder of Canon Hunter and its ties to the political fracas back in November and December. Here is one report:


    The new news that Ruth Gledhill reported in her blog was that the family had received the lab results.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    You are right, of course, that the motive is alleged. I went further than that and asked how reporters can even research cause and effect in this case until a trial and people are on the record.

    But I hope mainstream reporters get involved and do that work to prove or disprove these public allegations.

    Meanwhile, try to imagine the story in reverse. Try to imagine the press coverage of the murder, in Africa, of a British missionary representing the liberal point of view on these doctrinal issues. Can you imagine that story not drawing, oh, NYTs coverage?

  • Maureen

    Even without the religious angle, it’s pretty spectacular. Imagine if this was a story about vicious infighting among factions in one African branch of a multinational corporation. Recruiting the cook! Using three kinds of poison, just to be sure!

    Oh, this is big True Crime stuff. Adding religion just makes it even more potent. How could any reporter or editor deny himself the pleasure of blowing this _into_ proportion?!

  • Dale

    Jerry said:

    I guess I can’t understand why the story is such a big deal to you.

    Huh? This sounds like the plot to a P.D. James novel, with the added attraction that it actually happened. Not only was Canon Hunter’s death particularly gruesome, but his chef and a churchwarden have been charged with murder. While I doubt that the motive was directly related to the ongoing Anglican theological disputes, I’ll bet that it has something to do with the rejection of Henderson as bishop. The story in The London Times states:

    Mr Henderson, Vicar of St Martin’s Acton West and All Saints’ Ealing Common, was elected as Bishop of Lake Malawi last August. He had known the region for 18 years, raising funds for religious, social and humanitarian projects, and was learning the local language, Chichewe. (my emphasis)

    My guess is that whoever murdered Canon Hunter, and he was undoubtedly murdered, did so because they had a significant economic or political interest in seeing Henderson elected Bishop of Lake Malawi. To either remove Canon Hunter as an obstacle to accomplishing that end, or to exact revenge against him for frustrating their ambitions, they killed him. There’s grounds for thinking this is the case; the dispute about Henderson’s rejection had already resulted in physical violence against Canon Hunter in the cathedral’s pulpit, and charges were pending against seven of Henderson’s supporters at the time of Canon Hunter’s death.

    In my mind, that brings up all sorts of questions about using the church as a means to accomplish economic development in impoverished regions like Malawi. When the church becomes a source of temporal wealth, it’s going to attract people who have little interest in the church’s doctrine, like “thou shall not murder”. Perhaps the African church would be better served by not receiving economic aid from the wealthier parts of the Anglican Communion, like The Episcopal Church.

    Then we have the undercurrent of African supernaturalism:

    Canon Hunter had previously served as a cathedral dean in the diocese. He had been appointed after three priests died in strange circumstances and witchcraft was suspected.

    What other detail can show the vast gulf in the Anglican Communion between someone like Presiding Archbishop Jefferts-Schori, who carefully chooses words to avoid talking about the miraculous, and a diocese in Africa, where three priests are thought to have been done in by witchcraft? Is it any wonder that the Anglican Communion is having problems?

    I have sympathy for Mr. Henderson. I’m sure his involvement in Malawi has been well-intentioned; unfortunately, some people with no scruples apparently attached themselves to his cause.

    By the way, I think the headline for the piece in the London Times, “Enemy of Liberal Anglicans Was Poisoned”, is more than a little over the top. I doubt that Canon Hunter wanted to be remembered as anyone’s enemy, and I also doubt that his theological opponents are enjoying his death.

  • Jerry

    A couple of followup comments: Not being a devote of murder mysteries, I did not pick up on that theme. And no doubt that newspapers will consciously or more likely unconsciously feature stories that bring bias to light.

    I guess maybe I’m just getting burned out with stories that illustrate the sad state the Anglican Church finds itself in these days.

  • http://makaipa.blogspot.com tioedong

    In Africa, death by poisoning is common. Usually it induces coma and you die. Other poisons resemble food poisoning, which is also common. (Salmonella, EColi, Shigella, Staph).

    But black powder? Nah. The poison wouldn’t be that easy to detect. I suspect the black powder was “coffee ground” vomitus from a bleeding ulcer, especially with the history of pain the day before. As for “poisons”, one really doubts Malawi has a decent CSI to detect poison. And the “confession” of the cook is meaningless…

    I suspect it was a natural death, but usual paranoia is causing the accusations. The South African press might have clues. If they don’t cover it, consider it a probably false rumor.

  • http://raspberry_rabbit.blogspot.com Raspberry Rabbit

    I was more than a little dubious about the story when it appeared. The headline said it all – the sort of ‘Daily Mail’ shocker-headline which has become more and more the regular fare at the Times of late. I had a large contingent of african parishioners at a church in Montreal. Suspicions of poisoning and witchcraft were not unknown – they were, in fact, rather common – not only in deaths which occured back home but even with deaths that occured in hospital in Montreal. Various substances were found in his body – hmmm – being the curious sort and it being my day off I googled all the ‘poisons’ and found that they are all contained in prescription drugs – antihistamines, antiprotozoans, etc. What does that tell you? So there was apparently no cyanide or belladonna or purpose-suited-people-poisoner. The man died in November and the story broke in April via the weblog of a Times reporter not known for her impartiality in the world of Anglican disagreements – somebody who uses David Virtue as a source. Google “rodney hunter poisoned” and you’ll come up with a long list of conservative blogs – one of which sports the title ‘The Cost of Conservatism”. What does that tell you? Somebody with a long life of service and Christian ministry has died terribly. That’s a shame. African Christianity suffers from factionalism. That’s unfortunate. Those of us involved on some side (or neither side) of the present Anglican crisis should probably move on in the absence of any new information. There may be no story here.


  • http://www.thewormbook.com/helmintholog Andrew Brown

    Just for the record, Raspberry Rabbit is right. All of the so-called poisons mentioned on Ruth Gledhill’s blog were medicines: an antihistamine, and antibiotic, and a tranquilliser. I know that she didn’t check what these drugs actually were because I asked her. She has since taken down the post. I hope very much she will apologise to Nicholas Henderson, who deserves it and that her paper will formally withdraw the story which was not true.

    Rodney Hunter died of stomach cancer — which the pathologist’s report says that he had. That explains the vomiting and the drugs. The claim that he was murdered comes from one man — the Dean of the cathedral, who is currently suspended from his duties. That suspension is also mentioned in Ruth Gledhill’s coverage.

  • http://raspberry_rabbit.blogspot.com Raspberry Rabbit

    And I might add that this story has been pumped for its potential liberal-conservative potential by the Gledhill woman and by George Conger who, given the rancour of the factions at work in Malawi, ought frankly to have known better.


  • Pingback: Religious Left Online

  • Jerry

    I’m also a reader of ‘religious left online’. That post was truncated. Here’s a reference http://www.thewormbook.com/helmintholog/archives/2007/05/02/i_am_an_idiot.html
    It just goes to show that making assumptions ahead of confirmation is very dangerous.