Amidst the Christian Brethren, also referred to as Christian Missions in Many Lands (CMML), a dispute has arisen involving the elders. The contention centres on the Chelstone congregation's choice, under its leadership in Lusaka, to uphold the enduring practice of sharing six holy communion cups during the revered act of breaking bread in homage to the Lord Jesus Christ. This decision has evoked concerns among specific members, driven by apprehensions regarding hygiene, especially in the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic.

CMML boasts a network of over 1,500 churches across Zambia, yet each church retains its autonomy, complete with an independent structure, according to a senior church official.

"In the city of Lusaka, approximately 30 out of 60 churches have discontinued the practice of shared communion cups," revealed Lazarous Chimponda, the Lusaka Province secretary of CMML.

Members speak out

In an interview with MakanDay, 77-year-old Mark Sakayi, a dedicated member with over forty years of experience within the assembly, shed light on the divisive issue. Despite his deep-rooted affiliation with Chelstone CMML, Sakayi found himself distanced from the congregation due to his fervent advocacy for change.

He disclosed that the matter of sharing holy communion cups has been a persistent concern within the community for an extended period. He underscored that a substantial portion of believers opposes this age-old practice, which has caused divisions among the congregation.

The government's evident inability to address the impasse comes to the forefront, considering that the issue was brought to the attention of multiple institutions, namely the Zambia National Public Health Institute (ZNPHI), the Lusaka City Council, and the Ministry of Health back in July 2022, as disclosed by Sakayi. Sakayi’s disillusionment with the belated reaction from ZNPHI is palpable, given that it took until January of the present year for health inspectors from Chelstone Zonal Hospital to be dispatched.

Furthermore, Sakayi lamented that a significant number of assembly members had begun to abstain from partaking in the holy communion involving shared cups due to concerns about potential health risks. This growing trend illuminated the congregation's apprehension about the hygienic aspects of the practice.

According to Sakayi, "the environmental health inspectors convened a meeting in February this year with the elders of Chelstone CMML, along with the liaison officer Bernard Chandalala, a member of the Avondale CMML congregation where shared cups were also used.

During the meeting, the elders received strong recommendations to discontinue the use of communal cups. This precautionary measure was aimed to prevent potential transmission of Covid-19 and other diseases among the church members."

Sakayi reported that after the meeting, Chandalala confidently asserted that the officials present were junior officers. He added, "I am acquainted with senior officers at the Ministry of Health, and they would never entertain the idea of shutting down CMML Churches."

Chandalala advised the Chelstone CMML elders to persist in using shared cups for communion, firmly believing that the church would remain unaffected. The practice continues to this day.

Elder defends old-age practice

MakanDay spoke with Moses Chibungo, an elder and secretary of the Chelstone Church, who clarified that each CMML church operates autonomously, making its independent decisions. Chibungo attributed their stance to scriptural teachings, stating that when Jesus instituted the holy communion, he foresaw current and future circumstances, including the pandemic.

"We can't say Christ didn't anticipate Covid-19. He knew, but he instructed us to drink from the cup collectively. We can't change due to present circumstances. However, if the government signals a rise in Covid cases, we'll halt. Our approach aligns with scripture," Chibungo explained.

He advised uneasy members to seek CMML churches using individual cups for holy communion. He confirmed Sakayi's dis-fellowship, asserting that Sakayi cannot participate in spiritual discussions or preach until he acknowledges his errors and repents. Chibungo criticised Sakayi for causing confusion within the assembly.

In response to allegations of government influence, Chibungo refuted such claims, highlighting that CMML's long-standing presence in Zambia resulted from collaboration, not special connections.

A call to balance health concerns and spiritual beliefs

MakanDay spoke to a senior health official, who confirmed that health officers from Chelstone Clinic visited the church on 29 January this year.

The official who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed concern about continuing the practice, acknowledging the delicate nature of the situation. He emphasised the role of religious beliefs while urging members to report any high-profile officials advocating the unsafe practice.

He stressed that sharing a single cup poses risks beyond Covid, as diseases like diarrhea and herpes can spread. The official suggested a balance between health concerns and spiritual beliefs.

A singular tree sporting numerous branches

Lazarous Chimponda, the provincial secretary said the CMML churches operate with individual autonomy and distinct structures. He also noted that certain churches had already abandoned the practice of shared communion cups prior to the onset of the Covid pandemic.

He emphasised that resolving concerns requires patience, focusing on scriptural alignment rather than hygiene. He noted that church self-regulation aligns with government recognition.

"Ultimately, our discussions should be rooted in scripture, evaluating whether using multiple cups aligns with Christ's teachings. Our Constitution lets Elders address shared concerns but attendance isn't obligatory," he said.

The controversy reflects the complicated interplay between tradition, scripture, health concerns, and individual freedoms within the Chelstone CMML community.