Diocesan Clergy School, hosted and directed by UNISA, has been an inspiring experience. We have had some outstanding input from various high-calibre academics, including our own Anglican sub-Dean, Prof. Barney Pityana (also vice-Chancellor of UNISA). We have investigated the church’s role in rebuilding our society’s value base, while exploring the diversity of our call in dealing with the various moral challenges all South Africans face, seeking to find ways to reclaim our prophetic voice.
The importance of good ecumenical relationships is critical in allowing the church to speak with “one voice”, rather than with a fragmented denominationalism. Significant to this discussion is the issue of authority, and the Clergy School was asked to recognise four different types: traditional, rational, negotiated, symbolic; that we as Anglicans have a specific perspective on how these aspects influence our praxis, and our understanding of Scripture. The Bible is a consequence and not a cause of Faith, and as Anglicans we question what Scripture means, rather than simply what it says. These perspectives on authority and Scripture impact on our ecumenical relationships. There is a call on us to re-explore the message of Jesus, to regain a radical commitment to the Kingdom of God as put forward by Jesus, and as experienced in the early church, and to be relational – an emphasis on being rather than doing – and not legalistic in our interpretation both of Scripture and Tradition, while also recognising the social and economic relevance of Scripture.
We have been reminded that poverty should remain one of the church’s main preoccupations, that an “option for the poor” is preferential and not exclusive (i.e. not an “option against the rich”), and that transforming the plight of the poor includes the transformation of the wealthy. Sadly, excessive accumulation of monetary and material wealth is mostly at the expense of the poor, and actively ferments poverty. We were asked, “Is inequality ordained by God?” because our lifestyles as Christian people often suggest that it is! Interestingly, while the USA Constitution enshrines “Freedom” as an inalienable human right, our South African Constitution enshrines “Equality”. The lack of genuine equality in South Africa is an active cause of socio-economic domination by a South African elite - increasingly being referred to as the “new apartheid”! Top business structures in this country are still largely in the hands of white people, and despite a growing black middle class this remains an area of grave concern, especially for us as Church. The crisis we face, both as Christians and as South Africans, is that our Constitutional Democracy is deliberately misinterpreted for personal and financial gain. Twelve years into our new democratic society there is no consensus or collective commitment to definitive values, even though key values are enshrined in Constitutional dispensation that include human dignity, human rights and social justice. In South Africa the centre is falling apart as we struggle to maintain the consensus gained in 1994, and this is visible in the corruption, crime and other indicators of moral collapse. As Church, we need to exercise authority in bringing people back to the values of the Gospel and values as defined in the Constitution.
In considering the value-crisis in our society within the context of our Constitution and our Constitutional Democracy, the Clergy School was asked to consider three important questions:
What is it that undermines our Christian values in the communities in which we live?
How do we “hold the centre” as a faith community, individually and collectively?
How do we become effective moral agents?
In answering these questions it was noted that mission happens when the Church is in engagement with the World, and that in order to be effectively engaged we need to develop a moral outlook that is not simplifying or dismissive in attitude, but rather one that builds confidence, assertiveness and freedom. In addition, there is a need to recognise the syncretistic nature of African Christianity – something that is also true of the Western approach to the Christian Faith – if we are to build a new moral base in our society.
Underlying the above is the question, “How do we formulate a Christian society, and how do we influence South African society with this vision?” There are no simple answers, but a partial answer is that we need to own responsibility, backed by an informed personal position refined through public debate. We need to gain a high level of identification and agreement on the issues, and those that are of priority. We need to abandon an “all or nothing” approach in our Biblical interpretation in order to develop a public Theology, including openness to the integration of other societal disciplines (economics, politics …) with our Theological development. We need to acknowledge issues of pronounced patriarchy – men’s oppression of women – and the related pandemic of HIV/AIDS where poor black women in particular suffer: in this regard Biblical interpretation from a patriarchal perspective becomes an obstacle by habitually negating the validity of women’s experience. Once consensus is reached through dialogue, we need to find ways to translate our vision in such a way that it is palatable to a pluralistic society, which often embraces an “anything goes!” approach. We should not allow a concern that such translation will compromise our Christian foundation, for this is unlikely if we seek to uphold the values enshrined in our Constitution in the process.
We were challenged to embrace a pastoral response in interacting with our society, to be bridge-builders, building links between: constitutional rights and religious identity; the judging voices of Christians and those rendered voiceless by religion; fundamentalist/dogmatic voices and those demonised through these judgmental attitudes; fixed forms of traditional morality and fluid internalisation of the best of pluralistic views; the sacred and the profane; hurts of the past and the healing of the future. Essentially a challenge to allow the Church to be the Church, as hard and costly as this will be!
Going forward, we must not underestimate the influence of religion on society – the majority of South Africans claim to be Christian, and many others religious. The task is to move ahead as Church, to regain a progressive voice, and to develop tools that will help individuals to live out their faith. Do we have the courage, as Christians and as Anglicans, to regain our prophetic voice?
Acknowledgement must be given for the high level of academic input received, along with meaningful and stimulating engagement, that has informed the above reflection that contains the helpful insights of the following: Profs D Masoma, R Dolamo, M Masenya, C Landman; Drs J Aristide (President of Haiti), M Naidoo, P Lenka Bula; Canon Prof Martyn Percy and Rev’d Emma Percy. Our grateful thanks to each for their contribution to our week together, and to Bishop Dr J Seoka and Sub-Dean Prof B Pityana for their contribution and vision.
Canon Mark Long
1 April 2007