Bishop Sitembele Addresses the Synod
THE ROLE OF THE CHURCHES AND RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES IN POST APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA
The story of the Church in South Africa is largely if not squarely, influenced by the witness of the faith communities in Southern Africa or global south.
· The eco-political landscape of Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique touches the socio-theological position of Christianity to the core. The Bishops, except of Zimbabwe, from these neighbouring states to South Africa do sit with the South African Bishops in Synod not less than twice a year to consider issues of common concern.
· South Africa has since become a global village, a destiny of opportunity, so much that it is fast becoming very difficult to extricate a South African native from other nationals.
THE CHURCH DURING APARTHEID ERA
During the struggle for national liberation the Church in South Africa was at the helm of speaking out against the atrocities of apartheid and how it dehumanised even its architects. It ceased to be a struggle to liberate the underdogs and the oppressed only. We believed that the dismantling of apartheid meant freedom for the oppressors themselves because they would no longer live in fear.
THE ROLE OF THE CHURCHES AND RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES IN POST APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA.
So much has been said about apartheid or it can easily be made a scapegoat for not being church or religious enough. As we know from the history of the early Church, a Church that is under siege or persecution turns to be the strongest in its spiritual and moral integrity. Likewise the Church and faith based communities were strongest and more united during the unfortunate era of apartheid. The people of God lived, in practical terms, the slogan that says : " an injury to one is an injury to all". We spoke with one voice and tackled the problems confronting the people head-on without fear or favour. We were dauntless, full of courage and vim. We did not fear imprisonment or maiming. We were not prepared to sell out our souls for cheap concessions. To us grace would never be exchanged for transitory pleasures. The cost and price paid by Jesus in his own blood was a living reality.
Sadly, now we are no longer that Church which used to enjoy the harassment and humiliation of the day. The scars which some of us still bear, are no longer rousing any reminder to the present generation of Church leadership about where we are coming from and what should we be doing in the new democracy. A new dispensation can create opportunities one never enjoyed; and if good comes out of them a Church can be a catalyst of a new order. By the same token if a new dispensation is not fully and positively exploited it can easily compromise the Church to becoming a toothless Church of the Constantine era :
· where you find some Churches and religious communities queuing for lotto or gambling monies for their Church related programmes;
· where you find Clergy from the mainline Churches no longer interested in using the regalia they used to wear with pride on their pastoral visits;
· wearing a dog collar is cumbersome and out of date;
· some are even lured by money and as such become insensitive and naïve about the pain and vexing questions that beset the lives of the people of God;
· the once been powerful and prophetic voices are no longer heard for fear of losing faces among the affluent;
· the Clergy retreats that used to replenish the Clergy for the better are no longer known in some circles and as a result the morale of the Clergy is at its lowest ebb and the visionary servant leadership is blurred. The Clergy Schools which used to sharpen the tools of the clerics for the job to which they are called are a thing of the past to some, yet to others is the only hope of keeping the home fires burning.
THE RESPONSE OF THE CHURCHES AND FAITH BASED COMMUNITIES
I have intentionally painted this gloomy picture of the moral decadence of the Church in the post apartheid era because, I believe, it is what we see with our own naked eyes. There is an obvious loss of moral compass and fast becoming complacent with the dictates of our new democracy.
But the Church of God, the Elect, seems to be few and insignificant. In poorer and remote areas it seems to be still very much alive amidst these challenges. Of course, there is obviously a looming temptation to co-opt even the Faithful to some government programmes. Yes we are aware that the Church is also called to labour with the government in those matters that affect the lives of the people, be they in the Church or secular world.
· But I believe the primary role of the Church is to be in critical solidarity with the
government not in cahoot with it especially where there is a threat of compromising its very ethical values.
· The women in the Church of God across denominational divide do hold, once a year, a wave of prayer for the nation and prophetic ministry and mission of the Church. This prayer chain does sensitise and conscientise those women of valor and worth, who are working within the government, to influence their counterparts for the better.
· South Africa is daily confronted by consumer protests and strikes for service delivery which the masses of the people believe is not fast enough for the likes of everybody. The role of the Church, through its ecumenical partnership, is to intervene and broker for peace and mutual understanding and acceptance in the wake of confrontation and violence.
The experiences of this nature, bad as they are, do create an opportunity for the Church to minister the ministry of reconciliation as depicted in 2 Corinthians 5 : 7-21.
· The first charge of democratic South Africa was to institute : "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" under the Chair of Desmond Tutu. The failure of the Churches and religious communities was not to make a follow up and grab the opportunity provided by the band wagon and remain an ever ready agent of reconciliation and not wait until there is a violent strike or protest march or there is a break-away group from within one political party to another to and in defiance forming a new one (political party) instead of organising a round table discussions or as an alternative forge alignment or realignment of divergent views;
· The South African Council of Churches was a vanguard alongside freedom fighters, for democratic South Africa. The unfortunate part was a strong desire by the comrades or the workers at South Africa Council of Churches together with their Regional Councils to seek rewards or to be rewarded for the work of delivering our long sought freedom. That has destroyed the prophetic ministry of the Church in post apartheid South Africa. We do have Church Leaders Fora but sadly they are no longer as strong as they used to be so as to be able to engage the strong government we have.
The lay investiture of old which used to confer holy orders to Clerics by the Secular Authorities of the time, is still prevalent in some circles in our country where a Church can confer holy orders as an honour. The harsh reality is that some of these Churches have lost or have no idea about the theology of ordination. There should be set standards and prerequisites for ordination. Of course this can only happen if and only if that particular church or sect is in cahoot with certain caste in the government.
I believe we still have a role to play even in the midst of this confusion. A Church has to be a free agent, ready to labour with God (2 Cor.6:1) in moulding and remoulding His people (Jeremiah 18:1-12) according to his divine plan.
Peter in his letter (1 Peter 2 : 1-10) defines the Church as a group of people who are an assortment of little stones, which, when they are knitted together, become a big basilica whose foundation rock is Jesus, the capstone/cornerstone (Ps 118:22). He further defines it as a group of people who have been called out EK Kaleo' Eklesia. I believe, as Peter did, the Church which is people of God or as a matter of fact a divine institution is still called to make a difference to others. It is called to declare the wonderful things God has done for the people of South Africa as elsewhere.
The South African Community is infested with the scourge of HIV/AIDS as a result some of those who are infected and affected have lost their hope to live normal lives again. The Church is called to be the conscience and hope of the people. It represents the compassionate and caring nature of God. In many Churches there are Church Organisations such as Mothers Union … for Family Life which cares for family values and for those people whose lives have met challenges. There are also Youth Programmes that seek to nurture the young people to full potential and maturity and also curb any possibility of waywardness and misdoing.
The main challenges that are facing the very core of our business as the Churches of God in South Africa are :
- Human Trafficking
- Substance and drug abuse
- Lack of sex education coupled with sex orientation
- Peer pressures
- The scourge of HIV/AIDS
- Domestic violence. Yet the question that remains to be asked is : " What then shall we say to this, if God is with us, who is against us . . ." (Rom 8:31). The Church, in South Africa has to stand together and as a collective speak with one voice and confront all these ills of our society and run our set programmes and projects together without competing or duplicating similar or same efforts with the same aims and objectives.
The one true God is one and by the same token though we are many but we are units of one God, so our diversities should be means of complementing one another not of polarising us. Our common denominator should be to serve the little ones even the neglected of our society.
PREPARED BY THE RIGHT REVD SITEMBELE TOBELA MZAMANE