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Blood used to welcome ancestors

 THE RITUAL KILLING of animals is being contemplated by Anglicans and Roman Catholics in southern Africa.

Anglican congregations have been losing worshippers to more indigenous forms of religion, and there are moves to introduce measures that better reflect local culture.

One of these is the slaughter of an animal, in order to stay in touch with ancestors, through the spilt blood. The practice was discouraged by Western missionaries, but there are indications that lay people, and some priests, do not consider it to be beyond the pale.

The Archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Revd Njongonkulu Ndungane, has said that it is not prohibited. "It's not animal sacrifice as such. It's a liturgical function which connects the living with the dead."

A leading African theologian, Professor Kwame Bediako, a lecturer at Natal University, said that Christians who made contact with their ancestors could help the West understand what it was for Christ to be alive today.

"The word 'inculturation' creates a problem. A general word like that does not help," he said. Practitioners were "not trying to work out any theory or process of multiculturalism"; instead they were doing what people had been doing for generations.

"We need to understand who our ancestors are. They are not all the dead. We need to bring some Christian understanding to this, because it can throw light on aspects of the Christian faith and on the Gospels that have not been exposed yet.

"What is the idea of Jesus Christ, not as a historical figure 2000 years ago, but as ever-living? How do we understand him as alive now?

"The tradition of the closer awareness of ancestors as living persons may come to a nearer understanding of what it means for Jesus Christ to be alive."

The Rt Revd Joe Aldred, secretary for minority-ethnic affairs for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, said that the African practice of venerating the ancestors was misrepresented in the West.

"In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, people pray to the saints and the Virgin Mary as though they are alive. That is acceptable to most people; but when Africans talk about remembering their dead, it becomes ancestor worship."

What was acceptable elsewhere "becomes sinister when wrapped in African clothes", he said. The issue could be discussed at a conference in London in October, he said.

Dr Allan Anderson is a reader at Birmingham University who specialises in African independent Churches and Pentecostalism. He said this week: "The so-called 'sacrifice' of a goat is probably just the traditional customary slaughter of a goat for a feast. It would be associated with the ancestors, but would not be an act of worship. This is where language gets in the way. I think it would be very similar to when people leave flowers on graves in Britain; when they are doing so, they may talk to the people they have come to remember."

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