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Bringing new blood into church

THERE’s something appropriate about celebrating Pentecost at the Church of the Resurrection in Meadowlands, in Soweto, South Africa. When the procession enters the congregation erupts in prayer in a multitude of tongues — Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Xhosa, and Tsonga.

Later, during the two-and-a-half-hour liturgy, the Revd Archie Motaung holds up a carved figure and begins his address in a mixture of Zulu and English. This is translated by a lay assistant into Tswana, the most common language in this Anglican congregation.

“Who is this man?” Fr Motaung asks his congregation. He represents, the priest says, the ancestors, the good and worthy family members who have died. They are nearer to God, and are in a position to intercede with God for people who are still alive. We must still pray for them, as they are praying for us. But, through Pentecost, God has removed the barriers that kept people from him. People become closer to God through the Holy Spirit, in the same way as he enabled many different people to understand the apostles that first Pentecost.

This style of worship is part of a trend that has been taking place in South Africa since the end of apartheid. The Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches are seeking to make their message more relevant to local congregations. The use of African languages and music is one example of this. Invoking cultural references, such as the ancestors, is another.

Inculturation, as this process is known, is hardly new. From its origins in the Middle East, Christianity has adopted local cultural practices wherever it has gone — whether to Western Europe, Asia, or Africa. But in a rapidly evolving South Africa, the influx of new practices creates tensions. Those brought up using English to communicate with a Western-style God feel uncomfortable with those wanting to express their faith in a more African way.

It is not a racial divide. Many older black worshippers prefer an English liturgy and hymns. As Fr Motaung consecrates the bread and wine in silver chalices at the altar, next to him are painted calabashes, or traditional drinking vessels. There are also two wooden mortars and pestles, used for grinding corn. Fr Motaung’s wife, Thoko, a member of the parish liturgy committee, says that they intend to use these for communion rather than silver cups. “But it will take time,” she says.

HOW to arrive at a satisfactory compromise for all concerned is a question on many minds in both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches in South Africa today. The issue goes beyond the altar vessels. Some priests say that the Church is not doing enough to reach out to people, and is losing them as a result.

“There are people in the Church who are Anglican by day and African by night,” says the Revd Tim Mncube, Rector of St Paul’s, Jabavu, another Soweto parish. He wants to use more African music and songs in services, for example, but struggles against the wishes of older members of his congregation, who stick doggedly to their Hymns Ancient and Modern.

Fr Mncube sees young people leaving, and fears more will do so. “They leave us and go to the African churches. We lose all the gifts we have.”

One of his parishioners is Madoda Mekoa, who runs a panel-beating business. Mr Mekoa, who is 47, was born into the parish of St Paul’s, served as an altar boy, and attends services there every Sunday. He has a deep attachment to the Anglican Church, and says that he isn’t leaving.

On Wednesdays for the past seven years, however, he has also been going to an African church, Massah and Meribah, named after the place where Moses struck the rock to give the Israelites water. It meets in a house, and allows greater participation in worship than the Anglican Church, he says. But the main difference is the relationship Massah and Meribah allows him with his ancestors. The ancestors can intercede with God for people, bring matters of concern to God’s attention, and protect the living.

Mr Mekoa wants to follow the traditional way of communicating with his deceased family members, who remain close to the living — through the slaughter of an animal. The blood is a symbol of life, and becomes the means of communication. Many Africans, Christian and non-Christian, use animal slaughter at weddings, funerals, and coming-of-age ceremonies. Mr Mekoa slaughters a cow each year on 4 November, the anniversary of his joining Massah and Meribah.

Hostility to ritual animal slaughter lingers from the colonial era, when missionaries forbade indigenous Africans from carrying out “heathen” practices.

Nevertheless, the Archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Revd Njongonkulu Ndungane, says that the practice is not banned.

“I’m not mindful that this issue has ever come before our commissions to say this is prohibited, because it’s not animal sacrifice as such. It’s a liturgical function which connects the living and the dead,” he says.

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The Archbishop of Cape Town the Most Revd Njongonkulu Ndungane

Others say the practice is often misinterpreted. “It’s not appeasing God — the sacrifice of Jesus was enough — but it’s bringing the ancestors into the communion of the living,” says Fr Victor Phalana, a Roman Catholic parish priest in Winterveld, outside Pretoria, and a proponent of inculturation.

On the ground, however, interpretations vary. Mr Mekoa describes his practice in Old Testament terms, invoking a period when sacrifices were offered directly to God. “You pray to God, like Aaron did in Leviticus. You bring it with a humble heart. You must invite people to your sacrifice.”

This confuses the issue, and comes from a lack of understanding that particularly applies among people who have lived in urban areas for a long time, Archbishop Ndungane says. “If we had resources, we would set up proper guidance on these particular issues, and proper teaching. In some instances, there has been shying away from an in-depth discussion.”

The will for an in-depth discussion is lacking in much of the Church, says the Roman Catholic Bishop of Johannesburg, the Rt Revd Buti Tlhagale: church “officialdom” — with the exception, he says, of the late Pope John Paul II — fears that inculturation is a back door to syncretism. But the Bishop believes that the fear is justified. The Church in southern Africa is only just over 150 years old, and younger than its counterparts in places such as Angola, and a commitment to Christ has yet to grow deeper roots.

Those fears were unleashed in 2000 when Bishop Tlhagale, then Archbishop of Bloemfontein, argued in South Africa’s Southern Cross magazine for the incorporation of traditional sacrifice into Christian rites. Despite his argument — “it is essentially a kinship affair, no more and no less” — he drew a huge, largely hostile response. Since then, the debate has been quiet.

Bishop Tlhagale is adamant that he would like to welcome the ancestors at the start of the mass, and present the blood of a slaughtered animal during the offertory. But he is still very critical of many Africans who combine traditional religion with Christianity. Too much focus is placed on ancestors, and Jesus Christ is ignored, he says.

This is also an accusation he levels at the African indigenous Churches, which have grown rapidly in recent years. The 4000-odd independent Churches have a membership of more than ten million people. The largest of these is the Zion Christian Church, which draws more than one million people to its biannual festival.

“African Churches are spirit, not spiritual. The emphasis is on the spirit. Making the transition from ancestors to the Holy Spirit is easy, but Christ has no role. They are more consistent with the African traditional culture, and have not taken on the message of Christianity, which is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is where we part ways,” says Bishop Tlhagale.

Hostility to cultural practices such as the slaughter of animals has led some groups to break away from the mainstream. The Ethiopian Episcopal Church is an African nationalist Church founded in South Africa in the late 19th century.

In 1900, it became an “integral part” of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa. The Church, which believes that the triune God of biblical revelation also made himself known to pre-colonial ancestors, became autonomous in 1999.

The Presiding Bishop of the Cape Town-based Church, the Rt Revd Sigqibo Dwane, says that the current Anglican Prayer Book, compiled in 1989, is too restrictive. “When people tried to say, ‘Well, maybe we need to bring in some elements of African understanding,’ that wasn’t really listened to,” he says.

Bishop Sigqibo’s arguments about African culture in worship are tied up with politics and race. “The lack of understanding about African cultural practices comes from white South Africans,” he says. “They haven’t really begun to be African. Their thinking is Eurocentric: they look down on things African.”

N the mainstream Churches, other issues need to be resolved. In January, the plenary session of Roman Catholic bishops set up a sub-committee, headed by Archbishop Tlhagale, to study the question of priests who are also sangomas, or traditional healers. It’s a serious problem, as there is an incompatibility between the Christian and traditional way of handling spiritual realities, says Bishop Tlhagale.

Fr Mike Phillips sees no incompatibility. He is a Roman Catholic chaplain at the South African Army College in Pretoria. The people he meets sometimes need the help of a priest, and sometimes need the healing gift his ancestors gave him, he says.

“I don’t see them as two different callings. When I relate to Mother Mary, as a mother, as a mentor through the faith par excellence, then I’m saying to her: ‘Can you take this?’ When I approach the ancestors, I don’t approach them as if they have power separate from the Creator. They have certain roles to do also.”

The unwillingness of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches to accept a dual calling means people look elsewhere to meet their needs, says Fr Phillips.

Practices of this kind were part of African culture, and would continue whether the Church accepted them or not, Archbishop Tlhagale wrote in 2000. That was why they needed to be debated openly. The Anglican Church, too, needs to set its course, to sift the good from the not so good, says Archbishop Ndungane.

Change is slow, however. After attending Pope John Paul II’s synod on Africa in 1994, Archbishop Ndungane set up a commission on inculturation, but it has, he admits, “not worked very vibrantly”.

As the debates go on, the gap between culture and Church is being bridged “on the ground”. How the Word of God is expressed in an African context, in a way that is consistent with church teaching, depends largely on the individual parish priest.

In his Pentecost sermon in Soweto, Fr Motaung spells out a crucial point for his congregation: “Now there is a difference between us and the ancestors, because we understand what God has done for us. There is knowledge which they didn’t have, the knowledge they didn’t understand, to be nearer to God.”

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The congregation in the Church of the Resurrection Photo Michael Bleby

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