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
“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.
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
The congregation in the Church of the Resurrection Photo Michael