Perspectives on ecclesiology and ethics in South Africa

Church unity and democratic transformation: perspectives on ecclesiology and ethics in South Africa

John W. De Gruchy

A semi-personal preface

In 1968 I was appointed jointly to the staff of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) as director of communication and studies, and as secretary to the newly established Church Unity Commission (CUC). My work during the five years I served the SACC was determined by the growing church struggle against apartheid. This found expression in the publication of “The Message to the People of South Africa”, the Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society (Spro-cas), and the conflict within the churches and between them and the state which erupted with the launching of the WCC’s Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) in 1970. My work, as secretary of the CUC, was very different, for the mandate of the commission was to unite the participating churches, Anglican, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian, within a common organic structure. My twofold task was, in many ways, schizophrenic. Whereas the witness of the SACC invariably created division and tension within the churches, the mandate of the CUC was to try and overcome the traditional sources of division and foster unity. The former task called for courage, the latter for ecumenical diplomacy.

At a time when both church and society were being tom apart by racial conflict and the escalation of violence, it was exceedingly difficult to interest church leaders, ministers and church members, especially among the black constituency of the churches, in church union and issues of faith and order (ministry, eucharist, creeds and confessions). Indeed, some regarded church union negotiations as a cop-out from ecumenical participation in the apartheid struggle, a luxury remote from the real issues facing the church and its witness. But in any case, the very witness of the ecumenical church in South Africa, embodied primarily in the SACC and the Christian Institute, went in the opposite direction. Witness to the truth of the gospel meant conflict. Confessing Jesus Christ separated sheep and goats, it brought division not unity, at least not the kind of unity which was the traditional goal of church union negotiations.

It was within this context that I was also busy completing my doctoral dissertation on the ecclesiology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reflecting day by day on the comparison between the German Kirchenkampf and what was happening within our own context. In 1971, I was sent by the CUC to the Faith and Order meeting on church unity in Salamanca in Spain. En route I visited Eberhard Bethge, the biographer and friend of Bonhoeffer. As he said farewell to me at Frankfurt airport he remarked, “Of course, Dietrich would never have gone to a Faith and Order meeting!” For Bonhoeffer, Faith and Order at the time, like the CUC in South Africa, was busy with an agenda that was far removed from the urgent issues of the day. And yet Bonhoeffer was deeply concerned about the unity of the church — but unity based on a faithful confession of Jesus Christ. This was the issue which he addressed in his celebrated essay on “The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement” in 1935.

The Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer declared, confronted the ecumenical movement “in all its totality with the question of confession”.(1) I The major problem of the ecumenical movement was its inability to be the church and speak with the voice of authority in proclaiming the demands of Jesus Christ to a world spiralling into war. The unity of the church, which was the concern of the ecumenical movement, was impossible without such a concrete confession in truth. Several decades later in South Africa the “Message to the People of South Africa” and, later and sharper, the Kairos document likewise rejected any cheap reconciliation among Christians or within society. How could there be reconciliation and unity between the oppressed and the oppressors, even if they were both baptized Christians, unless there was repentance and a just reparation, unless unity was based on truth and justice?

At the same time, in the encounter between the Confessing Church and the ecumenical movement, Bonhoeffer also acknowledged that the ecumenical movement confronted the Confessing Church with the ecumenical imperative. The Confessing Church dared not allow its confession of the truth to force it into an arrogant, sectarian, ghetto mentality. It had to remember that the unity of the church, its ecumenical character, was an integral part of its confession of Jesus Christ. So in the same way in South Africa, we dare not ignore the imperative of church unity or stand aloof from the worldwide discussions of Faith and Order, if we are to be part of the ecumenical movement and discover what it means to be one in Jesus Christ today within our own context.

In some respects the tension evident in Bonhoeffer’s description of the encounter between the Confessing Church and the ecumenical movement has changed character since his time, not least because of ecumenical reflection on the Kirchenkampf and Bonhoeffer’s own contribution to ecumenical thinking and praxis.(2) Out own “church struggle” against apartheid has also contributed in some way to this change. Nonetheless, as our project on ethics and ecclesiology indicates, it remains a tension within the ecumenical movement — a tension which, if not dealt with creatively and faithfully, could destroy our efforts to express the unity of the church or undermine our commitment to justice, peace and the renewal of creation. This is of particular concern to those of us who are committed to both the search for union and the struggle for democratic transformation in post-apartheid South Africa.

But how do you confess Jesus Christ concretely in the new democratic context with its strong emphasis on religious plurality and multi-culturalism, and where the issues do not have the same clear-cut character as they had during the apartheid era? All of a sudden, the church in South Africa finds itself in the same place as many other churches within the oikoumene, churches which found some inspiration from the antiapartheid witness of the church in South Africa and even sought to develop their own “kairos theologies” modelled on the Kairos document. Now we are all asking the same question within the ecumenical movement: how do we confess Jesus Christ concretely and with authority in a post-cold-war/post-apartheid, indeed, post-modern world, both in terms of our search for unity and our struggle for justice? In what follows I will attempt to explore the issues as they have developed within the South African context, and relate this to our focus on moral formation within the life of the church.

Church unity and moral formation prior to apartheid

From the perspective of our theme, the history of the church in South Africa until recently has been one of failed attempts to express unity and achieve union, and at the same time, a history of church fragmentation and division.(3) I refer, for example, to the failed attempt to unite the Anglican (CPSA) and the Dutch Reformed Church in the 1870s, and the failure through much of the 20th century to unite the English-speaking churches, or the settler churches and the mission churches.(4) On the contrary, divisions within these churches were far more common. Moreover, the rise of African independent or initiated churches (AICs) in the late 19th-century, as well as their rapid growth and continuing fragmentation throughout this century, and the arrival of new denominations, notably the Pentecostal, have ensured that the church in South Africa today is a vast and complex set of denominations and institutions, bedevilled by the past as well as present social forces and realities.

The reasons for this sorry story of failed church union attempts, and the concomitant history of division, seriously exacerbated by the ongoing fragmentation within the AICs, are many and complex. Although matters of doctrine, theology and liturgy are often referred to in this regard, they were by no means the sole or even chief cause of division or the reason for the failure of church union negotiations. As in many other places, social, personal, cultural and political forces were far more prevalent. The churches could not unite because they reflected the social realities present in a highly stratified country. By the same token, they fragmented precisely because these realities often proved stronger than any convictions about the unity which Christians have in Jesus Christ, especially at moments of national crisis. All of this has had serious implications on the witness of the church in the shaping of South Africa as a country, and in the moral formation of both church members and citizens. Christianity, instead of uniting the church and helping to create a united nation, became the tool for legitimating ethnic division and unjust social structures. In some respects, of course, this may well have been providential. If, for example, the Anglicans and the Dutch Reformed Church had united in 1870, the united church would have reinforced white hegemony, even though it might have helped to overcome the divisions between English and Afrikaner. This would have resulted in a much more deeply entrenched segregation in the church in South Africa in the long term.

But just as Christianity served a legitimating function for ethnic division, it also provided sources for overcoming racial separation and resisting injustice. This was the case from early on in the history of Christianity in South Africa, and it gathered momentum in the 20th century when Christians and Christian values played a formative role in the emergence of the African National Congress. For the early leaders of the ANC, Christian division, especially among blacks, was regarded as a serious threat to the cause of African advancement. But it was also acknowledged that Christian commitment enabled Africans to transcend ethnic division and struggle together for their rights. Fundamental to this was the moral formation in liberal Christian values which many received through mission education. Whatever the failures of the missionaries and mission education — and there were serious ones — and without denying other important factors in the process, there can be little doubt that this moral formation both united African Christians and provided an ideological basis for the struggle against colonialism and racism. This was part of the attraction of the Ethiopian movement, and it also led to several attempts to create a black church, though without success. One reason for the failure to establish a united black church, incidentally and ironically, was the fact that there was disagreement on doctrinal issues inherited from confessional disputes in Europe.

This very brief sketch provides the context within which the story of the ecumenical movement in South Africa, as embodied first in the general missionary conferences which started in 1904, then in the formation of the Christian Council of South Africa in 1936, and finally in the Christian Council’s reconstitution in 1967 as the South African Council of Churches, must be located. This strand of ecumenical endeavour has not been engaged in church union negotiations as such, but has been focussed on mission and social witness. But in doing so it has, of course, brought Christians and churches together in an attempt to oppose injustice. Whatever its faults, the ecumenical movement has attempted to be a counter-force to the prevailing powers of division and fragmentation within Christianity, and also an agent of moral conscience and protest even though it often found itself compromised by conflicting interests and theological perspectives within its own ranks. The fact is, however, that until the post-Cottesloe period (1960-), and more especially after the Soweto uprising in 1976 when the church struggle against apartheid began to intensify, the ecumenical witness in South Africa was largely ineffective to counter the prevailing political forces at work, especially Afrikaner nationalism.

Church unity and moral formation in the struggle against apartheid

As already indicated, in the struggle against apartheid faith and order issues, along with the search for union through the CUC, were forced onto the back-burner of ecumenical concern. Until its banning in 1977, ecumenical unity and action were expressed through the work of the Christian Institute and the SACC, and within those quarters the lines of ecumenical communication were between Church and Society and their equivalents worldwide. We discovered our unity in the struggle, not in the resolution of doctrinal differences inherited from a European past. We had neither the time nor the energy to deal with matters which were of little immediate socio-political importance. More often than not, the unity of the church within the black community was most evident at funerals, especially those of community leaders and anti-apartheid activists, and at political rallies held within the context of space provided by churches. The four churches represented in the CUC were not necessarily those which were united at the grassroots in witness and social concern. In many local situations, other denominations, including African indigenous churches, were sometimes more evident. From this perspective, the CUC in distinction to the SACC was potentially divisive as far as the struggle was concerned.

Our experience of unity in struggle was not simply pragmatic, a form of cooperation brought about by strategic necessity. The unity which we discovered was rooted in a commitment to Jesus Christ, expressed in worship as well as social action. It was a unity based on theological substance, grounded in a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, that apartheid was a false gospel and a heresy, that all human beings irrespective of race are created in the “image of God”, and that God is a God of the oppressed and of justice. We shared the bread and cup at the eucharistic table on the basis of this common confession of faith, even though we had not yet resolved the problems of ministry and sacrament which historically divided us. None of us doubted that Christ was truly present through word and Spirit. So it would be false to suggest that the unity we discovered in the struggle was a marriage of convenience which would inevitably lead to divorce once the struggle ended.

At the same time, it would also be misleading to assume that the unity we discovered was either automatic or unproblematic. Although matters of faith and order were on the back-burner, they were not without significance. The advances achieved at Vatican II made Roman Catholic cooperation possible in a way which would not have been the case otherwise, even though Roman Catholics could not share fully in the eucharist with others with a clear conscience. And unless there had already been progress on historical confessional issues within the ecumenical movement worldwide through the efforts of Faith and Order and interconfessional family dialogues, as well as through the work of the Church Unity Commission in South Africa, unity expressed in eucharistic fellowship for the rest of us would have been very difficult. It was of considerable importance, for example, that in 1974 the churches within the CUC reached sufficient consensus on such issues to enable them to adopt a declaration of intention to seek union in which they agreed to intercommunion.

Indeed, while relegated to the back-burner of ecumenical action, the CUC continued to fulfill its mandate in the search for union, increasingly sensitive to the criticisms levelled against it. The CUC remained convinced that the unity of the church and the creation of a new non-racial society in South Africa were inseparably related. Church union required both the resolution of confessional issues, and the expression of unity in Christ in the solidarity of witness and social praxis. So the unity discovered in struggle was backed up by an ongoing attempt to overcome those theological differences which always threatened to keep apart those whom the struggle had joined together. Even though South Africans were not very prominent in the work of Faith and Order, and even though the work of Faith and Order got virtually no publicity in the country except for the celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, developments within that field of ecumenical effort were important for what was happening on the ground in the struggle

Discovering unity in struggle was only one side of the equation, however. The other side was that of moral formation. After all, the struggle against apartheid was essentially a moral struggle, yet one which was also profoundly theological, as the declaration that “apartheid is a heresy” showed. Those Christians who discovered their unity in the struggle did so around a set of common moral convictions, a confession of faith which was at the same time a declaration of ethics — apartheid was morally and theologically wrong, it was equally an “ethical heresy” and an “ecclesial heresy”. Apartheid and the segregation of the church went hand in hand. Racial injustice and Christian division were partners in crime.

Thus as Christians — and people of other faiths, let us remember — became involved in the struggle for justice, so their moral sense of justice was shaped and deepened just as they discovered unity with each other in a new way. You may have become involved in the struggle for a variety of reasons, including moral ones, but it was within the structures of struggle that moral sensitivity to injustice and the abuse of human rights was developed in a way not possible within the college or catechetical classroom. This does not mean that there was no place for ethical or theological reflection on the moral issues pertaining to the struggle. On the contrary, even though this was a “second order” activity it was essential to the struggle. Of particular note in this regard were the debates about violence and pacifism, conscientious objection and economic sanctions, in which the burning issues of the day were reflected on from the perspective of both engagement and Christian tradition. Moral formation, however much it may take place at the level of principle, cannot be pursued out of context nor in ways unrelated to moral engagement or conversion.

Just as unity in the struggle built on work done by those engaged in faith and order issues, so moral formation in the struggle assumed that the churches had, over the years, tried to form their constituencies around a set of values consonant with the gospel. Moral formation does not just happen in a moment. Yet the sobering fact remains: many churches, especially within the white section of the population, failed at precisely this level. They did not morally prepare their constituencies to discern the evil of apartheid or oppose it as they should have. Often, in fact, quite the reverse. So it was frequently involvement in the struggle which led to a crisis of moral conscience, and a conversion to a new set of moral values faithful to the gospel. And as the struggle against apartheid progressed, so division among Christians intensified, leading in several instances to schism and further denominational fragmentation around such issues as the PCR or conscientious objection.

There were, of course, matters of moral value which were either neglected in the struggle or remained unresolved because of the nature of the struggle. The focus was primarily on racism and strategies for combating it. For that reason, many other issues were put on one side in the interest of defeating apartheid. In the struggle it was difficult, and it often appeared strategically unwise at the time, for example, to debate gender equality or the ethics of sexual preference. Even the question of the ordination of women within some churches was left unresolved. Moreover, much happened within the ambit of the struggle which was morally indefensible yet justified or glossed over in the name of the struggle. Some of this has come to light recently through the work of the commission on Truth and Reconciliation, a subject which brings us, then, to, the post-apartheid era in which we now have to consider the question of ecclesial unity and moral formation.

Church unity and moral formation in democratic transition and


We must neither overestimate the role which the church played in the struggle against apartheid, nor assume that the transition to democracy in South Africa means that the struggle for justice is now complete and the churches can rest on their laurels. The struggle against the legacy of apartheid remains one of the greatest challenges we face in democratic transition and transformation. The political struggle might have been won, but the struggle against racism and injustice in its many forms remains. The struggle against the ideological falsehood of apartheid might be accomplished, but the struggle to overcome the past through the uncovering of the truth of what happened, and the achievement of national reconciliation, remain. So it is not true to say that there is no longer an agenda of struggle to bind Christians in South Africa together.

Yet is undeniable that the transition to democracy saw an initial back-tracking on ecumenical commitment and a concomitant strengthening of denominational identity and resolve. It is also true that the SACC is no longer as publicly prominent as it was during the days of the struggle. The danger of a loss of ecumenical commitment and will is real. It could be argued that this mirrors what is happening more widely in the world and for many of the same reasons. So in that sense the ecumenical movement in South Africa now finds itself in a similar position to that of churches elsewhere. But this does not mean that we can or should understand the ecumenical task in South Africa today as one of getting back to the “normal business” of the churches. For one thing, we dare not forget what we have learned during the struggle, nor can we deny the confession we made in “The Message to the People of South Africa”, the Belhar confession, or the Kairos document. For another, the struggle for justice and transformation must continue, and must continue to make its impact upon the way in which we seek to express the unity of the church and engage in moral formation.

So it is not the case that, whereas previously we were united in struggle, now we have to patch up our traditional doctrinal differences and try to bring about church union. Rather the search for the unity of the church, including the task of seeking to unite churches, cannot be the same as it was before the struggle. The search for church union now must be understood in the light of our experience, and in relation to the struggle which continues. This is the framework within which the agenda of the “ethics and ecclesiology” discussion must take place in South Africa, and perhaps elsewhere as well. But at the same time, the unity we discovered in social praxis in the past, and which we will continue to experience as we participate in social transformation, cannot be separated from the theological tasks associated with faith and order if the unity of the church in South Africa is to be strengthened and expressed in life and witness. In other words, I am not suggesting that the traditional problems separating churches from each other do not need to be dealt with and overcome; what I am saying is that they can no longer be dealt with in isolation from our contextual experience as the church in South Africa. How we relate these two is surely at the centre of our discussion about ethics and ecclesiology.

Significantly, during the past few years, the work of the Church Unity Commission has taken on a new lease of life. In 1995 the participating churches agreed to recognize each other’s ordained ministry within the church of God. This means, for example, that a Methodist can now serve as rector of an Anglican parish without having to be re-ordained, though if he or she wishes to become an Anglican priest re-ordination at this stage would still be required. Despite this latter reservation, the step that has been taken is very significant and prepares the way for the next phase in the search for union. What is interesting now is that the work of the CUC has support from the black leadership within the churches in a way which was not previously the case. But it is not only among the CUC churches that steps have or are being taken towards unity. The formation of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa in 1994, the recent uniting of the formerly white and black churches of the Apostolic Faith Mission (Pentecostal), and the discussions about union between the black Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa, suggest that church union negotiations are coming in from the cold.

Undoubtedly the changed political situation and the strong emphasis on national reconciliation and reconstruction are having an impact on the churches. Certainly, what needs to be recognized and acted upon is the fact that the church in South Africa will miss a moment of ecumenical opportunity if it does not seek to structure the unity experienced during the years of struggle in ways appropriate to the challenge facing the ecumenical church in the reconstruction of South Africa today. It is important to stress that we are not trying to unite the churches of various confessions in Europe; we are seeking to discover the unity of the church in South Africa. This means that while it is still appropriate and urgent to work for the unity of those churches which participate in the CUC, as well as between those other denominations who are engaged in unity discussions, these conversations cannot be ends in themselves, and they by no means encompass the search to express fully Christian unity in our context. For one thing, they do not directly involve the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox or Coptic communities. Perhaps even more importantly, they do not deal with the ecclesial reality of the AICs and the challenge they present both to ecumenicity and to the inculturation of the church in South Africa. Their place within the ecumenical church in South Africa is clearly problematic if the issue is approached along the traditional lines of faith and order dialogue. Perhaps nothing more profoundly highlights the difficulty of relating “koinonia ecclesiology” to the way in which ecclesiology has in fact developed since the time of primitive Christianity.

Church unity is, after all, not simply about uniting denominations in common structures and institutions; it is also, and maybe even more importantly, about developing koinonia. If the major sources of division are, as they have so often been, social, cultural, sexual and political, then church union has to deal with these divisive realities if it is to be an authentic expression of the unity we have in Jesus Christ. The importance of this for the church in South Africa is self-evident, but it should be even more evident now given the fact that the struggle for democratic transformation is precisely a struggle to deal with these sources of national division and conflict.

What divides South Africa today is no longer apartheid as a legal system, but injustices which have to do, certainly with race, but also with gender, and economics, and the multi-cultural and multi-faith character of our society. The unity of the church, and therefore the “faith and order debate”, cannot be pursued in isolation from these very forces, not only because of the churches’ social witness, but precisely because these forces can either prevent koinonia or contribute to its enrichment. A visible expression of the church through a union which is culturally or socially monochrome, even if it is the overcoming of historic divisions, is not really an adequate expression of the koinonia which is given in Christ. Sharing the common life of the Spirit does not simply mean sharing with others who are of the same culture, race, nation, gender, or class — that is assumed; it means, rather, sharing in a life which is given in Christ and therefore one which overcomes the limitations of natural relationships. This almost invariably occurs as Christians seek to engage in a mission praxis of justice and reconciliation, for it is precisely then that such boundaries are and have to be overcome. This being so, “the most authentic support that the church can give to the nurturing of a democratic order” within society, as experienced in South Africa, “remains that of an effective and increasingly profound praxis of communion within itself’.(5)

The most divisive social force impeding the reconstruction of South Africa today is undoubtedly economic injustice. The growing gap between rich and poor, between the employed and the unemployed, between those who have accommodation and those who are homeless, has to be overcome if South Africa is to achieve its goal of true reconciliation. This concern obviously impinges directly, not only on the mission of the church, but also on its unity and moral formation within its life. The fact is, the church in South Africa is divided along precisely these same lines of economic well-being or suffering. Perhaps even the vast majority of the poor and unemployed are members of the church, as are the middle-class and at least a segment of the wealthy. The New Testament admonition to “remember the poor” within the Jerusalem church, and the message of the letter of James, have a direct bearing on the unity of the church. There is, in fact, a close link between just economic structures and koinonia within the church.

The connection between the search for ways to express the unity of the church and moral formation within the church at this moment of democratic transition and transformation is, therefore, self-evident. The ongoing search for unity and the never-ceasing task of pursuing justice have to proceed together. Only in this way can we hope to overcome the legacy of the past and build a moral community without which a just democratic order will not be possible. Apartheid, after all, subverted and eventually destroyed those values which are essential for a just democracy. Apartheid laws and practices led to a disrespect for law and authority, the cheapening of life, the destruction of the family, the subversion of the truth with lies, the manipulation of natural cultural differences, the abuse of human rights, the strengthening of the rich through corruption at the expense of the poor. Hence the urgent need to create a democratic culture in which the transition to democracy can take place, but even more, where democratic transformation can be pursued in ways consonant with the biblical vision of shalom. This indicates that just as the struggle for justice never ends, at least this side of the eschaton, so too the search for union within and between the churches is an ongoing task. To put it differently, the search for church union is open-ended, and we have continually to relate matters of faith and order to the unfolding agenda of the church’s ecumenical task in the world. This, in turn, relates directly to the church’s task in democratic transformation.(6)

Let the search for union and the struggle for justice continue!


(1) No Rusty Swords, London, Collins, 1970, pp.321-33.

(2) See Konrad Raiser, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Ecumenical Movement”, in Bonhoeffer for a New Day, John W. de Gruchy ed., Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, in press.

(3) I have written elsewhere at length about 19th- and early 20th-century attempts at church union in South, Africa, and the emergence of the ecumenical movement within our South American context. See John de Gruchy, The Church Struggle in South Africa, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1988, and Christianity and the Colonisation of South Africa, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1997. (4) The first union in which settler and mission churches united was that of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa in 1967.

(5) Giuseppe Alberigo, “Ecclesiology and Democracy: Convergences and Divergences”, in The Tabu of Democracy within the Church, James Provost and Knut Walf eds, Concilium, vol. 5, London, SCM, 1992, p.23.

(6) On the relationship between Christianity and democratic transformation, and the role of the churches in the transition to democracy in South Africa, see John de Gruchy, Christianity and Democracy: A Theology for a Just World Order, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1995. See also Charles Villa-Vicencio, A Theology of Reconstruction, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1994.

COPYRIGHT 1997 World Council of Churches

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