On keeping the faith
In 1960 an Anglican bishop, Ambrose Reeves of Johannesburg, was deported from South Africa, and the following Sunday the Dean of Johannesburg, Patrick Barron, preached a very powerful sermon in St Mary’s Cathedral on the text of Amos 7:10-13:
Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, Amos hath conspired against thee in the midst of the house of Israel: the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos saith, Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall surely be led away captive out of their own land. Also Amaziah said unto Amos, O thou seer, go, flee thee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there: But prophesy not again any more at Bethel: for it is the king’s chapel, and it is the king’s court.
The Dean, in his sermon, made it clear that in deporting the bishop the government had, in effect, declared war on the church, and that Christians in South Africa must expect to face increasing persecution.
Bishop Reeves had been a controversial figure. He had left the country semi-secretly six months before. Some said that it was because he feared that he would be arrested, but he said that it was because he had eye-witness accounts of the shooting at Sharpeville, which he feared would be confiscated by the Security Police. Many white Anglicans did not like him for his criticism of apartheid, and hoped he would resign. In September 1960 he returned, and was deported within 48 hours. That act, and the dean’s sermon, helped to conscientise many Anglicans, including me. It made me realise that South Africa was becoming a totalitarian state. If the Christian faith was in conflict with government policy, then, as far as the government was concerned, the Christian faith would have to be crushed.
But the church leaders then generally decided to play it safe. The Anglican Diocese of Johannesburg elected Leslie Stradling as their new bishop, whom they felt would keep his head down. When he arrived (he had previously been Bishop of South-West Tanganyika) he was far too busy catching up with the backlog of confirmations to take much notice of his South African surroundings, and it could be said that the leaders of the Anglican Church in South Africa really wanted a bishop who would be a confirmation machine, one who would be seen and not heard.
The government in the mean time was churning out more and more repressive legislation, increasing state control of just about everything, and church leaders had very little to say.
In 1963 a friend and I were discussing the increasingly muted response of South African Christian leaders to apartheid and state repression, and my friend said that they were gradually sliding into apostasy, for fear of sticking their necks out. They would not be asked to do anything dramatic, like being put into an arena of wild beasts and asked to deny the Creed. But the Christian faith was being chipped away, little by little, and eventually there would be nothing left.
The danger, as we saw it, was that through fear and cowardice, the Christian leaders of South Africa would eventually reach the point where they had effectively denied the Christian faith.
What, then, is one to make of this – Creedal Christian: Dumping the Nicene Creed for Easter:
I read with sadness recently about the plight of a blogging/Facebook friend who attends an Episcopal Church where the leadership has decided to dump the Nicene Creed from the liturgy beginning on Easter Day. In its place they plan to use some faith statement crafted by the Iona community. According to my friend, this replacement ‘creed’ downplays things like the Incarnation and the Resurrection. I can tell he is deeply unhappy about this decision, and I certainly don’t blame him!
I’ve written before about instances of letting go of the Creed, clergy who charge that the creeds are defective, and a Church of England chaplain who banned the creed to be inclusive. Perhaps this is more common than we realize?
Back in the 1960s we expected that even the most timid and cowardly church leaders, the ones who tried to keep a low profile, would stand firm if they were put in an arena full of wild beasts and told to renounce the creed. But fifty years later, here are church leaders doing that voluntarily and of their own accord, without any state pressure whatever.