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Joint Conference on Religion and Theology (part 1)

23 June 2012

From 18-22 June 2012 I attended the Joint Conference of academic societies in the field of Religion and Theology (JCRT 2012) , held at the Pietermaritzburg Campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (my alma mater – I studied for a BA there, 1963-65).

I drove down from Pretoria on Monday 18th June, and avoided the toll roads, so it probably took a little longer – 8 hours 22 minutes, to be precise, and the distance was 621 kilometres. There were lots of roadworks on some sections, especially between Leandra and Standerton, and over the Biggarsberg between Newcastle and Ladysmith. Last time I travelled this road they were working on the road over Laings Nek between Volksrust and Newcastle, but that section has now been completed.

I stayed in a self-catering cottage at the Little Europe Guest House 2 km from where the conference was being held, reasonably priced (R280 a night) and convenient.

Self-catering cottage at Little Europe Guest House – where I stayed for the conference

There were 16 participating societies, so the programme was quite complex, with several things going on at the same time. There was a fairly good representation of people from various African countries, and some overseas. On the other hand, some South Africans could not attend because the conference was very expensive.

Tea time at JCRT 2012

The conference opened with a plenary session of all the societies in the Hexagon Theatre to hear papers from Abdulkader Tayob on Islam in public life, and Madipoane Masenya women’s encounter with the Book of Ruth. She said there were not enough Boazs for single women.

Madipoane Masenya of Unisa speaking on African South African women and the book of Ruth, Gerald West in the chair

The first session on Tuesday morning had 10 events on the programme. As a member of the Southern African Missiological Society (SAMS) I thought I’d better go to our opening event, which was Dietrich Werner speaking on ecumenical networking and exchange of resources in theological education. Among their projects is a global survey on theological education, which they would like anyone involved in theological education to participate in. There is also a global theological library of online resources, which is available free of charge.

Karel August, Nico Botha (SAMS chairman) and Reggie Nel (SAMS)

The next two SAMS speakers didn’t turn up (perhaps because of the expense of the conference), but that gave me an opportunity to join in one of the sessions of the Church History Society, on Christian student groups in the 1960s and 1970s.

Christina Landman of the Church History Society

Bill Houston spoke on the University Christian Movement (UCM), 1967-1972, while Allen Goddard spoke on discipleship courses run by Hans Ferdinand Burki for the Students Christian Association (SCA), which had a profound effect on the organisation.

I found this particularly interesting, as I was involved in some of the preliminary meetings that let to the formation of the UCM, which was originally seen as a replacement for the SCA, which split up into separate racial components to conform to the apartheid ideology. This was imposed by the Afrikaans section of the SCA (CSV) which was by far the most powerful, and so could dictate to the others. UCM lasted for five years and then folded for various reasons that Bill Houston discussed. But Allen Goddard’s paper suggested that the English and black components of the SCA got together again in the 1q970s, and so to some extent fulfilled at least part of the vision of the UCM.

Bill Houston – spoke on the University Christian Movement

Bill Houston is planning to write a book on the UCM, based on his thesis, and after the papers several people (including me) urged him to broaden it to cover Christian student organisations more generally.

One of those who urged this was Anthony Egan, also of the Church History Society, who had done some research on the National Catholic Federation of Students, which was one of the bodies involved in the founding of the UCM.

Another church history paper I heard was one by Radikobo Ntsimane, who spoke on religion and health, and noted that some 19th century missionaries involved in medical missions seemed to regard Western biomedicine as somehow “sacred” and African ideas of health and healing as “profane”.

Nico Botha of SAMS said he was trying to develop a theology of migration and miossion.

I read a paper on Mission, Migration and Theological Education, looking at some attempts to provide theoloigical education for migrants involved in mission.

Afe Adogame of the University of Edinburgh spoke at a plenary session of all the societies on the public face of new African Christianities – questing for the good things in life. As he says in the abstract of his paper,

…there has been a somewhat misleading generalisation of new African Christianities as ‘apolitical’, ‘this-worldly’ and lacking any conscious ‘social agenda’. Such controversial assumptions warrant a critical re-reading of African Christianity’s role in contemporary civil society. Attention needs to be given to the dynamics of new African Christianities in generating social, cultural and spiritual capital. I argue that new African Christianities contribute enormous bridging, bonding and linking social capital, but also confront barriers to development and civic engagement.

Afe Adogame and Stephen Hayes at JCRT 2012

One of the examples he gave was one of the Neopentecostal churches, Winners Chapel, which has 300 buses that commute members to Sunday Services, and 300 people are employed as drivers. Another, Canaanland, does not have purely religious spaces, but spaces for politics, gossip and other forms of interaction. They have banks, shopping centres, and social spaces. I was able to chat to him later, and discuss some of the differences between the Neopentecostal churches in Africa and some of the more traditional African Independent Churches (AICs).

One of those reading a paper for the Church History Society was Thomas Ninan, an Indian Orthodox priest who is studying at UKZN. He arranged an interesting interlude, having tea with a group of Greek ladies who meet regularly for a study group, one of whom is a relation of one the members of our parish of St Nicholas in Johasnnesburg, Ellie Mullinos. There was also a visiting Ethiopian Orthodox deacon at the tea party.

Some members of the Pietermaritzburg study group: Atty Zaverdinos, Annalise Zaverdinos, (uinknown), Mary and Marjye Mullinos, Leeba Thomas Ninan, Fr Thomas Ninan. The children in the front are Angel (9) and Thomas (4)

I can’t comment on the papers I didn’t hear (though we were given abstracts of all the papers, even those where the speakers did not turn up to deliver them). And there isn’t space here to comment adequately on the papers I did hear. As a general comment, some of the papers I did hear tended to be overloaded with abstract nouns like “love”, “peace” and “justice”. Good words all, but sometimes concrete examples would make the presentation clearer. One that did not suffer from this fault was by Sinenhlanhla Ngwenya of SAMS, who spoke on unaccompanied refugee minors from Zimbabwe in South Africa, and in particular their vulnerability to HIV/Aids. She was very specific, and called for a pastoral response. Whether anyone will respond to the call is a different question, but there is no mistaking what the call is. The problem with the abstract nouns is that it is too easy for people to say they have responded to the call, for who isn’t in favour of good things like love, peace and justice?

Tea time at JCRT 2012

Simanga Kumalo spoke at a plenary on developing church/state relations in a democratic South Africa, and noted that there were four different bodies that had been established to maintain contact between the state and religious leaders, and all four had been started as a result of initiatives from the state, not from the religious leaders.

One person who commented after his paper made a memorable remark: at liberation we thought that sin would either take early retirement or commit suicide; but it didn’t happen.

(Continued in Part 2)

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