The Orthodox Church is not generally well known in South Africa, which has a bewildering variety of more than 10000 different Christian groups. Yesterday we had two opportunities to make it better known among groups of other South African Christians.
The first was Pecha Kucha at TGIF, at 6:30 am.
Pecha Kucha is Japanese for chit-chat, but the term has also come to be used to refer to a specific presentation style: Each speaker has exactly 20 slides showing for exactly 20 seconds each, resulting in short and fast-paced presentations of 6min 40sec. The slides advance automatically, and the speaker cannot slow them down or speed them up.
TGIF is an informal Friday-morning coffee-shop meeting with a topical and challenging talk followed by a time for questions and discussion – all over a cup of good coffee. We’ve been attending TGIF meetings on and off for nearly ten years, more regularly since Val retired. Most of those who attend come from the Evangelical Christian tradition, and there have only been a few encounters with Orthodoxy, though once there was a meeting of new monasticism and old.
This time Val was one of the Pecha Kucha presenters, and her presentation was on the life of St Nicholas of Japan and his missionary career. It was quite a challenge to produce twenty slides, and to fit the narrative to exactly 20 seconds on each.
St Nicholas was chaplain to the Russian consulate in Hakodate, and his first converts were three samurai. When persecution broke out against Japanese Christians, St Nicholas sent them home to lie low for a while. What he did not expect was that on their way home, to their separate home fillages, they preached the gospel in every place where they stayed.
There were several other presentations — including ones on poetry, on the need to tell more than one story, on the need to make Christianity difficult again, and on the uses of Twitter.
In the afternoon we went to Benoni, where the Anglican Church was having a deacons’ c0nference. They had about 30 deacons from several Anglican dioceses, and as part of their programme they were having presentations from Methodists, Roman Catholics and Orthodox on their understanding of the diaconate. They were meeting at the Lumko Conference centre, and Val and I joined them for lunch, and after lunch we went to St Athanasius Orthodox Church in the centre of Benoni, where the parish priest, Fr Markos, made us welcome.
Many of the Anglican deacons had never been into an Orthodox temple before, and in order to explain the liturgical duties of a deacon it was necessary to explain the architecture of the temple, and how it related to worship. That also meant explaining the ikons on the ikonostasis and some of the other ikons and their positions.
One of the significant differences between Anglican and Orthodox deacons is that the Anglican ordination service outlines the duties of a deacon, but the Orthodox ordination service does not. But in the other Orthodox services the liturgical duties of the deacon are explicitly set out in the rubrics, whereas in the Anglican service books there is barely any mention of deacons at all. Some of the things I said (and some I didn’t say) are included in this post on Deacons and diaconate, so you can read them there, and I won’t repeat them here.
In order that it should not be mere talk, but actual experience, we ended up by serving Vespers. Zoe and Marios Hadji-Joseph from St Nicholas of Japan Orthodox Church in Brixton kindly joined us, so Zoe and Val could sing Vespers in English, and Marios could act as an altar boy. Thus we were able to show, in a small way, that in Orthodox Vespers many different ministries are working together. The priest (Fr Markos in this case) does relatively little — giving the dismissal and the exclamations at the end of the litanies. The deacon does more — leading the litanies and censing the church, assisted in this by the altar boy. But most of the service is done by the choir/congregation.
News stories of the Prophet of Doom, Lethebo Rabalago, spraying members of his congregation with Doom insecticide have proliferated in the last couple of weeks, along with many satirical comments on social media. As this article notes The Doom Pastor Shows Us How Self Regulation Is Failing Too Many South African Churches:
Sensational stories of pastors using dangerous methods to “heal” their congregants have become a fixture of South African news.
Lesego Daniel from Rabboni Ministries in Pretoria famously instructed members of his congregation to drink petrol. In 2014, Facebook images on the church’s website also showed his followers eating grass and flowers on his orders, according to a round-up by the BBC.
Penuel Mnguni from End Times Disciples Ministries was trained under Daniel, and earned the epithet “snake pastor” after images showed him feeding his followers snakes and rats.
They are terrifying stories that speak to straight up exploitation of church-goers.
To some extent this is part of the fissiparousness of Protestantism, and especially its Neopentecostal wing, where some denominational leaders (or intending denominational leaders, just before they break away to form a new denomination) are accustomed to announce that “God is doing a new thing”, with the subtext that of course God is doing the new thing through them, and that is why people must leave their old denomination and join the new one where new things were happening. In the 1970s it was being “slain in the Spirit”, in the 1990s it was the “Toronto Airport Blessing” and now it seems to be consuming all sorts of bizarre substances.
This leads to great pressure for innovation, and announcing “a new move of the Spirit”, which very often turns out to be just a new publicity gimmick.
This is not really all that new, though. In the USA similar practices are found in paleo-Pentecostal denominations like the Church of God with Signs Following, where members of the congregation handle poisonous snakes and drink poison. They justify this behaviour by reference to Bible verses like Mark 16:18 “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” I suspect that this, however, referred to the actions of enemies, and not acts of showmanship. For the latter, it is better to use the response of Jesus to the devil in Matthew 4:7: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”
In the same article cited above, there are calls for a regularory body for churches, to control such practices. The Doom Pastor Shows Us How Self Regulation Is Failing Too Many South African Churches:
In this context a regulatory body is necessary. The act governing the CRL speaks mostly to the promoting of traditional religions and customs; not the regulation thereof. It is a Chapter Nine institution.
Regulations are of course a scary concept: ask the media. We too self-regulate and spurn any attempts of external regulation, particularly by the state. The church too should be left independent, as it should leave the state alone.
But that would be true in a normal situation. Any particular sphere of society should ideally be left to fulfill its purposes. The exception is when there are incidents of such distortion of that original purpose that people are being harmed, which means another sphere within society has to intervene.
While the article mentions some of the difficulties and drawbacks of such a regulatory body, it fails to mention the biggest ones — how it would work, how much it would cost, and who would pay for it.
The biggest problem is that there are well over 10000 different Christian denominations in South Africa. If a regulatory body were to be set up many of the churches would never get to hear of it, and it would never get to hear of them. And if the regulatory body has not heard of the denomination, how would they get to know of abuses?
For 25 years now I have kept a database of African Independent Churches (AICs) in South Africa, and I have the names of 7705 denominations in South Africa. For more than half of them the name is all I have — no information about the leaders, or how to contact them. Some may have ceased to exist, but there are many more of which I did not even know the names; until the newspaper publicity this week I did not know of Lethebo Rabalago and his denomination (I’ve added them now). If such a regulatory body had a large full-time staff and resources, they might be able to track them down, but the cost would be enormous. And snooping strangers lurking around other people’s church services would soon arouse suspicion.
The article says, “when there are incidents of such distortion of that original purpose that people are being harmed, which means another sphere within society has to intervene.”
And I suggest that the other sphere within society that has to intervene is the legal system and the law courts. If people are being harmed by the actions of another, there are laws against that. The same laws might apply to botched circumcisions and quack medicine. In addition to criminal law, there is also civil law. If someone’s health suffers as a result of being sprayed with Doom or drinking petrol, they can sue.
The Bill of Rights says:
15. Freedom of religion, belief and opinion
Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.
Religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions, provided that
a. those observances follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities;
b. they are conducted on an equitable basis; and
c. attendance at them is free and voluntary.
a. This section does not prevent legislation recognising
i. marriages concluded under any tradition, or a system of religious, personal or family law; or
ii. systems of personal and family law under any tradition, or adhered to by persons professing a particular religion.
b. Recognition in terms of paragraph (a) must be consistent with this section and the other provisions of the Constitution.
This does not preclude people who harm others from being charged with assault under the normal criminal law, and that is surely the best way of dealing with such things, and the best people to determine whether a particular act is protected by the Bill of Rights or not are the judges of the High Court, and not employees of some kind of statutory body set up to oversee religion.
As the National Party entrenched itself in power in South Africa after 1948, it became more and more intolerant of dissent from its policies and the ideology of apartheid that lay behind them. As a result many people were banned, or detained without trial, or imprisoned for breaking laws that were themselves evil.
In 1959 I was confirmed in the Anglican Church, and began going to church to receive communion on every red-letter saints day, one of which was the Feast of St Peter’s Chains on 1 August. It was just one among many church holy days at first, but from 1963 onwards, when several people I knew personally were banned or detained, it began to take on a new significance.
One of the first such people I knew was the Revd Arthur Blaxall, who was detained, and then convicted under the Suppression of Communism Act. He was known for his ministry among blind and deaf children, but was also a pacifist, and secretary of the local branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Several more people I knew were banned and detained in 1964. One was Elliot Mngadi, the Liberal Party organiser for northern Natal. In terms of his ban he would not be able to attend church services, and when he wrote to the magistrate asking for permission to do so, he was told he could attend services in his own house, provided that only members of his own family were present. Stephen Gawe, who had been vice president of the Anglican Students Federation, was held in 90-day detention.
Suddenly the Feast of St Peter’s Chains took on a new significance, especially the reading Acts 11:1-11. Another name for the feast was the Liberation of St Peter, and it became, for me, a kind of nucleus of liberation theology. I began noticing verses from the Psalms that spoke of setting prisoners free. There was Psalm 146, that spoke of the Lord
Who helpeth them to right that suffer wrong: who feedeth the hungry.
The Lord looseth men out of prison: the Lord giveth sight to the blind.
Then, just this week, I’ve been reading a book, Sacred Britain, which makes some interesting points about the location of churches in landscapes, including this:
[St Martin and St Peter] are two of the most popular dedications for churches within castle walls or next door. St Martin was a soldier who left the army when he converted, saying that as a Christian he could not fight. By dedicating a castle church or one nearby to St Martin, the Church was making a very pointed comment about the whole business of warfare. A dedication to St Peter is often found next to or within castles, which contained dungeons for holding prisoners, to make a similar point. In Rome there is a lovely little church called San Pietro in Vincoli, which means St Peter in Chains. St Peter was imprisoned in the dungeon over which this church was built, but was freed by an angel. Here the Church, which used to provide sanctuary to those accused of wrongdoing, is again making a point. By juxtaposing the spirits and powers of the ex-soldier and ex-prisoner with the harsh walls of the castle and prison, physical force was being counteracted by spiritual force.
I began using the Feast of St Peter’s Chains for special prayer for those who were banned and detained, and urged others to do so, and several people I knew did.
In 1972 I was deported from Namibia, and a few months later I myself was banned, along with one of my fellow deportees, Dave de Beer. I was banned to Durban, and while I was there the Liturgical Committee of the Anglican Church sent out its proposals for the reform of the Anglican Church Calendar. They planned to drop the commemoration of several saints (mostly ancient), and to introduce the commemoration of several others (mostly modern, ie Post-Reformation).
In the old South African Prayer Book St Peter’s Chains had been a Red Letter Day (well, italic Letters, actually — they didn’t use red letters when printing it). That meant that it had a first Evensong and was observed with some solemnity. When eventually I myself was banned, it was some comfort to know that the church as a whole was praying for me on that day, whether intentionally or not, whether they knew it or not, because such is the nature of liturgy that the prayers we pray are those of the Holy Spirit and not just of human intellectual awareness.
But now the Liturgical Committee were proposing to abolish the Feast of St Peter’s Chains; not just to demote it to a lesser commemoration, but abolish it altogether.
I wrote to Bishop Philip Russell , the convener of the Liturgical Committee, saying that I saw this as a betrayal of all the church members who had been banned or imprisoned or banished or exiled. But he was adamant; it had to be removed. He offered, as a kind of consolation prize, to introduce a new commemoration of the martyrs and confessors of the 20th century. But that wasn’t the same thing at all.
After I was banned, I had several well-meaning people come to me, and ask how the church could support banned people. But they didn’t really want to know, because they already knew what they wanted to do. They wanted to pass resolutions in synods and church council meetings. The resolutions would contain phrases like “we deplore in the strongest possible terms”. and “arbitrary action against”. The resolutions would never, of course, actually contain the strongest possible terms, because those would be unprintable. So in effect they were empty threats to use the strongest possible terms. One such well-meaning person came and asked me for advice on the wording of such a resolution, and I gave it, but they didn’t accept it. They asked for a gnat, and weren’t too happy when I gave them a camel.
There was a lot of talk in those days about “prophetic ministry”, and I think some people thought that passing resolutions full of abstract nouns and screech marks was a prophetic ministry. But if you want to know what a prophetic ministry is, here are the readings for the Feast of St Peter’s Chains before it was abolished in the Anglican Church:
1st Evensong: Ezek 2:1-7; Acts 3:1-16
Mattins: Ezek 3:4-11; Acts 11:1-18
2nd Evensong: Ezek 34:11-16; John 21:15-22
Epistle: Acts 11:1-11;
Gospel: Mark 10:28-31
Now there’s real support.
The aim of the Liturgical Committee was to make the liturgy “up-to-date” and “relevant”, and in their view commemorations like St Peter’s Chains were obsolete. The problem with “relevance”, however, is that those who are over-concerned with it almost inevitably end up supporting the status quo, whatever the status quo happens to be. And when the status quo meant that people were being banned and detained, it didn’t warrant a liturgical commemoration.
In its dedication of churches and in its liturgical commemorations the church had made some very pointed comments about the enterprises of warfare and imprisonment, but by dropping the liturgical commemoration the church was trying to poke the world with a wet noodle instead.
Of course it’s less relevant in South Africa now that we have a constitution with a Bill of Rights, and people aren’t supposed to be imprisoned without trial any more, but these things can change in a moment in any country, and often have. I’m no longer an Anglican, but I’m a member of the Orthodox Church, which retains the observance of the Feast of St Peter’s Chains on 16 January.
Liturgical language, even Anglican liturgical language, even pop/folk liturgical language, is quite different from the language of synods and similar debating forums, and much more powerful than the language of our constitutions and statutes and wishywashy humanistic resolutions, even if we do threaten to use the strongest possible terms.
Consider this Anglican hymn:
They have come from tribulation
And have washed their robes in blood
Washed them in the blood of Jesus
Tried they were and firm they stood.
Mocked imprisoned, stoned, tormented,
Sawn asunder, slain with sword,
They have conquered death and Satan
By the might of Christ the Lord.
I don’t even have to sing it. Even typing it brings tears to my eyes.
But “We deplore this in the strongest possible terms” leaves me as cold as the news of Steve Biko’s death left Jimmy Kruger.
Or consider the pop/folk equivalent. I have it on a record sung by Pete Seeger.
Paul and Silas bound in jail
Had no money for to go their bail
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
The very moment I thought I was lost
The dungeon shook and the chains fell off
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
We deplore this in the strongest possible terms.
 The church of San Pietro in Vinculo is not actually built over the dungeon where St Peter was imprisoned, but is rather where his chains are kept, both the ones used when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem, and those when he was later imprisoned in Rome. The church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami now stands above the Mamertine prison where St Peter was imprisoned.
 Parts of this post were originally part of a memoir I wrote on learning of the death of Bishop Philip Russell. I moved it to here because I didn’t think this was the most important thing he should be remembered for, even though it was the most important for me personally.
Some links to related topics:
This post is one of series of posts on memories of life in apartheid South Africa. You can see the whole series at Tales from Dystopia.
Here are two articles on clericalism that I think all Orthodox Christians should read, especially those who are concerned about mission and evangelism.
The first article, by Abbot Tryphon, deals with clericalism in a general way, warning of the dangers — Clericalism – The Morning Offering:
Orthodoxy has traditionally avoided clericalism, yet in more recent times this very corruption of priestly service has enter the doors of the Orthodox Church. The quest for honor has led many clergy to participate in a culture of abuse, where they even turn on one another in their sad attempt at aligning themselves with “officialdom”. The culture of abuse that is encouraged and fomented by refusing to live in adherence to the simplicity and humility of Christ’s example, is not much different than that of the grade school pecking order where the bully builds alliances based on fear.
Please go ahead and click on the link to read the whole article.
The other article, by Sergei Chapnin, an Orthodox journalist in Moscow, gives a specific example, and shows how it damaged the mission of the church — Sergei Chapnin: The Demolition of the Church Legacy of Russian Emigration: How It Is Done. — The Wheel: “it is hard to imagine a humble man, especially a clergyman who gives others a picture of himself.”
And Sergei Chapnin goes on to say:
And the final important detail is that the Patriarch in this photo is not shown among the people, but on a deserted beach. It would seem that the anticipated image of the Primate of the largest Orthodox Church is the Patriarch among the people. To demonstrate travel it could be in a remote corner of Russia, but above all with his flock. However, for London the Patriarch chose a completely different image – a deserted beach devoid of people. The only one who has received an honor to be with him, a penguin, is a cute, but exotic animal.
Bishops (and priests and deacons) have important ministries in the church, but they are not the only ministries, and nor does the Church revolve around them, it revolves around Christ. But clericalism creates the impression that the Church revolves around the ordained clergy, and that they alone are important. And the practice of clergy giving pictures of themselves to other people dates back before the age of the selfie.
One of the ways in which Orthodoxy can be seen to have been less clericalist than Western Christianity is in the matter of theological education and training for ministries. I have been involved in this, to some extent, in both Western and Orthodox contexts. And in the West there is an assumption that anyone who studies theology is going to be ordained.
When our daughter went to study theology at the University of Athens several of my non-Orthodox friends asked “Oh, is the Orthodox Church ordaining women then?”
When I taught for a semester at the Orthodox Seminary at Shen Vlash in Albania in 2000, about half the students were male and half were female. When I visited the St Tikhon’s Institute in Moscow, there was something similar. It may be different now, but back then I think that most of the students male as well as female, were not thinking of ordination,
In the Church of Greece for a long time many of the clergy had little academic theological education, and most of the academic theologians were not ordained. I could be wrong, but I believe that even today most of the lecturers and professors in university theology departments are not ordained. It is important to qualify such “theology” by the epithet “academic” here. Not all theology is academic, and in Orthodoxy a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian. An academic theologian who doesn’t pray is a contradiction in terms.
This is one of the things that seems to have changed in the Diaspora, especially in Western countries. Just as in Western denominations, Orthodox Christians in the West are concerned about having well-educated clergy, and have established theological seminaries and academies that follow the same pattern as their Western counterparts.
In a way this is understandable.
In a traditionally Orthodox country, people absorb theology by osmosis, by participation in the Divine Liturgy and the other services of the church. Theology is holistically absorbed from one’s environment, as part of a Christian community (and not from penguins). Where there are non-Christian influences or factors in the environment, such as Turkish overlords, the differences are obvious, and if they aren’t obvious, the overlords, sooner or later, more or less painfully, will make the difference clear.
In the West, and in post-Bolshevik Russia, it is rather different.
In South Africa, with over 10000 different Christian denominations, there are a bewildering number of theologies to chose from, and there is a kind of generic Protestantism that seems to be an amalgam of the loudest voices, mainly tele-evangelists. In such a situation, some Orthodox theological education is needed for those who are to be ordained. And that would be true of the West generally, and also in post-Bolshevik Russia, where there was an enormous influx of people into the Church, most of whom had a very vague idea of what it meant to be Orthodox, and there were very few to teach them. But while there may be a need for educated clergy, it also brings with it the danger of clericalism.
Some years ago, before I became Orthodox, I was Director of Training for Ministries in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, and among my duties was training people as self-supporting priests and deacons. At the time this was something of a novelty in the Anglican Church, and it was often opposed by the church-supported clergy, who were jealous for their position. As one of them put it, “People will ask, ‘Why is this man still carrying his net?'”
One of those who advocated such self-supporting ministry was Roland Allen, in his books Missionary methods: St Paul’s or ours, and The spontaneous expansion of the Church, and the causes which hinder it. In the latter book Allen wrote:
Spontaneous zeal leads Christian men to teach others, often in secret, often at the risk of their lives and property; and they must be able, not only to convert, but to organize their converts. They must be certain that no white missionaries, no paid agents of foreign societies, are necessary for the establishment of the church. They must know where to turn for Holy Orders, and they must be sure that Holy Orders will be conferred. Church must beget church, as individual begets individual.
At the time Allen wrote this, one of the very few missionaries who followed that method was St Nicholas of Japan, of whose work and first converts that must be a pretty precise description. It was also outlined by St Paul in 2 Tim 2:2.
In South Africa, however (and possibly in other parts of Africa), clericalism is all-pervasive in the prevailing generic Protestantism. A century ago a group of Methodists joined the Anglican Church, wanting Holy Orders. They were called the Order of Ethiopia. Seventy years later, the Anglicans decided to give them a bishop, but they couldn’t decide who the bishop should be, and as a result the Order of Ethiopia disintegrated into several fragments, one of which eventually joined the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church, which is one of the few non-Western churches not to have suffered under Muslim rule, and has a tradition going back at least 1600 years. Several of the South African clergy who joined them, however, are perpetually asking to be made “indigenous local bishops”, but are told that the canons of the church forbid married bishops. So they break away and seek ordination by episcopi vagantes.
So, as Orthodox Christians we have a problem. We need theologically educated leaders, not so that the church can revolve around them (as in clericalism) but rather to keep the Church in orbit around Christ and not being blown off course by every wind of doctrine. We need theological education, but not just for ordained leaders, which carries with it the danger of clericalism.
How can we achieve this?
I suggest two things —
- Training for leaders that is not formal and not academic, at least to begin with
- Greater recognition to be given to non-ordained leaders, such as evangelists, catechists, readers etc.
But those are subjects for another article.
I read it again, for the 4th or 5th time, mainly because someone remarked that it “has an ultimately sympathetic depiction of underworld but non-demonic creatures”. and I wanted to remind myself of that. The main connection between them and the creatures who live in sunlight is that they are oppressed by an evil witch who sometimes take the form of a green snake, who has also imprisoned a human prince and wants to use him and the underworld creatures to take over the world above ground.
The thing that always comes to my mind, when I read or think about The Silver Chair is when I was staying with some friends in Durban when the apartheid regime was flourishing and it looked as though it would never end. Scarcely a week went by without news of someone being banished, or banned, or imprisoned without trial.
One day we were sitting around talking about this, and my friends’ young daughter, aged 9, said “But why does God allow it? Why does God allow these things to happen to our friends?”
There was silence for a moment, and then her sister, aged 11, said, “It isn’t God, it’s the green snake.”
“But that isn’t true!” expostulated the younger girl. “It’s in a book, somebody wrote it.”
“Yes, but what it means is true,” replied her sister.
Forty years ago, on 14 November 1976, a service was held at St Matthias’s Anglican Church in Utrecht, Natal, to bid farewell to the previous parish priest and to welcome a new one. There is nothing unusual about that. It happens all the time.
But what was unusual about this one was that not only was the previous priest leaving, but so was most of the congregation. The black population of Utrecht was being ethnically cleansed, and within a couple of weeks they would all be physically removed, not only from the parish, but also from the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. They were being moved to the Anglican Diocese of Natal, across the Buffalo River, to a place called Mountain by the local people, but named Osizweni by the apartheid government that was forcing the people to move.
How did such a thing happen?
Utrecht was a small town, or a large village. It had been part of the South African Republic, but after the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 the district was transferred to the Colony of Natal. It was said that British troops stationed there had built the stone church of St Michael and All Angels in the main street of the town. Only white people lived in the centre of the town, and black people and most coloured people stayed in a “location” on the southern edge of town. On the western edge of the town was a very poor area, where mostly coloured people lived, called by its inhabitants Kak Straat (Shit Street) because that was what they thought it was. Towards the southern edge of the town was St Matthias’s Church, which the black and coloured people attended, where they had services in Zulu.
The Anglican priest who served Utrecht died in 1948, and thereafter it was served by the priest from Khambula, 50 kilometres to the east. Khambula was a mission centre, with schools, etc., but when the National Party came to power these were taken over by the Bantu Education Department. There were also many “outstations”, outlying churches which the priest from Khambula visited on a rota once every few weeks, and after 1948 Utrecht became an outstation too.
In the 1970s, however, the state-owned iron and steel corporation, Iskor, decided to build a steel mill at Newcastle, 50 kilometres to the east. This created some employment opportunities in the area, and there were three coal mines in Utrecht, so it looked as though Utrecht might also grow. The priest at Khambula at the time was Bill Johnston, from Northern Ireland, and the growing number of people attending both churches seemed to make it possible for Utrecht to have its own priest again after 25 years. At St Michael’s they collected money to put in a rather fine stained glass window of the Ascension.
Bill Johnston moved to Eshowe to be dean of the cathedral there, and the new priest at Khambula was Edmund Xulu. We were invited to look at Utrecht in July 1976, and decided to go there. We discussed the matter with Edmund Xulu, and after a bit of bargaining decided that in addition to the town itself, the outstations of Groenvlei, Magidela, Didane and Esitilenga would be part of Utrecht parish, while Khambula would retain those in the east. The outstations were poor, the congregations consisting mainly of farm labourers and cowboys. But with 5-10 fairly well-off whites in Utrecht, mostly working on the mines, and about 50 black families in the town, with most employed in the town or on the mines, the parish should survive.
But between July, when we had agreed to go there, and the end of October, when we actually arrived, we found that we would be losing about 80% of our parishioners. Even before we arrived, we had lost half the whites. They worked on the mines, and had been transferred to other mines. There were really only two white families left. And we heard that most of the black parishioners in Utrecht were scheduled to be removed to Osizweni by the end of November.
Such removals were common, and I was not unfamiliar with them. In 1965 I had attended and spoken at a Liberal Party meeting in Charlestown, which looked like a ghost town. Most of the people from there had already been moved to Madadeni (Duckponds) next door to Osizweni, and all over the countryside were ruins of small communities that had been forced to move. The people in Utrecht had been under threat of removal for some time, but sometimes people could live under such a threat for 10 or 15 years before the GG (Government Garage) lorries arrived to load up their stuff and take them to the new place. And in Utrecht they arrived in November 1976.
So one of the first things I did after arriving in Utrecht and unpacking our stuff in a small flat, was to go to Osizweni to visit the priest there, Ariel Mothibi, to tell him,that my new parishioners, whom I hadn’t even met yet, would be moving into his parish, so I wanted him to meet them so that they would know his face and having church contacts in the new place might help to make the forced move a little less traumatic.
He was astounded. He said that was the first time anyone had ever been to him to discuss the pastoral care of victims of forced removals and his parish had been the recipient of many such victims over the the years, from Charlestown, from Alcockspruit, and many other places scattered all over northern Natal. But not once had the clergy of the places people were being moved from ever come to talk to him about it. What, I wondered, were they teaching them in the theological colleges about pastoral care?
So on the day of the welcome and farewell service on Sunday 14th November, Ariel Mothibi and several members of his parish council were there too. He had organised for them to come, and they were introduced to the congregation, and told them about the parish, and where the church was, and welcomed them to Osizweni even before the GG lorries arrived, and by Christmas they were all gone. Many of the people still had jobs in Utrecht, and had to commute 50 kilometres to work each day, but I had never really got a chance to meet them.
There were a few coloured people left in the old location, and within a short time most of them had moved to Kak Straat too.
And then there was Utrecht parish. Since it was mostly the white people who had asked for a local priest, I began holding services every Sunday and saints day in the parish church, St Michael’s. There was one on All Saints, followed by All Souls, and one of the two remaining white families started complaining that there were too many services. They were used to the priest coming from Khambula once a month. But they’d asked for a priest locally, and what did they expect?
And then there was St Matthias. It had no congregation. It was bigger than St Michael’s, but with 90% of the congregation gone, the remainder could fit in St Michael’s with room to spare. Also, the people from Kak Staat had to walk across town past St Michael’s to get to St Matthias. So I suggested that we close St Matthias, which was in poor repair in any case, and think of something else to do with the site. Some of the whites weren’t too happy with that suggestion either. The coloureds should go to “their” church, they thought.
St Michael’s was also used twice a month by the Methodists. The Methodist minister came from Newcastle to hold a service there. And in the evenings, at 7:00 pm, it was used by the Assemblies of God. A lay evangelist, Piet Joubert, who had a photography business in Newcastle, came every Sunday. We also started having Sunday evening services, but at 5:00 pm, to avoid clashing with the Assemblies of God. Suddenly St Michael’s Church was being used 4 times a Sunday.
We would have an English Eucharist at 8:30 am, and rush off to have a service in Zulu at one of the outstations, and come back for the English Evensong at 5:00 pm. The morning congregation was about 15-20 people, the two white families, some people from Kak Straat, and some black families from the mines, who lived in mine housing. One of the youngsters from Kak Straat, Tyrone Dauman, who was about 11 or 12, got religion. He liked coming to services, so after the Anglican service in the morning he stayed for the Methodist one that followed, and after the Evening service he stayed for the Assemblies of God one that followed. The white Methodists freaked out about that, and the next Sunday they didn’t come for their service. Later, much later, we found out that they had started holding their services in the white reformatory on the road out of town, where they were unlikely to be disturbed by coloured kids who had got religion.
Then there was a new white family, Neville and Lesley Richardson. Neville was personnel manager on one of the miens, and they belonged to the Assemblies of God in the previous place where they lived. They started coming to our services. One day Piet Joubert, the Assemblies of God evangelist, said he would be showing a film the following Sunday, and invited our congregation to stay for it, and many of them did. Then we thought, why have two services with the church half full when we could have one that filled the church, so we combined the two Sunday evening services, and had quite an amazing mixture of people, of various races and several different denominations. There was a white Afrikaans Baptist, Oom Manie Craffert. He would go to the Afrikaans Baptist service in Newcastle in the morning, and come to ours in the evening. Our landlord was a Dopper, and there was no Dopper (Gereformeerde) church in Utrecht, so he came along too. The NG Kerk, a large and beautiful building surrounded by oak trees, had Sunday evening services, and ours were for everyone else.
After a few months we invited an evangelistic group, African Enterprise, to come and hold an outreach mission in Utrecht. In evaluating it afterwards, we said there had been a good response from black and coloured people, but not from white people. Oom Manie Craffert said, if you want to reach the white heathen in this town, you must pray for the dominee, because they all go to his church.
Within a few months, Edmund Xulu was transferred from Khambula, and there was no one to replace him, and I ended up having to care for Khambula and its outstations as well. Khambula thus exchanged places with Utrecht. Utrecht had been an outstatuion of Khambula, and now Khambula was an outstation of Utrecht, and the parish council at Khasmbula were not at all happy about that.
One advantage though, was that we inherited the Chevrolet (actually Isuzu) bakkie that Edmund Xulu had used, and so did not have to use Val’s little Fiat 124 over all the rough country roads. But the Isuzu was in poor condition, and burnt out all its valves. We took it to the garage in Vryheid, and they said it would cost R500 to repair it. We told them that we could not afford to repair it, but if they were prepared to trust the Lord for the money, they could go ahead and do so. I needed it to travel 200 km to KwaNzimela to teach at a course for self-supporting clergy at the end of the month. I wrote to the diocesan office and told them we needed R500 to repair the car, and thus could not pay the monthly diocesan assessment for several months. Then the miracle happened. The diocesan secretary got a letter with a cheque for R500.00 from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Eshowe. Our letter had been delivered to them by mistake, and in the same post their secretary had got a donation of R500.00 from overseas to be used where it was needed. And he thought, here’s the money, here’s the need, and passed it on.
With the outstations came schools. These had been church schools, and still used church buildings, but when the government nationalised Bantu Education in the 1950s, the church was not allowed to run the schools. Farmers (white) were, however, allowed to run schools for the children of their employees, so the church schools became farm schools. The farmers could not be bothered to run them, so they usually appointed the parish priest as manager, and that entailed huge layers of bureaucracy. As when they were church schools, children came from all the surrounding farms, and every now and again inspectors would come and say that only children of the employees of the school “owner” were allowed to attend. And I would say, “Who’s going to tell the kids they can’t come to school because they live on the wrong farm? Not me.” The teachers often bore the brunt of the bureaucracy. One teacher, Saulina Sithole, of Enzimane (an outstation of Khambula) had officially retired, but as she had no replacement she carried on teaching at a school with more than 100 pupils at various levels. Every year she had to explain that she was still working, and every year her salary was delayed while the bureaucracy digested that, and when we were there she had to wait seven months for her salary. Fortunately the local shopkeepers trusted her, and gave her credit for groceries etc, and the first thing she did when she got her back pay was to go round and clear her debts. I think she, and others like her, deserve to be remembered for their services to education in South Africa, when the government were going out of their way to make it as difficult as possible. The kids who were in those schools then will be in their 50s now, and I wonder how many of them remember having teachers like Saulina Sithole. It was people like her who kept both the church and schools going.
And then there were the police, especially the security police. One of our outstations was at Magidela, and there was a little thatched church on a farm with an absentee landlord, Mr Klingenberg, who lived in Commondale, over the border in what was then called the Transvaal (now Mpumalanga). We used to hold services there on Thursdays, and the leader of the congregation, Mrs Christina Ndebele, used to walk several miles carrying the altar linen on her head. One day we were just starting the service a white man carrying a rifle came to the church door and said we must all get out and leave, and that the church was to be closed. As we were leaving we saw him surrounded by policemen. At that time there were some people who would have us believe that churches being closed at gunpoint was something that only happened in godless communist countries, but it happened in South Africa too, and much more often than many people think. One of the things our constitution gives us is freedom of religion, and it was one of the things we did not have before 1994.
And then there was our very own SB spy, Alfredo Tembe, but I’ve already told his story here.
So these are some of my memories of church life and pastoral care in one parish, under apartheid. We were only in Utrecht for 11 months, and I was transferred to Melmoth in 1977 to become Director of Training for Ministries in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. But I learnt an enormous amount from the people of the Utrecht parish, and remember them with gratitude.
This post is one of series of Tales from Dystopia, stories of life, especially church life, in the time of apartheid.