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Tshwane emerging cohort

22 January 2009

No, its not guerilla fighters emerging from the urban jungle brandishing grenades, but a bunch of Christians of various backgrounds and traditions meeting at Greenfields Cafe in Centurion, Tshwane, to talk about the emerging church movement.

Cobus, Magdalena and Monk Nektarius at the emerging cohort meeting

Cobus, Magdaleen and Monk Nektarius at the emerging cohort meeting

What emerged?

One of the things that emerged was that many people were not clear about what exactly the emerging church was, but were interested in learning more.

Many people were looking for ways of being Christian in our time, and asking what it means to be the church in our time.

Some were asking what are the challenges that face Christians.

One problem many people mentioned was that many of the churches were organised in such a way as to make community difficult. Much of the communication was one way, from pulpit to congregation, who were passive hearers.

Karien Pitout, who called the meeting, spoke of Group 77, which meets at the same venue every Sunday night. It is a group where people are free to ask difficult questions, and they are open to conversation with people of different faiths or atheists. The look for ways to serve the community in Centurion. The owner of the restaurant allows them to use the upper floor at no charge, and since it isn’t tied to a particular denomination it is a non-threatening environment.Memebers of the group are free to choose whatever church involvement they want to have.

Most of the people there were, I suppose, aged about 25-35. The exception was three of us aged Orthodox Christians in our 60s. And since I’ve reached my anecdotage, let me recount an anecdote. You can call it narrative theology if you think that sounds more cool.

Karien’s story resonated with me, because it sounded very similar to mine, and perhaps it’s worth telling because of the similarity.

My story belongs to almost exactly 40 years ago, when I had just started working as assistant chaplain at the Missions to Seamen in Durban, and was also trying to extend the work of the Christian Institute, an interdenominational group led by Beyers Naude, a Dutch Reformed dominee who has been suspended because his church did not like his ecumenical activities and his criticism of apartheid and the theology used to justify it.

At the end of February 1969 we had a meeting in Pietermaritzburg, which Beyers Naudé came down for. We reported progress, and the next steps. We proposed buying cheap cassette tape recorders (which had just come on to the market) and recording Bible study material for illiterate rural people. Beyers Naudé was enthusiastic, and promised “full and unconditional support” from the Christian Institute head office.

Beyers also had a new and different vision. He did not object to our vision, but urged us to pursue his at the same time. He had recently attended the Uppsala Conference of the World Council of Churches, and had been impressed by the participation and activism of the youth. So he urged to start youth branches of the Christian Institute, and to aim for them to be action groups and not just study groups. [1]

We agreed that we would do what we could to organise the youth, provided we had the support of the head office in organising the peasants. Beyers promised full and unconditional support for both endeavours.

When I got back to Durban I sent out letters to CI members, or young people I thought might be interested in becoming members, and invited them to a meeting at my flat at the Missions to Seamen. Most of those I invited were people like me, who had recently been students and active in Christian student organisations, but now, having started work, found that the churches were not able to make use of their energy and enthusiasm. The best they could offer was for them to hand out hymn books at the door. This seemed to strike a chord, and the response was much larger than I had expected, and very enthusiastic.

We held the first meeting on 6 March, just a week after the meeting where Beyers Naudé had made the suggestion. So many people came that we had to move the meeting from my flat to the Missions to Seamen coffee bar. They came from all over the Durban area. Erica Murray, who had experience in group dynamics, arranged for people to get together in pairs, preferably with someone they didn’t know, and and find out what their expectations were in coming to the meeting, and then to introduce their partner and explain their expectations to the whole group. This worked well, and it seemed that everyone was looking for an opportunity to put their Christian faith into action in a way that was not open in their local churches.

The group was too big and unwieldy, so we decided to divide into three sub-groups, mainly geographically based. The smaller groups would meet for an agape supper once a week, and we would meet again in a month’s time to compare notes and report progress. Each group should come up with at least one action project.

The following week the smaller group, seven of us, met in my flat: Kirsty Corrigall, who was working for a literacy organisation, Operation Upgrade; Dick Usher, a reporter on the Daily News and his girlfriend Sue Abbott; Tholi Mthembu, the manager of the Lutheran Bookshop; Elliott Mkhize, an Anglican priest; and Heidi Brookes, a nurse. The first meeting we spent mainly getting to know each other. I knew Kirsty Corrigall from university, and Elliott Mkhize from student conferences. At the next meeting we began to have ideas for action, and one suggestion was to produce a youth magazine. Dick Usher liked that. The other groups all held meetings, but we would not know what they were planning until we held our next combined meeting.

The next combined meeting of the small groups was held at St Cyprian’s Church Hall at Congella, and the number attending had doubled to more than 50. A group meeting at KwaMashu and Inanda had a project for producing a book on sex education. Some members of the group were teachers at Inanda Seminary, a school for black girls connected with the Congregational Church. They said that in traditional African society there had been sex education, but with urbanisation that had disappeared, and there were a lot of teenage pregnancies. The book would be to help parents instruct their children.

The small group that I belonged to decided to go ahead with producing a youth magazine, to be called Ikon.

One of the youth groups in Durban got involved in a church service that became rather controversial. The priest of the Anglican parish of St Columba’s, Greenwood Park asked me to lead the evening services there on two Sunday evenings while he was on leave. He said they did not have the traditional Anglican Evening Prayer, but instead, with the bishop’s permission, had “experimental services”. So would I be prepared to go along and experiment? I agreed, but asked if our Christian Institute youth group (some members of which were also members of the parish) could join me in planning and leading the service. He saw no objection, and so we set about planning the service, which was eventually held on 1 June 1969.

We had invited all the members of the other Christian Institute youth groups to come, and many of them brought friends, and the Inanda Seminary teachers brought some of their pupils, so the church was full, with visitors outnumbering regular parishioners. It began with the church in darkness, and a voice saying “Let there be light”, followed by flashing lights and loud recorded music (from The Electric Prunes), to symbolise light emerging from darkness and order from chaos. Instead of taking a collection, we passed round a plate of coins and invited people to take some. At the end of the service we sang a new hymn, Lord of the dance, and urged the congregation to dance out of the church (for a fuller description of this service, see Psychedelic worship).

Though most of the congregation seemed to like the service, the churchwardens of the parish did not and complained to the bishop of Natal about the service, and the bishop asked me to resign, which I did.

The members of the Christian Institute youth groups were furious at Bishop Inman, especially when he refused to meet them.

At the weekend I went to see Beyers Naudé at his home in Greenside. I told him what had happened, and while I was there Ben Engelbrecht phoned, and Beyers gave him a remarkably accurate synopsis of the events. I was impressed at how well he had grasped the main points of a quite involved series of events. Our discussions kept being interrupted by phone calls from reporters from the Sunday Times, who passed on the information that Bishop Inman himself would be preaching at St Columba’s on the Sunday night. Beyers thought that that would only make matters worse. “He’s on the warpath,” said Ben Engelbrecht.

On the Sunday morning I went to the service at the St Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Johannesburg, and returned to Pietermaritzburg in the evening. I phoned Geoff Moorgas, who reported on the bishop’s sermon at St Columba’s, and said the bishop had damned us completely, and made no attempt at reconciliation. The front-page headline on the Natal Mercury the following morning read, “Church profaned, says Bishop”

In the mean time, the other project of the Christian Institute youth group continued. We took Ikon to the printers. It had an article on human and inhuman settlements, referring to formal and informal settlements around Durban; one by Archbishop Helder Camara of Brazil, addressed to the youth, on “What you should do in response to the crisis of our times”, a letter from a fellow student of mine in Durham, written from jail after he had been charged for planting a petrol bomb in Westminster Abbey, a couple of articles on the significance of Orthodox ikons, and one on the misuse of the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” in South African political rhetoric.

The following Sunday I attended the services at the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Congella, with several of the Anglican members of the Christian Institute youth groups. The priest, Fr Kontas, greeted us warmly. He had read of the controversy in the newspapers, and sympathised with us. A couple of Congregational ministers were putting out feelers about the Christian Institute youth groups holding services in their churches.

At the end of the week I collected the first issue of Ikon from the printers, and the CI youth group spent an evening putting it into envelopes and addressing them. On Monday the next week we had a series of frantic calls from Beyers Naudé, asking that we withdraw Ikon immediately. He had taken legal advice, and we could be prosecuted under three different Acts.

The Natal Christian Institute members concerned in it had a series of meetings, and were rather sceptical. We suffered from “Natal fever”, and Pietermaritzburg was called “sleepy hollow”. This sounded like a storm in a teacup stirred up by the excitable people in Johannesburg. Natal was more laid-back, and we couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. But eventually we sent out letters to those we could remember we had sent copies of Ikon to, and announced that it was being withdrawn. And since it seemed that the auspices of the Christian Institute had been withdrawn at the same time, we reissued it in the name of “CHURCH, an ecumenical fellowship meeting for prayer, study and action”. CHURCH was an entirely nebulous non-organisation, invented because Unity Publications, the printing press that ran in the backyard of Archbishop Denis Hurley, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Durban, could not print anything that did not come from church groups, as they did not have a commercial licence.

Ikon number 1 was replaced by 1a, which was the same except that the letter from my friend who had planted the petrol bomb in Westminster Abbey, with the title “The fire next time” was replaced by a rather bland one called “Blessed are the meek” by Thomas Merton. It appeared the letter was what had put the wind up the Transvaal lawyers, especially one sentence, “We must go out in the streets and shout, with explosives if necessary.” Eventually an article appeared in Beeld, an Afrikaans newspaper, with the heading CI keer wilde jeugblad, and that got me fired from my next job, with the Department of Water Affairs in Namibia. I might well have joined the Orthodox Church after being fired by the Anglican bishop of Natal, if I had not been offered a job by the Anglican bishop in Namibia, Colin Winter, but that’s another story.

Why tell such an old story?

I think it shows that what is emerging today is actually re-emerging and seems to emerge in every generation. Our little group met the upstairs coffee bar at the Missions to Seamen in Durban. Group 77 meets in the upstairs part of a coffee shop in Centurion, and it was in just such an upper room that the Christian movement was born back in AD 33.


[1] Much of the story of the Christian Institute Durban youth groups is told more fully in a contribution I wrote for a book called Oom Bey for the future: engaging the witness of Beyers Naude (Stellenbosch, SUN Press, 2006, ISBN 1-920109-29-3), which is worth reading for the other contributions.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 22 January 2009 3:12 pm

    In my considerably shorter church history (only 30 years) I have gone through a few phases. In a nutshell, 1) Charismatic 2) Politicised 3) Mystical and now 4) Emerging.

    I must say the Emerging makes by far the most sense to me as a set of models for community, justice, and spirituality. Maybe thats due to my own journey, I don’t know, but while I enjoy your Story, I do’nt think the EC can be dismissed as “oh well this is THIS generations expression”.

    I’m not saying you are saying it but other might read this into your relections, if they take it as about a heyday gone past.

  2. 23 January 2009 3:06 am


    I was writing about a particular gathering, a particular slice of the “emerging conversation”, if you will. And in that particular slice there were no sets of models. Karien tol a story of what her group is doing, and it struck me as similar in some ways to what a group I belonged to did in a different time and a different place.

    At the meeting on Wednesday Deacon Nektarius pointed out that in the Orthodox Church we have essentially the same services as in the 9th century, and that in their basic form they go back a great deal earlier than that. There is much that is old and unchanged. Bishop Markos, of the Coptic Church, showing how they blessed the oil for the sick, said “This is how St Mark taught us to do it when he came to Africa in AD 42”.

    Yet the circumstances in which we do these things changes, and yet in another sense it doesn’t. It’s like Billy Joel’s song

    We didn’t start the fire
    It’s been always burning
    Since the world’s been turning.

  3. 30 January 2009 3:53 pm

    I have a question for Nic:
    Why do emergents seem to need to believe that what they are doing is something radically new and apart from everything that has gone before and everything that is happening in the Church today? I love the idea that the emerging conversation is part of what God has been doing with the Church since AD 33 and is part of a greater movement that is happening in churches throughout the world. I’m very drawn, for example, by a lot of what I’m seeing in other church denominations and movements that have little or nothing to do with the emerging conversation. For example, Benedictine, Ignatian and Carmelite expressions of spirituality in the Catholic church over the past few hundred years is incredible not only for its emphasis on spirituality but also for its contributions to community and justice.

    Question for Steve:
    Have I understood it correctly that the Orthodox church believes itself to be the only true church? If this is the case, is it really possible for there to be room or resonance with the emerging conversation?

  4. 30 January 2009 7:07 pm


    Well, yes, we say we believe in “one holy catholic and apostolic church” — not two holy catholic and apostolic churches, or 20000 of them. But we also say we know where the church is, we don’t know where it is not.

  5. 1 February 2009 10:37 pm

    Steve, does this mean you know that the church is in the orthodox tradition but you don’t know whether it is NOT in any of the other traditions? Are you effectively saying that certain non-orthodox expressions of the church might be the church, but that you cannot make a positive statement in this regard?

  6. 2 February 2009 8:50 am


    It is very hard to explain ecclesiology in a blog comment. I can point to an earlier posting of mine which deals with it, though also no doubt inadequately.

    The following may also be helpful: Missional Ecclesiology, and one that that post points to Ecclesiology of the cross.


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