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The church struggle in South Africa: Book review

20 March 2010

The Church Struggle In South Africa, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition The Church Struggle In South Africa, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition by John W. de Gruchy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read the first edition of this book by John de Gruchy, a Congregational minister and academic, about 25 years ago, soon after it was first published. It deals with the struggle of the Christian Churches against apartheid in South Africa, and so to a certain extent it is the story of my life, and that of many Christians who lived through that period in South African history.

The new edition brings the story up to date, and also has a couple of chapters and a postscript by John’s son Steve de Gruchy, whose tragic death last month in an accident leaves a huge gap in South African theological studies.

Perhaps the postscripts to the second and third editions can serve to summarise to book and its significance. One of the criticisms of the first edition was the gaps in the story, for example that it omitted much of the effects of Bantu Education, the Freedom Charter and the Treason Trial. Another criticism was that it focused on race rather than on class, and so focused on the church struggle against racism and apartheid rather than against colonialism and capitalism. So, as Steve de Gruchy says

Precisely because the way we understand our history is shaped by that very history, and because we choose to tell certain things in certain ways and not other things in other ways, the writing of history is as shot through with politics, passion and prejudice as the subject matter itself.

He goes on to point out that the book in its original form was not intended as a complete church history, but primarily as a theological reflection on the social and political issues confronting the church in South Africa. This explains some of the gaps. But the book also did fill a gap in historical knowledge, and stimulated a great deal of other writing, so it should not be undervalued as a work of history.

Steve de Grushy also notes that it is so preoccupied with the grand narrative that it omits the micro-narratives, and this is certainly something I was aware of when reading the book. It is the story of synods and statements of church leaders and ecumenical gatherings. It hints at, but does not follow up, the struggles of ordinary Christians in their everyday lives. The history of the gatherings is important — the Cottesloe Consultation in 1960, which led to the Dutch Reformed Churches leaving the World Council of Churches. Statements like the Message to the People of South Africa, the Belhar Confession and the Kairos Document, significant as they are, are, in a sense are just punctuation marks in the story of the struggle.

Even the Christian Institute, which was formed in the wake of the Cottesloe Consultation to provide an opportunity for individual Christians to meet with others ecumenically when their denominations (especially the Dutch Reformed Churches) had withdrawn from official top-level ecumenical contact, tended to become an ecumenical bureaucracy. At one point in the early 1970s some friends and I contemplated publishing a cartoon strip showing showing an overseas visitor (from the headquarters of the International Christian Conspiracy in Geneva) visiting South Africa to see the South African Church at first hand. And so he undertook a safari. But this safari did not need a 4×4 vehicle, much less foot-slogging over rough terrain. It could all be accomplished travelling by lift from floor to floor in a building in Braamfontein in Johannesburg, and feeling, when he left the building on the ground floor, that he had seen all that there was to be seen of the church in South Africa.

And there is a sense in which this book is like that. It’s a tour of the headquarters building, but shows little of what was going on on the ground. Yet the tour of the headquarters does form part of the history, as do the statements that were produced by synods and conferences and consultations. And it is good to have that part of the history recorded, and the theological reflection of that part of the story. The very fact that this book has had to be reprinted and updated shows what an important contribution it makes, and there is nothing quite like it.

But a lot of the rest of the story has yet to be written.

As for the issue of race versus class, I am always reminded of a friend of mine, the wife of an Anglican priest working in South Africa, who had grown up in a working-class housing estate in the north of England. And she always used to say, “When South Africa has finally sorted out the problem of the blacks and the whites, the real problem will emerge: the haves and the have-nots.”

I was reminded of this when I attended one of those consultations, which merits a paragraph in the book:

The extent of this white backlash was one of the reasons why the SACC (South African Council of Churches) convened a Consultation on Racism at Hammanskraal in February 1978 (actually February 1980). Born out of the frustration and anger felt by black theologians who saw little evidence of change a call was made on ‘all white Christians to demonstrate their willingness to purge the church of racism’. This was followed by an ultimatim that: ‘if after a period of twelve months there is no evidence of repentance shown in concrete action, the black Christians will have no alternative but to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ by becoming a confessing church.’

One of the things that struck me most about the Consultation was that most of those who attended were male, they were clergy, and they were above all middle class. It was a consultation of the haves, comfortable middle-class clergy, meeting in a comfortable conference centre, eating plentiful quantities of well-prepared food. And when, at the end, the question came up of how to payfor it, it was proposed that it should come from a fund for the poor, because it was, after all, for their benefit.

One of the interesting things, to me at any rate, that came out of the conference was that at least some people seemed to take it seriously. One of the instances of racism identified at the conference was racism in church names, and within a couple of years the Bantu Presbyterian Church and the Tsonga Presbyterian Church had changed their names.

Another thing that struck me at the Consultation was that the biggest barriers to communication did not arise from race or class but from denomination, or, more precisely, ecclesiology. Everyone present had a different picture of the church in their minds, which did not necessarily correspond to the picture in the minds of others. For Methodists, the “church” was a huge impersonal centralised authority known as “conference”. It was connexional. For Anglicans, it was the diocese, with a bishop you could talk to, and each diocese differing from all the others. For Lutherans it was still dominated, at that stage, by the missionary/pastor divide — ie colonialism. And for the Reformed it was still dominated by the idea of “own” (eie — own people, own church, own affairs, defined by race), even among those who rebelled against it. And it was in the Reformed context that the notion of the black confessing church was born and proposed.

So the book is a snapshot, a bit like a series of pictures of icebergs drifting with the current. But the bits you can see are only a small fraction of the whole.

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