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Word and people

15 August 2010

Seventeen years ago I wrote this piece on what would probably now be called missional ecclesiology. It deals with differing Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed attitudes to the Bible, church and mission.

Here’s what I originally posted:

Original message:
Area: Philos
Msg#: 6236 Date: 09-22-93 05:48
From: Steve Hayes Read: Yes Replied: No
To: All Mark: Save
Subj: Word and people

Yesterday we had a Masters and Doctoral students seminar at the Missiology Department of the University of South Africa, and it led to a fascinating discussion that illustrated some of the differences in approach between Christians in different traditions.

Fr Anselm Prior, OFM, of the Lumko Institute, had just finished his thesis on the work of the Lumko Institute, and presented some of his material to the group. He is a Roman Catholic, I am Orthodox, and all the others there were Reformed except one AFM guy (Pentecostal).

The Lumko Institute produces training courses for ministries in the Roman Catholic Church in southern Africa. It started doing this when a priest who was running the Lumko Institute noticed that in the congregations in his parish, if he wasn’t there on a Sunday, nothing happened. But in the Methodist Society nearby, if the minister didn’t arrive, they still worshipped, and carried on functioning. So he began training people in the local congregations for various ministries. In doing this, they developed a new ecclesiology. They maintained that it was in accordance with the Second Vatican Council, but there have been some who haven’t thought so.

In their courses they start with a picture of the parish priest on a pedestal, relating to people individually, in a one-way relationship. They move to dividing the parish into groups that “help” the priest in his ministry. The ministry is still his, but the others help. So there is a parish council, and various sodality groups etc. Then they develop small groups, which they call neighbourhood gospel groups (these are given other names in different contexts – house churches, Bible study groups, Basic Christian communities, cell groups etc.). The end was a picture of the local parish as a “communion of communities”, and the “communities” were all shown in the posters as “gathered round the word”.

Now I was familiar with the Lumko Material, and have used it before. It is not a vision peculiar to Roman Catholics. I even teased him a bit that they seemed to be recovering Orthodox ecclesiology. But similar things happened among Roman Catholics in Brazil and East Africa and elsewhere. Among Anglicans in England, and among Pentecostals in various places. I looked forward to discussing this, but did not get much chance.

And this is what fascinated me. The Reformed guys did not latch on to the ecclesiology, or the way of organizing the community, or the multiple ministries – all of which should have challenged them. They all started on about “the Word”. One wanted to know about the Roman Catholic attitude to the Bible. Another thought it was highly dangerous that the Bible was shown in the centre of all these communities. But whether pro or con, they all seemed to have the view that the Bible was an outside authority, imposing itself on the community – a kind of paper pope.

I commented that this seemed to be a Protestant preoccupation, and one guy said no, it was a peculiarly African problem – that the Bible was the dominant book in African societies, that the missionaries had first taught people to read so that they could read the Bible, and that for many people the Bible was the only book they could or would read. He wanted to know if we (the non-Protestants) thought the Bible was a “neutral book”.

The Roman Catholic picture was of the Bible in the centre of all the small groups, not “imposing itself” on the community from the outside, but being part of them. And I thought that for Orthodox, asking whether one thinks the Bible is a “neutral book” makes no sense at all. It’s not outside, it’s not above and beyond us. It, like Christ whose word it is, is in our midst; we read it, sing it, kiss it, carry it in procession, honour it with incense as Christ himself, because as God’s word it represents Christ our God, God the Word, in our midst.

And it struck me that there was a fundamental difference here. It’s hard to explain, but I thought this might be the best place to discuss it and try to clarify my thoughts. The guy who was asking about the Bible as a “neutral book” was worried that the Bible had been used by missionaries to “colonize the minds” of blacks in South Africa. But whether they viewed it positively or negatively, Protestants viewed it from within the same frame of reference, whereas Roman Catholics and Orthodox viewed it from an entirely different frame of reference. What I’m trying to do is to define the difference, and to see how one can communicate between these two frames of reference. It seems to me that one of the problems is that the Protestants did not seem to be aware that there WERE different frames of reference.

Protestantism appeared about 50 years after the invention of printing with movable type, and has been very much shaped by the power of the printed word. Post-Enlightenment Protestant missionaries did indeed see the need to teach people to read so that they could read the scriptures. And it is indeed true that in many African communities the only book that many people can read is the Bible, and that missionaries used the Bible to impose their world-view and its ideologies.

But Greg Cuthbertson, a history lecturer who was there, pointed out that seeing it entirely in those terms was indeed a sign of colonization of the mind that is shown even in the act of protesting against it. Even the protesting is done from within the Enlightenment frame of reference, or paradigm.

For the Roman Catholics, the Lumko pattern was a matter of intense debate.

It is subversive, because it is relocating power in the congregation from the clergy and the hierarchy to the whole community. It is viewed with unease by the pope because it is a threat to this authority. It is seen primarily in terms of relations between people and how these form and influence community.

But the Protestants bypassed this, or it passed them by. Never mind that in most Reformed churches “the” minister is not only figuratively, but literally “on a pedestal”, and is physically raised above the congregation. Never mind that in many Reformed Churches the minister even has to say “Amen” to his own prayers, because no one else does. I would have thought that there was a lot in this model of ecclesiology that could be discussed, even by Protestants.

But no, it was those pictures of people gathered round the Bible, and the position of the Bible itself, that seemed to attract all the attention.

Any comments, anyone?

= Steve

-!- GEcho 1.00
! Origin: Ikon, POINTillist Image, Pretoria, RSA (8:79/42.1)
== end of original message ==

Now that was originally posted on a BBS conference called PHILOS — a forum for Christians of different backgrounds and traditions to discuss their differences in an atmosphere of love and respect. The forum still exists, though it is now called Thandanani (Zulu for “Love one another”), and I have recently reposted it there as well.

I wondered if anything has changed in 17 years, and if so, what.

Well, one thing I recently learnt has changed. Father Fritz Lobinger, one of the founders of the Lumko Institute, who later became the Roman Catholic bishop of Aliwal North, has apparently been suspended from ministry by the Vatican. I had suggested that he be one of the speakers at an Orthodox-Roman Catholic missional symposium that has been proposed, but apparently he is now persona non grata with the RC Church.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Phillip permalink
    16 August 2010 7:05 am

    Some of Emeritus Bishop Fritz Lobinger’s thinking is described at:
    http://www.scross.co.za/2008/02/team-of-elders-bishop-fritz-lobinger/

    • 16 August 2010 10:26 pm

      That sounds much like what he was saying when I knew him, and much like what I was saying then too.

      But I do think they should be viri probati. I’ve seen too many people ordained in haste who continue to cause problems.

  2. 17 August 2010 6:55 pm

    Well, I’m really surprised to hear about Bishop Lobinger as I hadn’t heard that. I’d been thinking of him in the light of what you’d written and meant to say something about him, and then saw the news. Do you know more?

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