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Johannesburg church leaders gathering

18 November 2010

A couple of days ago was the third anniversary of the last Johannesburg church leaders meeting, and it seems a good occasion to write its obituary. It ended, not with a bang but with a whimper, and died of inanition, because nobody came to the meetings any more. But after three years, I find that I miss it, and I think it performed a useful function, and I think it deserves to be remembered, so here’s an obituary or a memoir of sorts.

Though I was present at the death, I was not present at the birth, but I gather it was started by someone who thought that the church leaders of Johannesburg ought to get together informally to get to know each other and discuss matters of common concern. Because they were all busy people, they decided that the best way to do this was to have breakfast together once a month.

When Metropolitan Seraphim, the Orthodox Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria, arrived in Johannesburg, he was invited to join in, and he asked me and Father Athanasius Akunda to represent him at a couple of the meetings, because he was going to be away.

The first one we attended was in in August 2002. It was held in the hall of the Dutch Reformed Church in Orchards, which was two blocks away from where I had lived in the 1960s, so for me it was a journey back to the past, in more ways than one. I and several friends from a church youth group  had gone around the neighbourhood on the Thursday of Holy Week sticking up anti-apartheid posters, and we stuck a couple of them on the tower of that very church, to greet people coming to the Good Friday service. The posters were distributed by the Anglican diocese of Johannesburg, and there were two of them — one is shown here at the right. The other showed a black man and a white man kneeling at the altar to receive the Holy Communion, with the word “Atonement” written across the top. Father Tom Comber, the Anglican chaplain at Wits University, had urged Anglican students to stick up these Apartheid/Atonement posters everywhere they could in Holy Week of 1959. So we stuck them on bus shelters in Grant Avenue in Gardens, Orchards and Norwood, and outside nearby churches.

I also knew several of the people at the church leaders meeting, and the one convening the meeting I had known at the same period, Donald Cragg, who had been minister of the Orange Grove Methodist Church. I had visited him on my way home from work one day, and was then on the committee of the local Anglican youth group, and asked him if we could have a couple of joint meetings with the Methodist youth group as an exercise in grassroots ecumenism, which we went on to do. And here we were, forty years later, promoting a kind of city-wide ecumenism in the Johannesburg church leaders’ meeting.

At that particular meeting Molefe Tsele, the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), spoke about some of the things the SACC was currently engaged in, such as the World Summit on Sustainable Development, and organising teams to monitor the Zimbabwe elections.

Father Athanasius Akunda

In April 2003 Archbishop Seraphim asked me to attend the meeting to represent him again, and after that I did so regularly until the whole thing fizzled out at the end of 2007. I felt a bit of a fraud going to the meetings, though, as they were supposed to be for Johannesburg church leaders, and I was travelling there all the way from Pretoria, taking a wide detour via the airport to avoid the traffic jams on the N1. One had to leave Pretoria no later than 5:30 am to get to Johannesburg by 7:00. But eventually I came to appreciate the meeting. Johannesburg and Pretoria were growing into one big conurbation anyway, and it gave me an opportunity to meet some old friends. It also helped me to be more in touch with the concerns of Christians in Gauteng generally, some of which I shared, and some of which I didn’t.

At first the meetings moved around, hosted by different churches in different parts of Johannesburg. But the second one I went to was held at St Peter’s Lodge, Rosettenville, and it was then decided that it would continue meeting there. In the course of the next five years I attended about 45 meetings of the group, and I won’t try to describe each one, but rather give some overall impressions, and what I thought was valuable about them, and why I miss them.

The little digression about anti-apartheid posters at the beginning was not entirely irrelevant, because one of the things I discovered was that many Christians, or at least Christian leaders, were lost after the end of apartheid. It was my first serious ecumenical contact since the end of apartheid, and so what had happened in the various denominations since then was unknown to me until I began attending. And now it seemed to me that the struggle against apartheid gave many Christians and Christian groups a sense of purpose and a goal, and that since 1994 they had been milling around rather aimlessly, wondering what it was all about.

There were occasional mutters from some (mainly Anglican bishops) about who were “church leaders”. It was supposed to be for the generals, the top brass, bishops and above, and it was supposed to be so they could get to know each other personally, so it wasn’t really the kind of gathering that they could send “representatives” to.  They should rather come in person. When Johan Symington, the Moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church, was no longer in that position, he took his farewells, and his successor came instead. But in spite of these mutterings the Catholic, Coptic and Orthodox bishops continued to send representatives to most of the meetings rather than attending personally. The General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches attended rarely. The General Secretary of the Gauteng Council of Churches, Gift Moerane, attended occasionally, and the chairman of the GCC, John Weldon, attended more frequently. Methodist Bishop Paul Verryn attended occasionally, and at one point galvanised the group into taking action on the plight of Zimbabwen refugees and the political situation in Zimbabwe that had caused it. Lutheran bishop Ndanga Phaswana also attended  occasionally, as did some Presbyterian and Congregational leaders. Donald Cragg attended as the representative of the Church Unity Commission. When the meetings were held regularly at St Peter’s Lodge in Rosettenville Peter Lee, the Anglican Bishop of Christ the King (roughly covering southern Gauteng) was fairly regular, as he was the host, and his office was in the same building.

Peter Lee was another old friend whom I was glad to see again, as I had known him when he had been in the Anglican diocese of Natal, representing the Evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. Another representative of the Evangelical wing of the Anglican Church was Paul Siaki, who was planting a new parish in western Johannesburg, and seemed to be the only one who was really in touch with the wider Evangelical Christian world, which seemed somewhat underrepresented at the meetings.

Bishop Mshengu Tshabalala

Since it was “informal”, there were no explicit criteria laid down about who got invited and who didn’t, but it seemed to me that a lot of segments of Johannesburg Christianity weren’t represented at the gatherings. I urged Bishop Mshengu Tshabalala to attend the meetings. He was the head of the Believers in Christ Church, and had originally been in the Ethiopian Holy Baptist Church in Zion, also known as IziKhova EziMqini. He was the leader of an association of Zionist churches, and so seemed to qualify as a Johannesburg church leader. He attended several meetings, but I got the impression that he never really felt free to say much about his real concerns, or the concerns of those he represented. Perhaps he felt that most of those in the group did not share his concerns, and so would not be interested, and perhaps he was right.

I had met Bishop Mshengu Tshabalala at meetings of another ecumenical body, the Standards Generating Body for Christian Theology and Ministry. This was an offshoot of SAQA, the South African Qualifications Authority, a Quango whose task it was to set standards for all educational qualifications in the country. Again, Father Athanasius and I had been sent by Archbishop Seraphim to be the Orthodox representatives there. And at those meetings, discussing theological education, Bishop Mshengu and I felt closest to each other, and somewhat marginalised at the meetings, because our concerns seemed somewhat different from those of most of the others. And it was somewhat similar at the Johannesburg church leaders gatherings. Though there was no explicit rule, there seemed to be an unspoken assumption, on the part of some, at least, about where the centre was and where the periphery was, and the Orthodox and the Zionists were on the margins.

Some of this sounds quite negative, and some might be wondering why I’d be writing a kind of obituary for such a group. But the point is that no human gorup is perfect. This was a human fellowship of Christians from different backgrounds and traditions, and they didn’t always get along very well, and there were many different ideas of what it should do and be and whether it should continue. But in spite of its weaknesses, I miss it. Some fellowship is better than none. I liked most of the people who attended, and some were old friends, some were new friends, and if I meet any of them again I’m pleased to see them, and I’m sorry that I no longer have the opportunity of meeting them regularly.

I mentioned that Bishop Paul Verryn galvanised it into actionover the plight of Zimbabwean refugees. at the end of 2003, and the members of the group were preparing to make a public stand over the matter when Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu upstaged it and made a much stronger statement, which was splashed on the front page of the Pretoria News.

The group was also concerned about conditions in the Baragwanath Hospital, and about health services generally. The group tried to arrange meetings with the Provincial Premier and the MECs in charge of health and education to discuss some of the concerns, but the government people never showed up.

The Johannesburg church leaders used to have a Christmas party, and the ones I went to were quite pleasant affairs — they were hosted by different churches. In 2007  the number of people attending had dropped, and I suggested that instead of having an end of the year party before Christmas, there should be one at the beginning of the following year. I had an ulterior motive, of course — these “Christmas” parties were always in the period of the Nativity Fast, so we had to abstain from all the good food on offer. But also, a party to start the year off might revitalise it, and get people to attend more regularly. It was left to the next meeting to decide, and Paul Siaki and I were the only ones there. We decided that we should have a party to start things off the following year, and that was the last meeting. The party was never held, and the group never met again. I think some of the people who met are on Facebook, but it isn’t the same somehow.

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