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On keeping the faith

15 April 2011

In 1960 an Anglican bishop, Ambrose Reeves of Johannesburg, was deported from South Africa, and the following Sunday the Dean of Johannesburg, Patrick Barron, preached a very powerful sermon in St Mary’s Cathedral on the text of Amos 7:10-13:

Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, Amos hath conspired against thee in the midst of the house of Israel: the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos saith, Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall surely be led away captive out of their own land. Also Amaziah said unto Amos, O thou seer, go, flee thee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there: But prophesy not again any more at Bethel: for it is the king’s chapel, and it is the king’s court.

The Dean, in his sermon, made it clear that in deporting the bishop the government had, in effect, declared war on the church, and that Christians in South Africa must expect to face increasing persecution.

Bishop Reeves had been a controversial figure. He had left the country semi-secretly six months before. Some said that it was because he feared that he would be arrested, but he said that it was because he had eye-witness accounts of the shooting at Sharpeville, which he feared would be confiscated by the Security Police. Many white Anglicans did not like him for his criticism of apartheid, and hoped he would resign. In September 1960 he returned, and was deported within 48 hours. That act, and the dean’s sermon, helped to conscientise many Anglicans, including me. It made me realise that South Africa was becoming a totalitarian state. If the Christian faith was in conflict with government policy, then, as far as the government was concerned, the Christian faith would have to be crushed.

But the church leaders then generally decided to play it safe. The Anglican Diocese of Johannesburg elected Leslie Stradling as their new bishop, whom they felt would keep his head down. When he arrived (he had previously been Bishop of South-West Tanganyika) he was far too busy catching up with the backlog of confirmations to take much notice of his South African surroundings, and it could be said that the leaders of the Anglican Church in South Africa really wanted a bishop who would be a confirmation machine, one who would be seen and not heard.

The government in the mean time was churning out more and more repressive legislation, increasing state control of just about everything, and church leaders had very little to say.

In 1963 a friend and I were discussing the increasingly muted response of South African Christian leaders to apartheid and state repression, and my friend said that they were gradually sliding into apostasy, for fear of sticking their necks out. They would not be asked to do anything dramatic, like being put into an arena of wild beasts and asked to deny the Creed. But the Christian faith was being chipped away, little by little, and eventually there would be nothing left.

The danger, as we saw it, was that through fear and cowardice, the Christian leaders of South Africa would eventually reach the point where they had effectively denied the Christian faith.

What, then, is one to make of this – Creedal Christian: Dumping the Nicene Creed for Easter:

I read with sadness recently about the plight of a blogging/Facebook friend who attends an Episcopal Church where the leadership has decided to dump the Nicene Creed from the liturgy beginning on Easter Day. In its place they plan to use some faith statement crafted by the Iona community. According to my friend, this replacement ‘creed’ downplays things like the Incarnation and the Resurrection. I can tell he is deeply unhappy about this decision, and I certainly don’t blame him!

I’ve written before about instances of letting go of the Creed, clergy who charge that the creeds are defective, and a Church of England chaplain who banned the creed to be inclusive. Perhaps this is more common than we realize?

Back in the 1960s we expected that even the most timid and cowardly church leaders, the ones who tried to keep a low profile, would stand firm if they were put in an arena full of wild beasts and told to renounce the creed. But fifty years later, here are church leaders doing that voluntarily and of their own accord, without any state pressure whatever.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Errol Narain permalink
    15 April 2011 6:03 am

    The reason we fail in our response to those who hurt and hope in this world is precisely that we are people of belief not faith. Faith is acknowledgement and relationship with that creative energy in all things. In humans this energy helps us rise to our humanity in the face of suffering in the world.
    Beliefs are devoid of power. Relationship or partnership with this creative energy in all things helps us evolve into our humanity, to live fulfilled lives, responding to the weakest amongst us.

  2. Errol Narain permalink
    15 April 2011 6:10 am

    It is very easy to dump beliefs and all other broken human creations. It is much harder to let go of that power that is fully experienced in a relationship. This power is the energy in all things. With this power we can do all things, especially responding to the weakest amongst us, the Christ who suffers in all.

  3. 15 April 2011 4:31 pm

    I fear that it is more common than we realise. Both the changing of creeds (even to including heretical elements) and the derision of dogma (as evidenced in the comment above) are things that I came across too frequently in Catholic circles in the Netherlands. The tragedy is that many western Christians, even fairly orthodox ones, seem to have lost the connection between dogma and the person.

    • 16 April 2011 2:11 pm

      It reminds me of a paper a friend of mine once read at an (Anglican) student conference, with the title Religion versus God. Here’s the bit it reminded me of:

      “With this word, the chosen people arrive in the promised land. There they find all sorts of people with all sorts of religions; and they find what goes with religions, kings. They want a king for themselves, and God, who is always the great improviser and compromiser, lets them have their desire. (Nationalisms and religions may refuse to compromise, they
      have to maintain their strength. God the creator can afford to be weaker; he does not depend on his people’s slogans and successes. The first Christian council is a fine specimen of compromise (Acts 15)). The people get their king and only too soon he behaves like the rest of the kings, and treats God like the rest of the gods and earns for himself the mighty rebuke that breaks out against all religiousness, that burns up all vain attempts to satisfy the living God – `To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams’ (1 Sam 15:22). The tribes around all had their own religions, their own gods. My god fights for me and not for you, he bolsters up my self-importance, establishes my claim for attention, reinforces my sense of identity. This is so whatever the name of the god – whether he be Milcom or a Mercedes. Again the chosen people received a kind of compromise; they may engage in religious activities but only in the one place which the Lord shall choose. Here was the answer, at that stage, to the problem of the fissiparousness of religion. (In our own experience of Christianity, we can see the same dangers: Catholicism has become affected by religion, in our sense of the word, in that it adds to God’s claims, it tells tall stories to boost itself, it incorporates human inventions into God’s revelation; Protestantism has also likewise got affected, in that it has become so fissiparous, lending itself to identification with nationalisms and political alignments, breeding `local religion’, `British’ or `German’ or `my own’ Christianity). Throughout the history of the Old Testament, God went on dominating his people, triumphing over his enemies, sometimes dispensing completely with the assistance of his people in doing so (e.g. 2 Kings 19:35). The people had to learn that he did not need them at all, that he did not depend on their opinion for his prestige (Isaiah 40 etc.). Truly it was said that the one thing the Hebrews did for religion was to abolish it.”

      And those who wish to change or abolish the creed seem to be going after the “my own” Christianity. And thus we make God in our own image.

  4. Toddy2 permalink
    16 April 2011 3:44 pm


    A belated birthday greeting. I heard on the tweet vine that you’ve reached the mature age of 70. That makes you a year and change older than me and thus very young indeed at the time of the early 60’s related in the post. I have to say that you were not only mature for your age to see things so clearly but courageous as well. Thanks for relating one more sad tale of the failure of many in the institutional church & warning of the on-going necessity of vigilance in our own days and across the spectrum of denominations. I have a book that is hard reading but nevertheless very precious-“The Price of Prophecy” relates the situation of the Russian Orthodox Church and their own failures in some cases to go willingly to the lion’s den.
    You are a blessed presence on the world wide church network.

    John Paul Todd

  5. 29 April 2011 11:37 pm

    Surely, the church fathers have been shamed by the lessons of the past… and today, are boldly speaking out against the theft, repression, and murder taking place in South Africa today.

    Yes, I’m quite sure of it now, the nightly news is filled with stories of the brave pastors who are literally risking their life to stand against the tyranny and chaos going on in South Africa in 2011.

    • 3 May 2011 5:53 pm

      Sorry, I don’t have a clue what you’re on about and have very temporary internet access, so don’t have time to work it out, but until I can, here’s a thought in the mean time:

      I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

      – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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