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The native school that caused all the trouble

7 July 2012

The Native School that caused all the troubleThe Native School that caused all the trouble by Philippe Denis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For 30 years, a human generation, the Federal Theological Seminary of Southern Africa (Fedsem) was one of the best-known institutions for theological education on the sub-continent. It was born in controversy, it existed in controversy, and it died in controversy, a controversy that continued long after its death. And now, at last, someone has written a history of its brief career, like a meteorite flashing across the sky, twenty years after its death.

At one level it was a bold expression of ecumenism, where clergy of the Anglican, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian traditions were trained on the same campus. Yet it was that same ecumenism that ultimately killed it.

At another level it was a thorn in the side of the apartheid government. It was created by apartheid, it resisted apartheid, and the National Party regime tried to kill it. And in the end it died with the apartheid regime, not because of any direct action of the apartheid government, but because of its own internal contradictions.

I was never a student at Fedsem, and never taught there. I had friends who were students there, or who taught there, or both. My contacts with Fedsem were brief and fleeting, and many contradictory and almost incomprehensible stories came out of it. And now at last there is this history, that tells the story as a connected narrative, which enables one to see the wood for the trees.

The Fedsem story is a story of eviction, dispossession and homelessness. The theological colleges used by various denominations for training black clergy were build on the periphery of big cities. The white suburbs of those cities expanded and surrounded them, so that they became “blackspots” in “white” areas, something that the apartheid government could not and would not tolerate. So they had to move.

I knew some of the teachers and students at St Peter’s College (Anglican) in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, in the early 1960s, just before the move. The teachers were members of the Community of the Resurrrection (CR), an Anglican religious order. The CR fathers not only taught in the college, they conducted parish retreats and missions throughout Johannesburg. Across the road from the college was St Benedicts House, a retreat and conference centre, and once a month they held “shoe parties” which were attended by people from far and wide, where a speaker would speak on some topic of interest. That was where I met some of the students (one of them was Desmond Tutu). I also met some of the students at student conferences, and Brother Roger of the CR, who became something of a guru or spiritual elder to me. Brother Roger was a fundi on art and literature, and introduced me to authors I would otherwise never have read, like Samuel Beckett and the Beat Generation authors.

In the college library there was a sculpture of a black madonna by Leon Underwood, the man who taught the famous sculptor Henry Moore. At the end of 1962, when the college was about to move to the new campus at Alice, there was some discussion among the CR fathers about what to do with the sculpture. Brother Roger said they should take it to Alice, with the students, as a kind of symbol of black or African Christianity. It would have been prophetic of the Black Theology that was nurtured in Alice in the coming years. But taking it to Alice would have put it out of reach of the white art cognoscenti of Johannesburg, so in the end it stayed.

Brother Roger was quite enthusiastic about the new federal seminary in Alice, though he himself never taught there, but was transferred back to the CR’s mother house in Mirfield, England. Being forced to move was a bad thing, but it gave the opportunity for a new ecumenical experiment in theological education. The different denominational calleges would share the same campus, and have their own dormitories and dining halls and chapels, to do things in their own style, but they would have a shared library, and shared lectures in some subjects. It was a bit like the college system at some English universities, like Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, which seemed to work quite well.

The land on which the seminary was built at Alice was between a white and a black area, and the government, perhaps relieved at the idea that theological education was becoming a “border industry”, gave the assurance that the seminary could be built there, and would not be forced to move again. It was also adjacent to the University College of Fort Hare, and there was one school of thought that held that theological seminaries should be in or close to universities, so that students cvould study for degrees. There was one problem with this; the government had recently taken over the University College of Fort Hare, and was determined to change the culture of the institution. At that time there were “English” and “Afrikaans” universities in South Africa. The English ones generally encouraged a spirit of free enquiry, and wanted students to think for themselves. The Afrikaans university culture, however, was generally one of conformity. Fort Hare had previously been affiliated to Rhodes University, an “English” university, but when the government took it over with the intention of making it a Xhosa tribal college, the students resisted. The other tribal colleges initially tended to be more docile, because the students had known nothing else.

And the Federal Seminary likewise encouraged students to think for themselves, so it became a refuge for the For Hare students. The authorities at Fort Hare therefore tended to blame the Federal Seminary for student unrest on their own campus, and could not see that it was their own attempts to impose an alien model of education that was the primary cause of the unrest.

Twelve years after the Federal Seminary was established in Alice the land and buildings were expropriated by the government, and the staff and students were told to vacate the buildings two days before the new academic year began. In 1975 the seminary moved to temporary premises in Umtata, but the Transkei homeland authorities also felt threatened. by it, and after a year they had to move again, to the Edendale Lay Ecumenical Centre near Pietermaritzburg. After a few years the seminary acquired new land nearby in Imbali, and the the seminary was rebuilt, but on a more unitary model. The seminary moved into the new buildings in 1980.

In the paragraphs above, I’ve told some of the story that is not in the book, and it seems to me that the book does have some shortcomings in the way it tells the story.

One of the shortcomings is that the book is very thin on the first 7-8 years of the life of the seminary, which would surely have been formative years. The story is told mainly from the point of view of the seminary council, from minutes and memoranda and records of decisions. The staff and students barely feature. The human element of the story is missing. It is only with the emergence of Black Theology (which Fedsem nurtured and developed) in the early 1970s that the story begins to liven up.

But one thing that is apparent is that throughout the life of the seminary there were at least two different models of ecumenism, which sometimes clashed, and and it was that clash, an internal one, rather than external forces, which eventually destroyed the seminary. There was the federal model, favoured by the Anglicans, which we may call Fedsem, and the unitary model, favoured by the Congregationalists, which we may call Unisem. And reading the book one watches with fascinated horror, or horrified fascination, as the decisions made inexorably led to the disintegration of the seminary, the destruction of the buildings, and the end of the bold experiment in ecumenical theological education . The colleges of the different denominations are now as separated as they were before 1963, geographically and in every other way.

According to the authors this disintegration was unforeseen, and that is where I disagree with them. It could easily have been foreseen, and was foreseen. The authors appear to favour the Unisem model, and I suspect that that may be why they gloss over the first seven years or so of the seminary, when it developed within the federal model.

My bias is towards the Fedsem model, and it seems to me, after reading the book, that one of the biggest weaknesses is that they spoke of training people for “the ministry”, without really examining what they thought “the ministry” was. The problem was that the Anglican ministry was different from the Congregational ministry, and the Congregational ministry was different from the Methodist ministry and so on. But I would contend that even within the Anglican view of things, to speak of “the ministry” is to overlook the fact that there are, or should be, many ministries.

The authors quote a letter from Frederick Amoore, the Anglican Provincial Executive Officer, that explains the difficulty and the cultural differences from an Anglican point of view:

There is a good deal of concern among the Bishops about the tendency in some quarters to consider that the seminary is only an institution for theological instruction and for the award of degrees and diplomas. A good deal of the difficulty in relationships comes from the fact that this conception is very different from the Anglican idea of a theological college in which the regular daily life of prayer and worship and the formation of ministerial character and practice is at least as important, if not more so, than the theological instruction given (Denis & Duncan 2011:218).

On the Alice campus, each college (St Peters Anglican, Adams Congregational, John Wesley Methodist, and St Columba’s Presbyterian) had its own chapel, in which they could organise worship according to their own tradition. They could attend each other’s services, and l;earn about each other’s traditions without feeling that their own was threatened.

At Imbali, in the interests of fostering “unity”, there was only one chapel, owned by the Anglicans, but which was used by all. It was owned by the Anglicans because the Anglicans used it more, but it was the Congregationalists and Presbyterians who objected to the furnishings being too Anglican, yet were most insistent that there should be one chapel, to foster unity. But instead of fostering unity, the chapel, and worship generally, became a bone of contention.

The Alice campus showed the diversity of the different traditions participating in Fedsem, but when the Imbali campus was build, the superecumenists insisted that the architecture must emphasise unity (and uniformity) and eventually the different colleges were abolished, mainly at the insistence of Joe Wing and Francois Bill, who tended to be superecumenists. The authors of the book say (Denis & Duncan 2011:230)

Nobody anticipated on the day of Wing’s departure that Fedsem would close less than three years later. It is only with the distance of time that the merging of the three colleges into a single institution appears problematic. Rather than preventing interdenominational tensions, the new structure exacerbated them.

Yet the letter from Frederick Amoore, quoted above, ought to have made it obvious that this would happen. As the model of ministry the seminary was operating on moved further away from that in the minds of most Anglican bishops, the fewer bishops would send their students to the seminary. Some bishops, who had themselves been students at Fedsem, might continue to send students there for a while out of loyalty, but in the end even they would reach a point when they had to say that the training received did not meet the needs of the church.

On reading the book, I was struck by the insistence by what I have called the “superecumenists” on the desirability of uniformity of architecture, and the undesirability of diversity. It reminded me of the similar insistence by 19th-century European missionaries to South Africa that their converts should adopt European architectural styles and build square houses, and some even regarded the number of square houses among their flocks as a measure of their success.

I have concentrated on the ecumenism aspect of Fedsem because it was initially one of the greatest strengths of the project, but when overdone became one of its greatest weaknesses. I wonder whether things might have been different if the seminary had not been forced to move from Alice, and had been able to keep the federal structure, architecturally as well as in other ways.
But the book is very good in describing what happened, and putting the history (and the fragmented stories that one heard) in perspective.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    9 July 2012 12:35 pm

    Re the ecumenical trg of clergy, I was a student at EBSemSA (Evangelical Bible Seminary of SA, now ESSA) an evangelical trg institution founded by Dr Phil Capp (a Free Methodist) in Pmb in 1981. At the time, EBSemSA was part of the Cluster of theological institutions that incorporated FedSem, St Joseph’s Catholic seminary and UKZN’s School of Religion & Theology (SORAT) which had ties to LTI, the Lutheran Theoligical Institute. I’d imagine that Denis did investigate this body – he was personally involved in it.

    Apart from Cluster students attending classes on ‘evangelical distinctives’ at EBSemSA and me playing table-tennis at FedSem during the annual sports-day, there seemed to be few opportunities for ecumenical interaction. Coversely,, while EBSemSA had many challenges, one aspect that may be regarded as a strength was the way in which it encouraged ecumenical participation on its own campus. Students from different traditions lived ‘in community,’ as it were, and probably learned more about the ministry from each other than our textbooks! Chapel was led by a different denominational tradition each week. I look to my three years at EMSemSA as a personal conversion and a seminal experience.

    Philippe Denis is my supervisor. I should read his book 🙂


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