Saturday 16 October 2010

Sowing in Tears and Reaping in Joy - Commemorating St John's Church, Waterkant

Address given at St George’s Cathedral on 10 October 2010,, during events to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the closure of St John’s Church, Waterkant, and its subsequent sale and demolition.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, dear people of St John’s Waterkant, thank you for your invitation to join you in this afternoon’s commemoration. Hearing the stories of loss and pain, sorrow and anger, of old wounds that are still raw when they are touched, has so many resonances for me. In those dark days, so many of us across the country were uprooted from our homes; our communities were torn apart; and, as with the dismantling of St John’s Waterkant, the visible icons of communities’ hearts were ripped out and destroyed

On ordination, I was licensed to St Mary’s Cathedral, which had incorporated as best it could, the people, windows, pews, of All Souls’ chapel. This had been destroyed to make way for a new freeway connecting and dividing the suburbs of Johannesburg, according to the group areas. Then, when I married, Lungi and lived in a flat at St Albans – which had been a thriving parish in Malay Camp (Marshalltown). But the predominantly coloured congregation had been forcibly moved, the building’s adornments taken elsewhere, and it had been turned into a chapelry for domestic servants and hostel workers.

After that, I became the first Rector of Christ the King, Sophiatown, after it was bought back by the CPSA, and reconsecrated at Easter 1998. This iconic church was abandoned in 1967, then deconsecrated and sold, and willingly sold – I don’t think it was a forced sale – to the Government. They sold it on to the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk, who used it as a youth centre and boxing gym. Later it was bought by the Pinkster Protestant Kerk – and finally the diocese re-purchased it. To me it felt as if we had sold our own mother into prostitution, and were now buying her back in yet another sordid transaction. Christ the King returned to us with the building altered and dilapidated. What made my heart sorest of all was that the sacristy had disappeared; the CR Chapel had been remodelled beyond recognition; and Sister Margaret’s wonderful murals had been painted over and lost. Earlier this year, a British businessman presented a beautiful mosaic to replace the mural. But this does not alter the fact that, again and again, poor decisions were badly made, and too often implemented in callous and hurtful ways.

Today, it is so wry that I stand in the shoes of those Archbishops under whose watch these decisions were made – Archbishops of a Church which often opposed apartheid, but which in other ways got it so very wrong. The church will always reflect the ambiguous nature of humanity. At our best, we act courageously for God’s praise and glory. But there is also our worst side. And more often than not, this does not lie in spectacular errors, but rather in the small and shameful failings of fear and weakness and ignorance, where it is easier to say nothing or do nothing, instead of speaking out and acting decisively.

In today’s rapid political change, we must in our turn pray for eyes to see the signs of the times, and for the courage to respond where and how God wants us to. Pray for me, and the particular burden of office that I bear, in my own weaknesses and blindnesses. Pray that I may be wiser, braver, than the Archbishop who wrote to the Cape Times, in June 1970, that ‘many will feel more than a twinge of sadness at the disappearance of … St John’s’.

Today we have heard and felt far, far, more than a twinge in the deep anguish that has been shared. Today I stand here to take collective responsibility, and to say sorry – sorry from the bottom of my heart – for all that was done, that should not have been done; and for all that should have been done, and that was not done. People of St John’s, Waterkant, today the Anglican Church of Southern Africa apologises for all the wrongs done to you.

Yet while I stand in the shoes of Archbishops of the past – I also stand here as the Archbishop of today and tomorrow. I stand here knowing that saying sorry, long though it has been in coming, is not the end of the journey. For repentance allows us all to step forward towards the healing, the reconciliation, that Jesus made possible for us, through his own pain and suffering. His agony on the cross tells us that, words like healing and reconciliation are not used lightly or cheaply, in response to the anguish remembered in this Commemoration. God’s grace is not cheap. But God’s grace is abundant. All of us together must seek his face, and even seek his face in the faces of those who hurt us, so that his grace may abound in us all, and we can create a new future that glorifies his holy name.

In the Service with which we will conclude today, we will use the same readings as that final Service at St John’s. They speak of God’s unquenchable hope and promises of courage, even in the face of great confusion and loss. Perhaps we can now find that hope, that courage, in fuller measure. Yet I was also struck by verses from the Psalm that we would have sung, had we followed the Lectionary for Evening Prayer. In Psalm 126 we read: ‘Those that sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed, shall come again in gladness, bringing their sheaves with them.’ There is so much in life to make us weep. But even in our weeping, we must dare to keep sowing – to keep bearing the seeds of hope, of promise, that God plants within us, and from which he desires to bring harvest sheaves and fruit that will last.

And therefore, instead of attempting to re-create the ‘good old days’ and remaining in a place of pain, we must dare to look to the future, and imagine what new opportunities we can create from what has gone before. Possible options we might explore could include the following: first, a youth skills training project, in collaboration with the Cathedral, at the Cathedral, jointly run with them. Second, a youth academy teaching computer skills, or attracting music scholars – the aim of both of these being to train young people in leadership formation and character formation, as St John’s and its community did for so many of you. And third, perhaps we could look at establishing some lasting legacy, akin to the Selby Taylor fund. Perhaps through donations we could set up ‘The Archbishop Makgoba – St John’s Waterkant’ bursary fund, for young people whose families are connected with St John’s.

And the challenge of the Psalmist is for us on a personal level also. We must not be afraid to weep – but we must keep on sowing. So many of us now are leaders and decision-makers in the Church. We, who have known such pain, even at the hands of our Church, must allow the Lord to use us as his wounded healers for the sake of our Church, our nation, our future. Let us offer our pain to God, so that he may release us from its destructive powers, and equip us to be his ministers of reconciliation, for the salvation of the world. Amen.

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