Tuesday 18 February 2014

Church of the Province of Africa - ‘Ad Laos’ – To the People of God – February 2014

As has become my practice over the last six years, this February letter is the first for the year, so let me start by wishing you all a blessed New Year.

Some of you may have read the latest Synod of Bishops' statement in which the Bishops share briefly the salient points of their February meeting. These meetings form the cornerstone of governance in faith and doctrine matters in our Province, over and above meetings of the Provincial Synod, the Provincial Standing Committee, the Provincial Trusts' Board and of course Diocesan structures. Of particular note was that the Synod expressed its joy at the approval by the South African Qualifications Authority of the Diploma of Theology offered by the College of the Transfiguration in Grahamstown, as well as at the provisional accreditation of the College as a private higher education institution.

Following the meeting of the Synod of Bishops, Lungi and I travelled to Lagos, Nigeria for a meeting of Anglican Primates and their spouses organised by the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa (CAPA). This was my first CAPA meeting as Archbishop, as Bishop Jo Seoka of Pretoria is our episcopal representative to CAPA and has previously attended meetings on my behalf.

In our time together in Lagos, we as Archbishops from the different Anglican Provinces around the continent shared both our common and our differing contextual challenges. We shall continue to have different understandings on matters of human sexuality, whether legally, theologically or because of our different experiences, so we cannot paint everyone with the same brush. This applies even within provinces, as we see within our own Province, where only South Africa has legalised same-sex unions. For me, love and respect for all who are created in the image of God remain key. The Synod of Bishops affirmed this, as well as the importance of seeking justice and reconciliation on this issue – the differences over which we do not regard as being so serious as to be church-dividing.

Human sexuality was not, however, the central matter in our deliberations in Lagos. We were deeply concerned at tensions and conflict in places as varied as South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho and Mozambique, as well as the conflict between Muslims and Christians and the terror created by the followers of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State and his deputy welcomed us, and stressed the need for a critical solidarity by the Church with those called to serve through a vocation to politics.

Immediately after Lagos, Lungi and I were joined by our daughter, Paballo, to travel to Xai-Xai in Mozambique where I was blessing a new church, Salvador do Mundo (Saviour of the World). This was a wonderful occasion, with the Diocese’s largest parish packed to capacity. The worship was so joyful and moving as Bishop Dinis Sengulane and I moved around the church, sprinkling water amid clouds of incense, accompanied by the choir all singing in unison in Mozambique's unique alto voices. The choirmaster had a small school bell and rang it harder and harder the more we sprinkled holy water around the building! Coming from an urban diocese, dedicating new churches is not what one does frequently, especially in Shangaan and Portuguese and wearing full vestments when the temperature is 30 degrees. We are grateful for Bishop Dinis, who will retire soon after four Lambeth conferences and 38 years as a bishop in the Church of God. We are grateful for his ministry not only in the Church but in highlighting the scourge of malaria and the need for peace in the world, particularly in Mozambique. We can only say, while +Dinis is still alive, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

After Mozambique I chaired an ecumenical meeting at the Wits Business School. Ecumenical witness has seen many challenges and changes in post-apartheid South Africa, where we are experiencing the declining influence and identity of previously-strong ecumenical bodies and the rise of new ones which readily support state theology and loathe prophetic and liberation theology. It is as if we are regressing into what the apartheid government achieved through its grip on the Dutch Reformed Church, only this time it is South Africa’s current ruling party which is coercing interfaith and ecumenical bodies to align with it and thereby benefit materially or from their proximity to power and influence. However, in South Africa today the Church is called upon to support the State in this democratic dispensation when it does what is godly and serves the needs of all God’s people, but to be critical if it does not. And we cannot just sit back and point at what is wrong, we need too to work to bring about justice, equity and a sharing of God’s abundant resources. The meeting in Johannesburg highlighted these issues and reminded me of how easy it is to forget our primary vocation because we want government resources even to the point of compromising the prophetic word.

Finally, I attended a church leaders’ consultation with the South African Christian Leaders’ Initiative (SACLI), where we looked at how to strengthen the unity of the ecumenical voice in being courageous and prophetic. We looked at organisational as well as moral issues in our country, we planned for the forthcoming SACC triennial meeting and we considered how we could encourage SACC member churches to adopt education as a priority missional issue. We also noted that, welcome as the birth of SACLI is, it has created confusion and tensions at a time during which the SACC is ailing. Bishop Zipho Siwa, Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church, has been asked to chair a subcommittee to look at aligning the ecumenical bodies in our country so that we can all act together in tackling the challenges faced by our country, especially in the upcoming elections. As chair of the church leaders’ consultation, I find these meetings edifying – stretching but fulfilling too as we face the challenge: How do we maintain our prophetic voice in a constitutional democracy when legitimate leaders are robbing the land and ignoring the cause of justice?

I have headed this letter the Church of the Province of Africa, to highlight the need for us to strive, whether in our Anglican Communion in Africa or ecumenically, to bring God’s real shalom, peace, justice and equity to the continent. There will be differences in theology, in matters of sexuality and in politics – let us face these and deal with them, and not pretend we don’t encounter them. Let us adopt a Pauline understanding of our vocation and build the body of Christ, recognising that it has different parts and abilities, but that they can all work together towards a common purpose. In this way we will have a deeper appreciation of the presence of the incarnate Christ at work within the body, pointing us to the realised Eschaton which at the same time is yet to be realised. This tension should not divide us, instead it should help us appreciate that we are of the same coin, bringing quality and equality to all.

This year, God willing, we will see the election of two new bishops suffragan, of Niassa and Mthatha. We are thankful to God that in spite of the challenges we have in a few dioceses, our Province is healthy and continues to witness to what God is up to in this part of God's vineyard. As we prepare to observe Lent, let me once again encourage you all to use the Bible study material that Professor Gerald West and his team have prepared for our Province.

I end on a note of thanksgiving – even if it is tinged with sadness. The “Masite Sisters” – the members of the Society of the Precious Blood in Lesotho – who provided a home away from home for South African political refugees as well as spiritual refugees over many years, will close their house in Maseru at the end of this month. The sisters have planted the seeds of faith for many but the remaining sisters are ageing, so although their Chapter says they may resurrect their ministry differently one day, for now we wish them well and give God deep thanks for their ministry in building the body of Christ in our Province.

As we enter this Lent, let us continue to build the body of Christ, in our relationships with one another, in our places of worship and in our different nations in this Province.

God bless you all in your Lenten observances,
+Thabo Cape Town