Monday 3 August 2020

To the Laos - Daily Reflections on Eucharist Readings - COVID-19 - Patriarchy in the Church

Dear People of God

As someone who has benefitted from the reflections of others on the daily Eucharist readings, I plan – beginning this week – to issue a thought for each week day from lockdown in Bishopscourt. You will find the first one here and at the end of this post. I hope you will find them useful.

Five months into the coronavirus pandemic, most parishes and dioceses across the Province are still in preparation mode for the return to worship – only the Diocese of Khahlamba in the northern part of South Africa's Eastern Cape province has indicated that it plans to open churches, which it will do next Sunday, August 7.

The protocols that must be observed before you can return to church are strict. Most countries in the Province do not allow congregations of more than 50, and we advise the elderly not to come back to worship at all at this stage. (As a reminder of the stringent conditions, see pages 3-8 of the South African Council of Churches' guide, to which we contributed.) 

Since I last wrote, some of our clergy, their spouses, and a number of our parishioners have died of complications related to COVID-19. Please pray for their families as they mourn, and that those who have died will rest in peace and rise in glory. 

We are going to have to learn to live with the coronavirus, and possibly with a second wave of infections, at least until a vaccine is available for all in our region. This means we have to change our behaviours, especially those involving physical contact with others, and also to keep hope alive – especially since scientists are reporting good results with vaccine trials so far. The “virtual worship” initiatives which most of you have adopted, offering services via Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and the like, are admirable, and essential in this time, but they can never replace in-person worship.

At a Communion level, Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury has launched The Together in Unity Appeal to raise funds to address the needs of the most vulnerable in our world-wide church. Speaking during the week in which the Lambeth Conference was due to get under way, he has encouraged dioceses and parishes to support one another during the pandemic. Last week, I appeared on the BBC World Service to support the initiative and to talk about our experience in Southern Africa. (You can view the interview below my reflection at the end of this post.)

At least for the present – and in some areas of our life into the future – the coronavirus is changing how we do church. On September 1, the day on which we commemorate our Church's founder, Bishop Robert Gray, we will consecrate the new Bishop of Table Bay, Joshua Louw, in St George's Cathedral in Cape Town. In line with lockdown regulations, we will limit attendance to 50, which means only Bishop-elect Joshua's family and diocesan office-holders are likely to be present. 

In another step necessitated by the virus, we will consider at Provincial Standing Committee (PSC) a motion dealing with how we can amend our canons to hold elective assemblies for new bishops in the current environment. This is an urgent need, since the pandemic has already forced us to put on hold elections for the dioceses of Kimberley & Kuruman, Lesotho, Natal and Zululand.  Canon 22 stipulates that the Metropolitan is diocesan in such vacant dioceses, although a vicar-general is appointed. You can all imagine my wish and prayers for this particular motion to be passed.

Both the September Synod of Bishops meeting and PSC will be held virtually. Members of PSC will gather at diocesan hubs, with each diocese connected online to Bishopscourt. Other matters on the agenda include plans for establishing a new Southern-Central African Lusapho Province (comprising our dioceses in Angola and Mozambique) and reports from the Archbishop’s Commission on the election of women as leaders in the Church and from the Anglican Safe and Inclusive Church Commission.

Recently I joined an online meeting with a group of eight women to discuss a statement they had drawn up on patriarchy in the Church and the gender-based violence it generates. Although there was some criticism for engaging with a self-selecting group, mostly from Cape Town, I was happy to join the debate on how the Church, in the words of their statement, can “strive for the Kin-dom of God, where justice for women is restored” and for “a new, beloved community where all humans are affirmed as image bearers of the living God.” 

As it turned out, my exhortation that the way to achieve change in the Church is to work through those structures which can adopt and implement change was underlined afterwards by reactions from around the Province calling for a more inclusive, thorough-going approach. I urge all women – including those unhappy about not being included in the dialogue with me – to take up issues in their parish, diocesan and provincial structures. 

For instance, questions of language and liturgy are best worked through with the Liturgical Commission; theological matters with the Southern African Anglican Theological Commission; canon law with the Canon Law Commission; issues relating to women's leadership with the Archbishop's Commission on the election of women; theological education and doctrinal matters with coordinators of theological education and the relevant diocesan and provincial structures; gender-based violence with Safe and Inclusive Church; and wider gender issues with the Provincial Gender Desk. 

Since men do not suffer the lived experience of patriarchy, we need more women as leaders in the Church. As I told Provincial Synod last year, I am very concerned that we have only two woman bishops in the Province. Hence the decision to appoint a commission to make recommendations to address the problem. But we need to go beyond the episcopate – perhaps we need to legislate that there ought to be 50 percent representation of women among lay representatives at all levels of church leadership? 

We also need to make our language more inclusive. The use of the phrase “Father” in English has long been challenged for promoting patriarchy and male headship in the Church (apart from sitting uncomfortably with those in our more evangelical parishes). The problem is not as acute in the languages spoken by most of our members – at Bishopscourt, the rule has long been to address all clergy as “Moruti”, which is not gender-specific. In the Episcopal Church in the USA, numbers of parishes call their priests “Mother” – but what is your experience, and how would you suggest we address woman priests? I am comfortable with Thabo, but “Arch” is beautiful. Some call me variously Moruti, Solufefe, Mobabatsehi, Sua Graca or Aartsbiskop, but Olga Kgoroeadira will never stop calling me Father Thabo!  

In this Month of Compassion – and Women's Month in South Africa – I invite all of us to orient ourselves to the experiences and plight of women, and to shine a spotlight on those behaviours that are life-transforming for us all.

God bless.

†† Thabo Cape Town

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