Trapped in apartheid – South African churches
I’ve just been reading Charles Villa-Vicencio’s book Trapped in apartheid. It was published in 1988, so it’s now nearly 20 years old, so it is rather late to be reading it for the first time. It’s about another world, another aeon, and yet it was a time I lived through, and so some some of it seems familiar.
At this distance, Villa-Vicencio’s book must inevitably be read as a historical document. It is about what he calls “the English-speaking Churches” in South Africa, and their response to apartheid. The term “English-speaking Churches” itself has a strangely anachronistic feel. The “English-speaking Churches” are the Anglican (Church of the Province of Southern Africa), Methodist (Methodist Church of Southern Africa), Presbyterian, and Congregational (United Congregational Church in Southern Africa). In all of them, the majority of members are not English speaking, though the proceedings at their main administrative meetings were usually conducted in English — but so were those of other denominations, like the Baptists and the Assemblies of God and the Roman Catholics. What these four have in common is that they are all members of the Church Unity Commission, which has been seeking to unite them for the past 50 years or more.
What strikes me most strongly, reading the book at this distance in time, is how extraordinarily narrow it is. In tracing the response of these four denominations to apartheid, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, Villa-Vicencio ignores huge chunks of Christian experience, and gives a thoroughly distorted picture. I suppose part of the problem lies in his approach and methodology. He is writing from a sociotheological point of view. In one chapter he gives a historical suvey of the response of these churches to apartheid, but it is actually full of a-historical generalities that beg the question. It gives a sociological explanation for these denominations being “trapped in apartheid”, but very little historical evidence, beyond mere assertion, that they were actually trapped in apartheid.
That is not to say I necessarily disagree with his main thesis — I believe they were, to some extent, trapped in apartheid, but if the church history of that period is to be written, it will be very different from the partial picture painted by Villa-Vicencio. These comments of mine are perhaps the opposite of Villa-Vicencio’s. His are full of broad sociological generalisations, mine are full of personal anecdotes. But narrative theology is all the rage, or at least it was ten years ago.
On reading Charles Villa-Vicencio’s Trapped in apartheid I realise that two of the events in 1985 that he makes a great deal of hardly affected me at all at the time, and more or less passed me by. These were the Kairos document and A call to prayer for an end to unjust rule. I had heard of the Kairos document, but it hardly impinged on my consciousness at the time. I don’t recall hearing of the Call to prayer until I read his book.
Villa-Vicencio bases his main critique of the “English-speaking churches” on the Kairos document, and he said that their response to apartheid was “protest without resistance”. He examines it in three main areas: the response to Bantu Education, the armed struggle, and the campaign for disinvestment and economic sanctions.
Villa-Vicencio was rather scathing about the response of academics to the Kairos document, but I suspect that it was mainly academics who made it known and kept it alive. If university theology faculties had not given their students assignments and exam questions on the Kairos document over the next ten years or so, very few people would have heard of it.
Villa-Vicencio devotes a single paragraph to the Message to the people of South Africa, issued in 1968, noting that it “rejected apartheid as a pseudo-gospel, anticipating the 1982 ‘Apartheid is a Heresy’ resolution of the WARC by fourteen years.”
I believe that The Message to the people of South Africa had a far greater impact on “the English-speaking churches” than the Kairos document. It was preceded by a conference on pseudogospels, and one of the points made at the conference was that a pseudogospel is far worse than a heresy. It therefore went far beyond the resolution of the WARC (World Alliance of Reformed Churches) in its rejection of apartheid on theological grounds. It noted that a heresy is a wrong doctrine, or an incorrect formulation of a teaching on the Christian faith. While it might be technically in error, however, some heretical formulations could remain quite close to the dynamics of the true gospel. A pseudogospel, however, is a false offer of salvation, and is therefore much worse than a mere heresy.
I believe the “Message” had a greater impact than the Kairos document for several reasons. First, its formulation was a far more public thing, and involved a greater number of people. It was issued jointly by the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and the Christian Institute, both influential bodies among “the English-speaking churches”. The Kairos document was drawn up by a small group, and signed by a few more people, and issued in the name of a group of individuals who, while they might be respected, did not necessarily speak for any group.
Secondly, the “Message”marked a significant development in public Christian responses to apartheid. Most of the earlier criticisms of apartheid from Christian groups had been directed at the implementation rather than the ideology. In its implementation it caused injustice and unnecessary suffering. There was the implication that it would be all right if only it were humanely applied. If there was any criticism of the principles of apartheid, it was (as Villa-Vicencio points out) from a fairly general liberal point of view rather than a specifically theological one. The “Message” emphasised that not only was apartheid wrong in practice, but it was wrong in principle. It was not merely the implementation, but the ideology, that was so utterly opposed to the Christian faith as to be not merely a heresy, but a false gospel.
The third thing is perhaps the most important, and is something that deserves further analysis. It supports Villa-Vicencio’s conclusion, but an analysis of it may give a better reason for why “the English-speaking chruches” failed to move from protest to resistance. This third thing was that the publication of the Message was followed by several meetings at which the formation of “obedience to God” groups was discussed. These groups would be centres of Christian resistance, and the nucleus of a confessing church. The idea never really took off, however, mainly because of the reluctance of the Christian Institute, which had been attacked by the Dutch Reformed Churches as a schismatic new denomination. Bishop Bill Burnett, the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, said that because of his position he could not lead such a movement, but if nobody else tried to get it going, he might consider doing so.
Eleven years later, in 1979, Bill Burnett was the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, and thus president of the Anglican Provincial Synod, and he threw down the gauntlet of a similar challenge to the Synod meeting in Grahamstown. This too is not mentionewd by Villa-Vicencio, but goes right to the heart of his contention, and if it is to be analysed historically then Burnett’s two challenges should be considered.
There was a rather long and waffling motion being debated by the Synod about the permits that the government required the church to apply for. Bill Burnett spoke from the chair, saying that he disliked having to apply for permits, but he thought it was part of his role in keeping the institutional church going. He was quite prepared to see the institutional church die, and if that was what synod really wanted him to do, he would do it. It was a challenge to the synod to “think sect”, based on the same kind of thinking as in the earlier “Obedience to God” movement. It was a challenge to the synod to move beyond passing resolutions, and to actually act on its principles. The synod failed to meet the challenge, and Bill Burnett retired before the next one met.
The press picked it up, and if the synod had not resolved to play it safe, it might have been a very different story. There was no resolution to this effect that was minuted. Burnett’s direct challenge was met by embarrassed silence and evasion; and at that moment the synod, black members as well as white, showed itself to be indeed trapped in apartheid. Burnett had opened to door a chink, but the church did not want to escape from the trap.
There are a few other things, not mentioned by Villa-Vicencio, that may possibly have played a role in the response of “the English-speaking churches”.
One was the charismatic renewal movement, which swept through “the English-speaking churches” in the 1970s and 1980s.It actually started among black Anglicans in the 1940s, but did not have a significant impact on whites in these churches until the lat 1960s and early 1970s. Villa-Vicencio fails to mention it at all, and infact there has been very little study of it by church historians.
An event that also had a considerable effect on “the English-speaking churches” was the South African Christian Leadership Assembly (SACLA) in 1979. This was a gathering of some 5000 people, mainly from “the English-speaking churches” in Pretoria. As far as I know its effects have not been studied, and Villa-Vicencio ignored it.
Another thing ignored by Villa-Vicencio is the National Initiative for Reconciliation, which appeared on the scene about the same time as the Kairos document (and for a while the South African government confused the two). It was a response to apartheid; though it differed from the approach of the Kairos document, it probably involved a larger number of people. Villia-Vicencio’s book would have been more complete, and perhaps more convincing, if he had compared them.
And finally, an anecdote.
According to Villa-Vicencio, there was a Call for prayer against unjust rule on 16 June 1985. I never heard of it. The 16th June 1985 was a Sunday, and at that time I was an Anglican. The Revd Alphaeus Ndebele and I had been licenced as assistant priests in the parish of St Francis, Mamelodi East. The reason for this was that we were involved in an outreach mission in KwaNdebele, the newest “homeland” and resettlement area, and that the priest at St Francis, David Aphane, had started. We were there because the parish was seen by the diocese as a base for mission and outreach.
That was not how the parish saw it, however. That Sunday the parish annual vestry meeting was held after the service. The parish council was reelected en bloc. The churchwarden announced that Alphaeus Ndebele and I had been sent there because their priest had just been given extra duties as an archdeacon, so we were there to “help in the parish” because of that. Nothing could have been further from his mind than outreach in KwaNdebele. And the Call for prayer to end unjust rule didn’t even appear on the radar screen.
St Francis was in a black township where there was quite a lot of resistance at that time, and several people were shot at one gathering. But this impinged hardly at all on the parish and its vestry meeting.
The story of “the English-speaking churches” being trapped in apartheid is a lot more complex and nuanced than Villa-Vicencio seems to think.