Last week a senior minister in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa was Honoured for the role he played in serving South Africa during the apartheid struggle. He also happened to be a senior member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) during his life.
The event at which he was Honoured was held in a Methodist Church, and the prominent display of ANC banners on the stage has caused some concern and a lot of discussion on the matter.
I can understand why! Because of our history in South Africa we are very sensitive about the relationship between the Church and the State. As you may recall 'apartheid' ideology in South Africa had a strong theological underpinning. A particular Christian Denomination supported, endorsed and informed the apartheid Nationalist government from the early 1900's until the collapse of apartheid in the mid 1990's. In fact the Dutch Reformed Church was scathingly known as the 'National Party at Prayer' - thankfully that Church had bravely acknowledged their error and is doing a great deal to work towards a free and just South African society.
However, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa seems to be falling into the same trap! Somehow it was easy to see how problematic such a tie between the Church and the State was when it was 'their Church' and 'their political regime'. Now, however, it is 'our Church' (and its members) that occupy positions of power in business and the state (they should be positions of service, but I seldom see such an attitude among the powerful). It is 'our political party' that is in power. Even though we can see that all is not well - the government is unjust, it is subverting justice and covering up wrongdoing and unethical behavior. The ANC is engrossed in party political agendas rather than working for the freedom of all. And... The Church is silent. We found it easy to speak prophetically to others, but far more difficult to speak truth to power now. Perhaps it is because we are the ones in power!
So, it was the memorial to this prominent colleague that has caused public debate. In the Church ANC banners and colors were displayed behind the pulpit. The Secretary General of the ANC sat on the stage, and was listed as a key speaker, alongside the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.
This goes against our Church's polity (as presented in our 'Book of Order'), and so many of our members were unhappy and voiced their concern on a Facebook post.
Of course there were those who tried to silence the conversation - some saying how much good a partnership between the state and the church has done for the community. Others trying to say that such critique should be done in private and not on a public platform - it reminded me so much of the struggles we had with conservative white Christians during the apartheid struggle!
This morning in my devotions I read the following passage:
Ambrose of Milan (339 – 397): A provincial governor in fourth-century Italy, Ambrose was drafted to serve as bishop before he was even baptized. Reluctant to serve the church at first, he took the task seriously when he finally accepted the call. Ambrose gave away all of his possessions, took up a strict schedule of daily prayer, and committed himself to the study of Scripture. Called from the world of politics to serve the church, Ambrose was a leader who spoke truth to power and did not back down, insisting that “the emperor is in the church, not over it.”
Indeed, we would do well to remember that the emperor is in the church, not over it.
Please pray for us. We need courage to speak loving truth to power, particularly when it is ourselves we must address.
By the way, the book that my friend Dr Wessel Bentley and I wrote called 'Between Capital and Cathedral: Essays on Church and State relationships' has a chapter in it written by the Rev Prof Peter Storey entitled 'Banning the flag in our Churches'. It is well worth reading in the context of this debate - please follow this link (copy and paste it into your browser) to get a copy of the book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B008YSKUG4/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?qid=1417935998&sr=8-1