Stellenbosch University was the venue for a three-day gathering of hundreds of Christians – pastors, academics, students and others – who reflected on the role of the Church in the first 20 years post-apartheid, as well as the next 20 years going forward.
The occasion was the third Winter School presented by the University’s Faculty of Theology in collaboration with Communitas, Ekklesia (Ecumenical Centre for Leadership Development and Congregational Studies), and the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology.
Reverend Dr Bruce Theron, Pastor of the United Congregational Church in Kuilsrivier and the Ekklesia Programme Manager, says the aim of the event was to provide a platform on which key voices within the Church and society could engage in constructive dialogue. The central theme was, “Christ the Hope for Africa – the next 20 years”. Delegates could choose to attend different plenary sessions in the morning with parallel sessions in the afternoon, which were concluded by a different keynote speaker on each day.
The role and agenda of the Church discussed
The first day saw Dr Mvume Dandala, President of Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary in Pietermaritzburg as well as the former president of the South African Council of Churches and former general secretary
of the All Africa Council of Churches, address the issue of the Church being a source of hope amidst evidence of Afro-pessimism. Author and Director of Audience Development and Education at Artscape Theatre Centre, Marlene le Roux, who is also a member of the Commission of Culture, Religion and Linguistic Communities, was invited to share her view on what the agenda of the Church should be for the next two decades. On the final day, theologian and author Dr Dion Forster pulled all the threads together by outlining what he believes is the role of the Church in tackling socio-economic development in Africa in partnership with various role-players, in order to revive and strengthen its calling to be a nurturer and bearer of hope on the continent.
According to Theron, a big question that arose over the three days was the apparent silence of the church within society since the dawn of democracy in South Africa 20 years ago. He says, “The Church played a big role in the fight against apartheid but has been very quiet since 1994. Twenty years on, we are still divided as a society. There are large portions of the population in our country that do not enjoy economic empowerment; when we look at our domestics and gardeners, for example, we can ask the question: has there been any improvement in their lives?”
Theron says consensus reached at the Winter School was that the Church needs to find ways in which to be relevant in society by looking at practical day-to-day issues and then determining how it could make a difference. He says another question posed was whether the Church needed to play a role as an activist, advocate or both. “There was probably agreement that the Church needed a hybrid of activism and advocacy but we need to do it in a more acceptable way with a focus on advocacy and not activism. There is a realisation that issues need to be raised in the right forums where they can be heard by and addressed with decision-makers and influencers. As Christians we need to make an impact during the week from Monday to Saturday and not only on Sunday.”
Delegates acknowledged that despite the many denominations, as well as ecumenical and religious forums, no one grouping is able to resolve the issues facing our society. Theron adds that three days appears to have been too short a time to focus on solutions, especially given the many topics for discussion on the programme. Yet, if the vision of the Winter School was to continue theological education; strengthen relationships between the faculty and different churches, and between the churches; as well as to facilitate discussion of relevant theological, congregational and public issues; then this was certainly achieved.