July 31, 2014
At last the church is speaking out! Or is it really?

Does the letter from Bishop Leopold Friday, dated July 23 and addressed to the Clergy and People, signal that the Church is now prepared to speak out? I want to compliment the Bishop on what to me is a very sober, yet overdue letter, one that is devoid of the rantings of some, including priests, who have responded to the sorry situation that erupted two weeks ago.{{more}} The question that must be posed is “why now?” Is this because the matter was played out in the church? Shouldn’t we, in any event, be moving away from crisis management to crisis prevention? The point that is important, however, is that at least one person of the frock has spoken and the question that must be posed is “will this be the only occasion?” Will the Bishop now be prepared to speak out about the many issues floating around in the society and to reflect with us on those nursed by partisan political interests that have surfaced and disappeared from public debate as though they never happened? These, it must be remembered, as we try to find a path forward, have become sources of the antipathies that beset this country.

The Bishop mentioned three issues that he argues will provide for a healthy debate about which we can draw our own conclusions. Good, but there will be no civilised debate, only people speaking at cross purposes. All of this has happened and we cannot undo them, but the matters beneath the surface are the ones on which we should be focusing our attention, with a view to crisis prevention. This letter in some way appeals to me because I have for months now been throwing out a challenge to our society to look at the underlying factors that are creating havoc in this country. The Bishop mentions them: “the deep, infected and malignant sore of partisan political division” and the “unruly, indiscipline and worst behaviour attitudes and characteristics.” Interestingly, these are cause and effect. What has led to the sore of deep partisan division? What has nourished the unruly, indiscipline and worst behaviour attitudes and characteristics? When I refer to them as cause and effect I am suggesting that they create problems in the society, but are also the manifestation of deep sores within the body politic and the broader society.

There is a call for reconciliation and restoration and the point is made that all citizens and people of the nation must participate. But, first, according to the Bishop, we have to be honest with ourselves “and do some introspection and acknowledge how we have contributed directly or indirectly to the present situation.” This, admittedly, needs to be done, but there are elements within our society that profit from this state of unruliness and ill-discipline and feed, perhaps even unknowingly, the divisions political and otherwise. There is in this a call for a new beginning; but can we simply glide over past cases of ill-discipline and hurt that are the festering sores? Isn’t this a call for a South African kind of approach – that we own up to our indiscretions and acquiescence and wipe the slate clean? My fear is that a new beginning is going to be difficult without this process. Where my disagreement lies is with the appeal to “the relevant authorities to initiate the process.” This is a no-win situation. It will never come from the “relevant authorities” whoever they are. The initiative has to come from outside of this realm, since too much ‘bad blood’ has already been passed under the bridge. Is the Bishop ducking away from playing a leading role? At this point I am not referring directly to the Bishop or to the Anglican Church that he serves, but to the larger Church beyond. How does the “Church,” as defined, feel about this and does it see itself playing a role? One would hope that some persons of the frock did not respond to this issue simply because it happened in the church, but that their concerns are broader than this. In my appeal to the Church, I said last week “it is as though subconsciously persons felt that the Church had divorced itself from their pain and anguish and were saying “if you stay away from helping to calm the rage and anxiety boiling within us, then it might be time to come to you to ensure that you can no longer isolate yourself from our pains.”

There is, perhaps, no unity in the Church, especially since the issue has to go beyond the Christian Council. Since I am of the view that an appeal to the relevant authorities is a waste of time, then perhaps an initiative should first be taken within the Church to have a denominational conference involving as many churches as wish to participate and to try to arrive at some consensus about the role of the Church on the issues surfacing in our society. There is, at this stage, no better body that can undertake this process. The Church has to go beyond drawing up memoranda to guide conduct at election time. If the Church cannot get together on this issue, then we are all doomed. In any event I will hope to hear voices from the Church speaking out on issues affecting and causing divisions within the society. If the only thing to come out of this assembly is a determination to speak out on issues in a non-partisan manner, so that the appearance is not given that evil is being condoned, we will have gained something by taking the conversation beyond partisan political talk.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.