For the World Council of Churches Commission (WCC) on Faith and Order, meeting in South Africa this year holds special significance. In 1960, a WCC meeting with member churches in the country was followed by a parting of ways with one of those churches for more than half a century, over the question of apartheid.
But this year the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) which had left the WCC in 1961 due to criticism for its role in supporting South Africa’s apartheid policy, is hosting the 15-22 June meeting at the Emseni Christian Centre, near Pretoria.
The DRC rejoined the WCC at Trondheim in 2016 much to the joy of churches in South Africa.
The Commission officially opened its meeting on Youth Day, on 16 June in South Africa, a public holiday commemorating the uprising by Soweto students in 1976 against the inferior education system for the black majority under apartheid.
The commission is constituted by official representatives of churches belonging to the main historical streams of Christianity, including the Roman Catholic Church, a multilateral, global forum of ecumenical theology.
A colloquium took place on 16 June at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Pretoria which is celebrating its 100th anniversary and has transformed from the apartheid days to now being an open and diverse institution with more than 60 percent black students.
“It is 57 years since the last visit of a WCC delegation of this sort,” said the dean of the university’s theology faculty, Professor Johan Buitendag in his greeting. “In the intervening period so much has changed globally and especially here in South Africa.
“The reason that inspired a consultation in 1960 – the institutionalized racism of apartheid – has gone.”
He was referring to the Cottesloe Consultation, a conference sponsored by the WCC from 14-17 December, 1960 in Cottesloe, a suburb of Johannesburg.
The meeting was triggered by an international public outcry against the Sharpeville massacre of 69 people that had taken place the previous March.
Prior to the convening of the consultation, Hendrik Verwoerd, the South African Prime Minister of South Africa at the time, called the meeting “an attempt by foreigners to meddle in the country’s internal affairs”.
At the 2017 WCC meeting in Pretoria Buitendag said, “No one should underestimate the importance and value of today’s historic event.
“Surely we will be hearing this afternoon on the journey of the Afrikaans churches’ history with the ecumenical world and the diabolical connection these churches had with the political powers of the day.”
The WCC’s President for Africa, Prof. Mary Anne Plaatijes Van Huffel noted that under apartheid, only whites had access to the University of Pretoria.
Unequal apartheid education
“Education in apartheid South Africa was unequal, inferior and racist under its policies,” she said noting how the 1976 Soweto protests started off peacefully, but turned violent when police opened fire on unarmed students.
“In post-apartheid south Africa we embarked as a nation on the Truth and Reconciliation process….In the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa both the victims and perpetrators revisited the divided past together and shared in collective feelings of hurt and shame.”
She also said reconciliation means “peace and justice”.
Rev. Dr Susan Durber, moderator of WCC Faith and Order Commission from the United Reform Church of the UK told commission members earlier, “We are addressing difficult issues ourselves. This meeting, in this context, reminds us that questions of faith and order are not abstract issues, but matters of life and death, of justice and peace, of truth and reconciliation.
“This may be a real call to us to respond and to use our unique, multi-lateral space, to face up to things that we might find it easier to avoid, but which the churches are urging us to address she said.”
In one of the keynote speeches at the colloquium, Commission member Rev. Yolanda Pantou, a minister of the Gereja Kristen Indonesia (GKI), Indonesia alluded to such ways when she spoke on “Ecumenism 2.0 – The ecumenical movement for millennials – a generation connected but not yet united.”
“If ecumenism is about connecting people despite distance and uniting despite differences, then it is speaking the language of the young people today. The young people today, often referred to as millennials, are more connected than the previous generation has ever been.”
Role of youth
She said there is one big issue regarding youth in the ecumenical movement, “There are not many of them inside.”
“Perhaps it is because they are not given enough chance to be involved, but the higher chance is because they are not too interested with the ecumenical movement itself, or institutional and traditional religions the movement is representing.”
Regarding matters to be discussed, the Director of the WCC’ Commission on Faith and Order, Prof. Rev. Dr Odair Pedroso Mateus, said in his report, “We realize that the vision and the values that have undergirded the Ecumenical Movement gain a new momentum as we experience around us and within ourselves, locally and globally, increasing uncertainty, consistent instability and disruption, arrogant particularisms, and growing fear, which is exactly the opposite of faith.”