Service of induction of AACC general secretary Bishop M. Dandala
Johannesburg, 10 August 2003
Text: Eph. 4: 1-7, 11-16
Dear Christian friends, brothers and sisters,
Let me begin by bringing you greetings on behalf of the WCC. I have gladly accepted the invitation to preach the sermon during this service, since it also provides me with the opportunity to represent the world wide ecumenical fellowship of churches on this very special occasion. Most of you know that during this past year the AACC and the WCC have been linked in a very special way in the spirit of ecumenical solidarity. Now we rejoice with you that we can celebrate today a new beginning for this fellowship of churches in Africa and that our colleague, Melaku Kifle, can hand over his responsibilities as interim General Secretary of AACC to Bishop Mwume Dandala as the elected new General Secretary. Bishop Dandala is known and respected far beyond the African continent as one of the eminent ecumenical leaders. This will be the second time that the churches in South Africa offer one of their leaders to revitalize the AACC at a critical moment in its history and we have to express our sincere gratitude to the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and to the South African Council of Churches for their willingness to release their Presiding Bishop and President for this new responsibility on the continental level.
I. It was the suggestion of Bishop Dandala that during this service we should reflect together on the importance of the ecumenical fellowship for the churches at the local level. The unity of the Christian churches has always been at the centre of the ecumenical vision. When the AACC was formally established fourty years ago at Kampala the delegates assembled under the theme “Freedom and Unity in Christ”. While this has remained the overall objective during these four decades, the struggle for the liberation of the continent has been the priority concern and the search for Christian unity has taken second place.
In an address, delivered at the Ecumenical Consultation on NEPAD, held here at Johannesburg in March of this year, Bishop Dandala offered perspectives for the future. He commented: “The first thing I want to say about the ecumenical movement is that whilst issues of ‘faith and order’ seem to have receded into the background, in most of the developing world ecumenical movements, it is not a mistake that the issues of ‘faith and order’ seem to continue to preoccupy the minds of the ecumenical movement in the west. I want to caution that whatever we do, whatever we plan, we must not make the mistake, because the issues of faith and order seek to address that which is foundational in the making of the faith; issues that are foundational in making the faith central in the issues of the forming of the mind and will of a people.”
The search for Christian unity is the primary issue of ‘faith and order’. Thus, when in a contribution to the anniversary publication of AACC Bishop Dandala offered a set of reflections on the Vision and Mission of AACC, he began with the following sentences: “The AACC shares in the mission of the worldwide ecumenical movement. Its prime objective is to assist those who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour in the continent of Africa, that they ‘MAY BE ONE’ according to the great prayer of the Lord Jesus (John 17: 21). It is the task of the ecumenical movement to keep the vision of Unity and common witness constantly before the church of God, and to lead the Church to search for opportunities that may advance and visibly express such unity. The AACC must ensure that the churches in Africa remain in dialogue about their life, their doctrines and their teachings. It must ensure that they act together in their witness to the world.”
II. The churches in Africa have ample experience of the strength of a united church and also of the weakness of the churches when they are divided. We only need to recall the history of the churches here in South Africa in their struggle against Apartheid. They found far greater strength by witnessing together to the powers and principalities than they would have had if they had acted separately. A more recent example is the common stance of the churches in the Sudan, both North and South, in promoting the search for a peaceful resolution of the conflict which has torn the country for more than twenty years. Or, we have the experience of the churches in Kenya who successfully acted together in facilitating the peaceful change of political regime. On the other hand we have the case of the churches in Zimbabwe who have not been able to arrive at a truly united response to the crisis in the country; their weakness and disunity was and is still being used by the government for its own interests.
In addition, there are the instances where the churches have lapsed back into cultivating their separate identities once the pressures from without had ceased. Cooperation and acting together are important manifestations of unity. But they depend on a common sense of purpose and once that becomes weak, the natural inclination of one group or church seeking to sharpen its profile and expand its range of influence over against others takes over. Thus, during the period of the liberation struggle and of nation building the churches in many African countries were united in strong councils of churches and maintained interdenominational institutions for the training of their future leadership. Today, most councils of churches struggle for their survival and many of the common institutions have been replaced by denominational ones. There is even a sense of competition between the churches in establishing denominational universities all over Africa.
Cooperation, therefore, that is motivated only by the need to respond to external challenges and is not rooted in a genuine spirit of mutual commitment and accountability is not a sufficiently strong bond of unity; it can easily change back into mere coexistence or even competition. The strength of a united church ultimately derives not from our will and resolve to act together, but from the power of our common Lord that is manifest in and through the life of the churches. Our unity is primarily unity in Christ; it is a gift that is offered to us by the grace of God and at the same time it is a task, a gospel imperative. Maintaining the unity of the Spirit is not an option among others that the churches can attend to when the more immediate tasks have been dealt with. Rather, fostering their unity is a vital necessity for the churches; for, no church can be truly the church of Christ without living in relationships of mutual trust and accountability with other churches in the same place.
We rejoice about the fact that more and more of the African churches have joined the fellowship of the AACC and also of the WCC. The serious effort which has been undertaken by the AACC to articulate afresh its ecumenical vision and mission has found a widespread and affirmative response among the churches. But a commitment to fellowship at the continental or even the world level that does not find expression in the national or local context remains weak. During these past 10 years I have visited many countries and churches in Africa. Again and again I have been saddened to observe that the local churches live their separate lives alongside each other, sometimes even in active competition. Their leaders gather on special occasions, like visits by ecumenical delegations, but otherwise keep away from each other. But ultimately it is at the local level that our ecumenical commitment and in particular our efforts to create a united church must find expression.
III. In the search for biblical guidance in our reflection about the understanding and praxis of unity we turn to the letter to the Ephesians which provides in chapter four one of the strongest biblical affirmations of unity. The Apostle urges the community to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”(V.1f) Unity is more than a matter of structures and doctrine or of particular programmes and projects. Unity must find expression as a form, a style of life. Humility, gentleness and patience are attitudes which are not being held in high esteem in our time that values strong and affirmative leadership and competitiveness. They are considered as manifestations of weakness and therefore do not seem to offer the kind of guidance which we seek in order to build up a strong united church.
However, the wisdom of the gospel teaches us that the power of God manifests itself where we acknowledge our weakness, where we open ourselves up to each other in our vulnerability. Unity is the fruit of the praxis of bearing with one another in love. It is more than intentional solidarity but means valuing the other person and the other church as highly as oneself. It is the Spirit and the mind of Christ which finds expression in this attitude of mutual commitment (cf. Phil 2:1-5) and it creates a strong bond of peace which can withstand even harsh pressures from without. A church or a community of churches which are thus united at the centre of their being can become an instrument of peace, a source of reconciliation within the wider community. Especially, it can resist the attempts of political powers to manipulate and exploit religious loyalties for their own interests. The constant effort to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is in fact the most effective and powerful contribution of the churches to overcoming violence.
And then the Apostle continues with the strongest affirmation of the source of our unity that we can find in the New Testament. “The is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (V.4f). All of us have received the faith through the teachings and the tradition of a particular church, be it Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal or Evangelical. We feel a responsibility to maintain the truth of the teaching and the praxis that we have received. Drawing closer to the other churches sometimes seems like a betrayal of the faith as we have received it. But all our church traditions are the result of human efforts to witness to the faith in one and the same Lord; through baptism we have all been recognized as children of God, members of the same extended family, and we all live through the power of the same Spirit, who is the active presence of God in our lives.
IV. Rather than excluding each other mutually, our different traditions and forms of church life are meant to enrich and challenge each other in order to enter more fully into the truth of our common faith. The Apostle here uses the well known image of the body to unfold this understanding of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The Christian community is not an association of likeminded persons, or an institution characterized by a particular form of organization. Rather, it is like a living organism which exists through the interaction of its different members and parts. To each member of the body a particular gift has been given; thus some have been called to be apostles, others prophets, some evangelists, others pastors and teachers, and the list could be continued since the range of gifts is unlimited. They all are to be used for the building up of the body of Christ. What is said here with reference to an individual community holds true equally for the community of churches that live together in the same place.
The body of Christ grows and matures like any living organism. So the Apostle continues to develop further the meaning of the body metaphor. Children are not yet fully in control of their bodies and have difficulties coordinating their movements. Thus the community in Ephesus is being admonished not to behave any longer like children, “tossed to and fro and blown about by any wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming”(V.14). It is not difficult to translate this image into the realities of Christian community life today where many new prophets appear, drawing people whose faith has not yet struck deep roots away into their exclusive groups of followers. Responding to such challenges can become the real test of the spirit of unity. Because, as long as these prophets preach Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, they are brothers and sisters and not enemies or competitors. This does not mean that we are to tolerate and leave unchallenged any teaching that might mislead people; but the strength of our unity becomes manifest where we are able to “speak the truth in love”, recognizing that the truth never becomes our privileged possession but that we all are called “to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (V.15).
Our unity in the local community and together with all in each place therefore is not a static reality that is established once and for all, nor is it an end in itself. Rather, it grows in strength and expands to become ever more inclusive. The theme of the jubilee assembly of the AACC “Come, let us rebuild” expresses well this spirit of a dynamic unity which receives its energy from the Lord Jesus Christ, “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (V. 16). The strength of a united church, therefore, does not lie in its structures, its leadership, its sense of purpose, or its ability to act effectively. Rather, it draws its strength from the Spirit of Christ who is at work in us, from the quality of relationships which, like the ligaments in the human body, are elastic and capable of growth and expansion. Where we overcome the hidden fear of the other and learn to bear with one another in love we begin to experience new strength in our witness and in our acting, so that we become co-workers in the task of rebuilding just and sustainable communities in Africa and where ever the Lord has placed us.
Let us, therefore, pray for God’s blessing upon the ministry of Bishop Dandala as he assumes the leadership responsibility of the AACC at a time when this fellowship of African churches is being rebuilt so that it will grow in the clarity of its witness and in the strength of the relationships between its members. “And now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:20).
WCC general secrtary