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Faith and Order agenda and the African region

David K. Yemba, current moderator of the Faith and Order Commission and Dean of the Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, discusses the content and reception of Faith and Order work in Africa, and the effect of African churches on the ecumenical movement in general.

11 August 1995

by D. K. Yemba, dean, Africa University

This paper was prepared for a Faith and Order consultation with Younger Theologians held at Turku, Finland, 3 - 11 August 1995.


1. Many of us who are present at this Turku consultation have had the privilege of being eye witnesses of one of the lest great events in the history of the ecumenical movement. This event is the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order held at Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in August 1993. After Lausanne 1927, Edinburgh 1937, Lund 1952 and Montreal 1963, Santiago de Compostela reminded us once again in a symbolic manner of the pilgrimage character of our ecumenical involvement. Through its theme "Towards Koinonia in Faith, Life and Witness" and so many spiritual and social activities which took place at Santiago de Compostela, the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order is still fresh in our minds.

2. A world conference on Faith and Order is a regular forum used by the ecumenical movement in this century to offer a special opportunity to the participants and the churches they represent to evaluate their ecumenical commitment. Beyond this evaluation, the world conference on Faith and Order is also a privileged occasion for renewing experience in fellowship and a time of ecumenical inspiration and education. Santiago de Compostela offered us all these supplies for our long ecumenical journey.

3. The thirty years between the Montreal and Santiago de Compostela world conferences have been a period of spectacular change in the world. In the course of that period one could notice the collapse of colonial enterprise in the Southern hemisphere, one-party ideology systems experienced in many parts of the world and oppressive apartheid politics in South Africa. It is during this period that most African countries became nations and independent states. While the international community is applauding such political developments, unfortunately other factors, internal and external ones, tend to jeopardize efforts made to build new African nations politically, economically and socially. The last decades have been notably marked by unjust distribution of resources, increasing number of political and economical refugees, the proliferation of weapons, and all types of violence against women, children and human rights activists. The consequences of this changing world situation are dramatic, especially in developing countries. Churches, aware of the Gospel demands, cannot ignore this alarming situation in their witness and service.

4. The preparation of the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order revealed also that we live in a changing ecumenical situation. So many things have happened in the churches and in the ecumenical movement in general since the Montreal world conference in 1963. I will mention just a few in an African context. The first thing to be highlighted here must be the change that occurred in the last thirty years in relation to what was called "mother churches" and "mission fields" in Africa. The change from mission fields to established churches during this period was phenomenal. The movements for national independence certainly had some impact on the change in mission strategies in Africa and in the creation of African independent churches. By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit the newly established churches assumed their responsibilities of witnessing and serving the Good News of Jesus Christ. Very often they did it in difficult and even troubled situations. The second fact to be highlighted during this period between Montreal and Santiago de Compostela world conferences is the creation of new ecumenical bodies on the continent of Africa. The All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), was established in 1963. Created by Protestant Churches to mark their solidarity in a changing world, the All Africa Conference of Churches counts today 142 member churches and affiliated National Christian Councils in 39 African countries. It is a fellowship of Christian churches whose goals are, among other things, to provide a common programme for study and research for the member churches, to encourage closer relations and sharing among member churches and to promote leadership training for both laity and clergy. The second pan-African body was founded by Evangelicals in 1966. The body is known as The Association of Evangelicals of Africa and Madagascar (AEAM). The third body to be mentioned is a pan-African Roman Catholic organization, the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), inaugurated by Pope John Paul VI in 1969 in Uganda.

5. The emergence of these new churches and pan-African bodies on the African continent and similar ecclesiastical bodies in the other parts of the world has changed the configuration of the ecumenical movement. To a certain extent, this emergence has exercised a stimulating influence within the ecumenical movement in order to meet challenges our world faces today.

6. The idea of discussing global issues at regional levels and also of including regional issues and inputs in global discussions is new. The concept of region itself is relatively new in ecumenical agenda. The initiative taken by the Faith and Order Commission in preparation for the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order by including the results from regional consultations in the study of the world conference theme has been highly appreciated as far as the African region is concerned. This initiative is a step ahead in the process of revising the Faith and order methodology. The Faith and Order methodology has so far be dominated by Western categories of thought. The new approach to interact issues across Christian traditions but also across regions is likely to reach a true ecumenical methodology if this approach is taken seriously.

7. The purpose of this paper is to indicate briefly how the African region has received and reacted to the initiation of regional consultations on Faith and Order. I will do so by presenting the results of the Harare Consultation and the Santiago de Compostela African Regional Meeting. Some personal remarks will be made at the end of the paper.

II. THE HARARE CONSULTATION: September 30-October 6, 1992

8. The consultation for the African region was organized by the Faith and Order Board, known then as the Standing Commission, in preparation for the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order. Similar consultations were held in Asia and the Pacific, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North America.

9. Fourteen participants from Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Zimbabwe were joined by those from England, France, Italy and Switzerland. They spent a week of fellowship, intense reflection and discussion. The meeting took place a time of severe drought in Zimbabwe, and the entire Southern African region.

10. The consultation was introduced to the theme of the Fifth World Conference: Towards Koinonia in Faith, Life and Witness. It also listened and reacted to a number of papers reflecting on the theme of Koinonia from African perspectives. In groups participants reacted to the Working Document which was prepared for the Fifth World Conference and it offered reflections from the African experience. The consultation had a morning prayer every day and on Sunday participants joined a number of local congregations for worship.

11. From the opening plenary discussions the following points were raised:

The World Conference and the preparatory process challenge the churches in Africa to ask how widely the work of Faith and Order is known. Although Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry was known by most of the participants, that is not the case with the six volumes of responses, the response to the responses, Church and World, and Confessing the One Faith. Christian Councils and churches should be encouraged to translate materials for wider circulation. One concern was how to make these materials accessible to the laity.

There is a degree of ecumenical lethargy in the churches in Africa, often because people are preoccupied with their own individual institutional concerns and institutional survival and identity. Each church is defensive about its own identity.

The World Conference must take seriously the question of the relation of Church and world. The question in Africa is posed sharply: what is a proper relation of the Church to the world? Tolerance, yes, but where does the Church end and become actual endorsement of other religions? How can the Church be both in the world and not of the world? How can we show both solidarity and yet maintain a critical discernment? The particular example was given of the situation of devastating drought in the Southern African region. All people of goodwill are urged to come and pray together for rain. Do we then lose the goal of evangelisation and observe the heart of the Christian Gospel?

The World Conference needs to show clearly the relation of the unity of the Church to the mission of the Church.

Ethical questions affect the unity of the Church in an international perspective. In Africa Christians left their traditional religions with the value systems of those religions. Now questions raised from other parts of the world like lesbian and gay rights seem to be asking conformity to those things which are unacceptable. What does unity of faith and life mean in this perspective?

The World Conference should harvest the insights from Christians of many denominations working together for aid, human rights, etc. We discover a unity wherever we stand together in service.

The different international structures of the World Communions affect the development of a common local view on koinonia and the growing together at the local lever. How can we establish the coming together of the local lever in each place with the all in every place without World Communions detracting from the local growth on the one hand, or imposing it on the other?

The issues raised on the understanding of koinonia from an African perspective, the view of the family, hospitality, food, rites of passage, reconciliation, gender issues, suffering and misery were seen to be particularly important for brining a truly African contribution to the World Conference. African life is characterized by wholeness and family unity. The existence of many churches contradicts this and exacerbates division. Churches are not seen to heal a society ravaged by economic and social divisions. The unity of the Church is urgently needed as an instrument of reconciliation. It should build upon the natural African instinct for wholeness. In situations of crisis or joy all come together across denominational divides and discover a sense of unity. Is this not a foretaste of unity and koinonia?

In some parts of Africa there is a relationship between tribal boundaries and denominational boundaries. Tribal bonds are strong and are sometimes re-reinforced by denominational differences. In other places Christianity breaks down tribal differences.

The World Conference will need to have a truly global perspective. Issues of justice and peace are global in an interdependent world and have implications for ecumenism and the movement to church unity. The world has "globalized" everything. Markets in London, New York, and Frankfurt, fix prices of commodities, control finance, and therefore affect the life of every part of the world. So life, for example in Africa, cannot be determined by Africa for it is caught up in the world economy, international trace, and forces beyond Africa control. It is incumbent on churches in the west to take on an ecumenical approach to suffering in Africa. We need to be intentional about pledging solidarity in a worldwide community. Individual Christian bankers and businessmen need the support and help of their churches to keep a Christian perspective in their work. The vision of Church unity demands united intentional action to affect world economic power for fair distribution of wealth and justice for all. Churches in a worldwide context need to stand in solidarity with Africa. At the same time there is need to work for African unity and churches have a role to play in this, It was suggested that the only way to make Africa united is by koinonia, a communion in faith, life and witness.

One pressing area of concern was seen to be the attempt to Islamise Africa. The World Conference will need to take seriously questions of dialogue, mission, and evangelization and the implications of these for church unity. Societies were told of oppressive Islamic power to convert to Islam by insidious methods. The most fundamentalist wing of Islam makes dialogue impossible. It was, however, recognized that just as there are different positions and groups of Christians, some who seemed to preclude any listening and who would not enter into dialogue, the same is true for Islam. Christians have a duty to evangelize and be "salt", but they must also build allies with all those of goodwill, including those of Islam. The need for united action and the advantage of action by Councils of Churches was acknowledged.

The World Conference should help us all go back to our common apostolic roots. This was agreed, but not in the sense of discovering some pristine, ideal Christianity encapsulated in static forms. Tradition was said to be the "breath of the Holy Spirit in the Church": dynamic and not static. Nevertheless, the churches which are described as "ancient churches" have a sense of the apostolic period that has much to offer to so-called "new churches". And new churches in their vitality have something to offer by purification of the attachment to the past of the ancient churches.

The place and role of women in the church is a question for the World Conference coming from the African context. The ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate was acknowledged to be a factor affecting the unity of the Church and therefore needs continuing debate in the ecumenical context so that those with different views may understand one another and the Holy Spirit may lead us into the truth.

There is a need for the Church in Africa to become more truly itself by going back to its roots to interpret traditional perspectives. However, in some situations, African traditional values and institutions have themselves been undermined. Although there is talk of integrated life, there is chaos; although there is talk of family unity, there is growing spirit of individualism; although there is talk of community, there is bribery and corruption. It was also noted that in South Africa, for example, when Christians seek meaningful dialogue with African theology they are criticized for doing "sociological black theology" which only takes account of the temporal and not of the ecclesiological.

There was a long discussion on authority and power and structures ranging over autonomy and interdependence; serving authority; conciliarity which was described not as the power of the Council but the "locus" where koinonia is expressed; listening in communion; etc. It was agreed that what we believe as Christians about the exercise of authority is contradicted by the way we live.

12. At the end of the Consultation a letter was signed by the participants and sent to the General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches in which the participants asked the AACC to consider inviting its theological committee to nurture and develop the work of Faith and Order in Africa and to work in close co-operation with the Faith and Order Commission.


13. The Africa Regional Meeting at the venue of the Fifth World Conference raised the following points:

looking at the history of the Faith and Order movement, the Africans present at Santiago de Compostela rejoiced in the participation of 39 Africans in this Conference, the third highest after Europe and America. They rejoiced in the increasing presence and participation of Africans, and aspire to a time when African views, theological perspectives and emphasis would become an integral part of the work of Faith and Order. This will happen when Faith and Order methodology takes seriously ecumenical and cultural hermeneutics.

The poor attendance at the Harare consultation in 1992 and non-representative nature of the participants list stimulated the following reflections:

WCC member churches in Africa are either unaware of the debates undertaken in Faith and Order or do not find them of high priority for their situation. Very few churches have Faith and Order as an issue on their agendas. There is a feeling that Faith and Order is not responding to the challenges of our times and countries.

Few theological seminaries and colleges have ecumenical studies on their agenda, and many do not receive Faith and Order materials. Both these situations are to be rectified through the advocacy of persons present at this Conference for Faith and Order before their Churches, to the end that more efforts will be made to: share theological concerns at meetings with neighbouring countries, create necessary structures and make room in theological curricula for ecumenics.

The theme of the Conference calls all churches and Christians in Africa to revisit African practice of koinonia (interpreted as community). Koinonia obliges us to respond actively to the grave crises in Africa, both economic and political, and all the other aspects of life where people suffer. This calls for a concerted effort to implement the recommendations of the Harare meeting:

Working together on issues of justice and peace; cooperation-operating in developmental projects; planning and acting together when evangelizing in new locations;

Making a deliberate move on the part of the so called "main fine churches" to collaborate with African Independent Churches in masters of doctrine, liturgy and social cooperation;

Entering into serious theological discussion with one another so that we can live out faith more deeply together and move towards full eucharistic sharing;

Encouraging all local churches (no master how small) to be part of the ecumenical efforts in their own country and area; setting up local as well as national Councils of Churches in each country, to promote greater ecumenical interest and activity. We encourage the Roman Catholic Church to be a member of the local and national Council of Churches, in each country in Africa;

Working toward inclusion of young people and women as integral parts of the churches' decision making and mission, and empowered to function effectively within them;

Involving in an intentional way the African churches with the World Christian Communions and endeavouring to contribute positively and creatively. We do have intellectual and experiential resources to share. We have the duty to ensure that what comes out of such meetings are translatable to communities in Africa;

As far as inter-religious relations are concerned, we refer specifically to the inclusion of African (traditional) religion in the efforts to undertake dialogue with people of other religions. We welcome the emphasis on Christian/Muslim relations, a very urgent challenge in Africa, but the influence of African traditional religion on Christianity and Christian theology in Africa can not be underrated or ignored.

Inter-Church Relations shall also be encouraged in the following manner:

The relationship being built between AACC and the Vatican needs to become applicable in Africa in terms of closer collaboration between the AACC and SECAM.

Local ecumenism in the various countries will be improved if Christian Councils call all churches to work together on Faith and order themes and to create practical ways of demonstrating the unity of the Church.

Local and sub-regional ecumenical consultations should indicate theological issues so as to break the current understanding of ecumenism in Africa as concerned primarily with ethical and physical survival issues. This has distorted the perception of the WCC in Africa.

We at this Conference have the responsibility to ensure that our churches, all member churches of the WCC, and all Christians in Africa work together so that the churches may grow towards Koinonia in Faith, Life and Witness.

14. The Santiago de Compostela meeting noted that the absence of specific references to Africa's koinonia challenges in the conference confirmed the suspicion that African churches are cool towards Faith and order because Faith and Order is cool towards Africa.


15. It was clear from the results of the two meetings presented in this paper that the Faith and Order work is not known in Africa. But the participants reacted positively to the organization of regional meetings on Faith and Order. The idea of regional meetings becomes a challenge for Faith and Order methodology. This challenge is deeper than just a question of theological methodology. After listening to these reports one of the questions we have in mind deals with the meaning of the mission of the Church and its history in the world. Are we ready in the ecumenical movement to move towards a sharing of the discovery and re-discovery of the Gospel richness in our churches and regions? To put the same question in a radical way, are we ready in the Faith and Order movement to help our churches in the Northern and Southern hemispheres to move towards a sharing of the history of the Church of God? The One Church we confess has one mission in the world. This mission, although expanded today in different corners of the world, has one purpose and one history.