Born out of Unity and for Unity - the Witness of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa in South Africa

Article excerpt

As one people

The United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) was born and constituted on October 3, 1967 by the union of the London Missionary Society (founded 1799), the Bantu Congregational Church of the American Board (founded 1835), and the Congregational Union of South Africa (founded 1859). The event is described as follows by the late Rev. Joseph Wing, then appointed as the first general secretary of UCCSA:

On October 3, 1967 we went into a Durban church as three distinct denomina-

tional bodies and we came out AS ONE PEOPLE, and despite stresses and

strains, disagreement and some defections, we have remained ONE PEOPLE

ever since (Wing 1990). Within twenty four hours of union, UCCSA committed itself to seeking union with Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists. UCCSA became one of the founder members of the Church Unity Commission (CUC) in South Africa, which was constituted on 29 January 1968. In 1972, UCCSA united with the South African Association of the Disciples of Christ, and these two unions within the space of five years earned for UCCSA the title of "trend setter" in ecumenical affairs in South Africa. Following firmly in the footsteps of the London Missionary Society, which took an uncompromising ecumenical approach to missionary activity, UCCSA could not and dared not be other than "born out of and for unity."

United for a purpose

UCCSA's inherent unity and its striving for greater unity within the church in Southern Africa, however, was never intended to be an end in itself. At the occasion of union in 1967, UCCSA's first chairperson, the Rev. J.K. Main, in his chairman's address to the assembly, reminded the church that "the test of our coming together lies in the purpose for which we are united" (UCCSA assembly 1967). That purpose, according to Main, was to be "a more effective witness in the world in which God has set us, in an age in which God has called us" (UCCSA assembly 1967).

The challenge before UCCSA during the ensuing years up until the present time has turned out to be a daunting one. The euphoria of the 1967 union could not stop the forces of disunity at work within South African society at large. As such the entire life span of UCCSA, up to the present, has been punctuated by the violence of an oppressive regime and the counter-violence that it has bred.

The history of UCCSA's witness is contemporaneous with human crisis of massive dimensions. The year of UCCSA's birth (1967), for example, witnessed the passing of the "Terrorism Act" in South Africa -- the most totalitarian lesgislation ever enacted in the country. As a church, alongside other churches and Christians, UCCSA has lived in the shadow of this legislation for a quarter of a century, with many UCCSA ministers, members and children having languished in detention, in the wake of this law.

Through its general assembly at the time, UCCSA endorsed the Message to the People of South Africa (SACC 1968) and affirmed that "because God is love, and separation is the opposite force to love, a thorough policy of racial separation must ultimately require that the Church should cease to be the Church if applied to its members" (UCCSA assembly 1968). The then prime minister of South Africa, B.J. Vorster, told ministers of religion to beware of using the pulpit for political ends.

UCCSA has not been prepared to limit the Word of God and the gospel of Christ to a conventional piety. The confrontation between the advocates of a conventional piety and the supporters of strong social action to end apartheid came to a head when the World Council of Churches (WCC) made its controversial grants to the liberation movements in 1970. The prime minister and many of the churches' own members urged the churches to withdraw from the WCC. The fruit of apartheid was reflected in the conflicting attitudes of church members, as never before. …