Ecumenism Wanes in South Africa

The Christian Century, April 24, 1996 | Go to article overview

Ecumenism Wanes in South Africa


The ousting of the apartheid regime through South Africa's first democratic, nonracial elections in 1994 has had many positive consequences, but church unity has experienced a slump nationwide. During the apartheid era, various denominations and different faiths organized and appeared side-by-side at antiapartheid rallies, peace marches, church services and funerals of activists killed by security forces. With apartheid's demise, however, enthusiasm for ecumenical work seems to have diminished.

According to Albert Nolan, "There was a great deal more cooperation between denominations in the days of apartheid." Nolan is one of the "Kairos" theologians who in the 1980s formed a biblical and theological lobby against apartheid. "That doesn't mean churches no longer want ecumenism, but merely that each is getting on with its own job," he said. But he admitted the unity that existed during the antiapartheid struggle was not ecumenism as it is generally understood.

"We were looking at a common enemy, not at one another," Nolan explained. "There was no debate on our confessional similarities and differences. That ecumenical dialogue was a luxury we could not afford at the time." Nolan voiced uncertainty whether during that period ecumenism was actually valued highly and broadly enough. "Ecumenism has to be a grass-roots movement. There is no point in it being promoted by what we call `ecumeniacs,' people for whom it is a cause celebre, if the average community is not touched by it at all," Nolan said.

John de Gruchy, professors of Christian studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town, expressed similar views on church cooperation under apartheid. …

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