The Burden of Tradition (2): The Church in Cape Town
The map of Cape Town is dotted with churches all over, in areas of affluence as well as areas of poverty. Churches are particularly prevalent in the town ships. During the first three months of this year, on my way to the University of the Western Cape, on a daily basis, I would pass some twenty of them. What has struck me is that they are in very little use, and nobody seems to stay on the premises. Probably most of these churches are only used about 10% of any particular week. Most of these churches are Protestant, with an increasing number of Newer Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches (NPCs). In the townships these church constructions are very simple, brick work, maintenance free, hopefully. Burglaries are however rife and any loose property gets stolen (even tea cups) and there is nothing else to expect with nobody staying on the premises. One can wonder what the purpose is of such a building, is it merely a symbol of confessional identity, saying, this is a Lutheran church, we are here?
There are of course exceptions. A popular church, notably amongst some of the NPCs, automatically becomes much busier. There something would happen almost on a daily (evening) basis. And the real exception you would find in down town Cape Town. But then you would largely leave the Protestant tradition behind. Go to the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Roeland Street and you would find the church being in use throughout the day, but that is also the way a cathedral should ‘behave’. The one church that sticks out in terms of usage, however, is St George’s Cathedral, which is Anglican. Anglicanism is not really Protestant; Anglicans’ self-definition is that they are Anglican, something in between Roman Catholic and Protestant, but surely there are also very Protestant Anglicans; in terms of how the church building is used, just go to All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi, and you would probably find, still today, that this church also is locked most of the day. Not so with St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town. Any given day, there would be at least four different occasions of worship, most typically putting the Eucharistic service (Holy Communion) in the centre. The first service in the morning is a Eucharist service, on a daily basis. Between ten and twenty people would be there at 07h15 a.m.; one immediate side effect is that the church is open for anyone wishing to enter, and its main nave as well as its various chapels are frequently used for personal devotion throughout the day. Thanks to this firmly established tradition, the church as a building has a presence of the Holy Spirit, as it is saturated with prayer.
One cannot easily emulate this kind of church in a township, but somehow I feel that the Protestant tradition of preaching and prayer and the little use of the sacraments (of Baptism and Eucharist) makes the church buildings, as they now stand out in their poverty, into a huge problem rather than an asset. Why are they there in the first place if they are not used to a maximum?
Protestantism in Africa today is problematic and it seems that those in the leadership of the so-called mainline churches (Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, Baptist, etc.) may not be quite aware of the actual state of affairs. Some of these churches have been heavily financed by their (former) missions in Europe and the US, just in the effort to get a building on a plot of land; and through agencies like the Lutheran World Federation, a rule about a multi-purpose building was established (because of various state back-donors, church development agencies had to demonstrate that the building would be used for activities other than worship: basically socio-economic development). Very little of these activities for developments are seen today, what is left is the performance of religious activity.
One should not forget, however, that traditionally, the missions from Europe and the US, having become independent mainline churches, have played an enormous role in education, and the church building, if there was not enough funds for own school buildings to be erected, was invariably used for basic primary and secondary schooling throughout the week. One cannot overestimate this kind of contribution to education in Africa. However, there still is no proper answer to the question, why a building with the sole purpose of worship? Why a building if it is used only 10% of the week?
One should not underestimate comments by Steve Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, made almost forty years ago. Himself highly appreciative of Christianity and especially its founder, he was at the same time utterly critical of the kind of church brought to Africa by the missionaries. Regarding worshipping in a particular building for the sole purpose of worship, having traditional African ways of life in mind, he said the following: “Worship was not a specified function that found expression once a week in a secluded building, but rather it featured… in our dances and customs in general…” (Steve Biko, I Write What I Like. Northlands: Picador Africa, [a selection of his writings, edited by Aelred Stubbs], 2007, 102f.).
What we could not say forty years ago, but are bound to say today is that Africa (south of the Sahara) has embraced the Christian church. But it is doing so in its own way. It is far too early to make any definite comments on what the way forward is going to be like. Two things may be stated. First, churches in an urban setting like St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, which is open and in use throughout the day, and where liturgical worship is the core activity, will always be meaningful and appreciated, be it in Africa or in Europe. Second, indications are that the emerging churches in modern Africa, be they of the Pentecostal and Charismatic kind, and they are dominating the Christian scene in contemporary Africa, but thoroughly rooted in African convictions or even the indigenous churches like the Zionist Church, are very loosely associated with any church building as such. They can worship anywhere, often in abandoned store houses or industrial complexes, in theatres or any other suitable space; alternatively, and this happens to go with a trend worldwide, mega-churches in huge complexes; or as the Zionists do it at Easter in Moria, near Polokwane in Limpopo Province in northern South Africa: come together in a celebration of the main message of Christians: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, around three million of them, to be sure an open-air event, causing enormous traffic problems on the way back to Gauteng (Johannesburg etc.) on Easter Monday.
We do things because others did before us and easily these things, which have become traditions in the process, become a burden. It need not be so. Tradition rightly understood, being a summary of something essential, and for Christians it is quite clear what this core tradition is about, is supposed to be liberative, opening the perspective into new things.