A Story of Unity and Witness One Church in Five Countries
The United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) is a transnational, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic church denomination which is united across five southern African countries, namely Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Congregationalism arrived on African shores when the first missionary of the London Missionary Society, Johannes van der Kemp, landed at the Cape of Good Hope in 1799.
Since Van der Kemp’s arrival the different streams of Congregationalism that were established by British and North American missionaries operated separately until the 3rd October 1967, when a united Congregational church was formed. The union constituted the London Missionary Society, the Bantu Congregational Church and the Congregational Union of South Africa to form the UCCSA. At the heart of the establishment of Congregationalism globally and locally stands the theological and ecclesiological importance of the covenant. When therefore celebrating the historic union of the three strands of Congregationalism about 20 years later, the Rev Joseph Wing, first General Secretary of the UCCSA, observed:
On October 3, 1967 we went into a Durban church as three distinct denominational bodies and came out as One People, and despite stresses and strains, disagreement and some defections, we have remained One People ever since.
At this historic occasion the newly united church entered into a solemn covenant, using the following liturgical words which are repeated in local churches at every Holy Communion service:
We believe in God our heavenly Father
We confess Jesus Christ as God and Saviour
We depend on the guidance of the Holy Spirit
We seek to live together in God’s presence according to all that he has made known to us or will make known to us.
We covenant to worship, work and witness together in the fellowship of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa
for the building up of the Body of Christ and the manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth
The covenant ethos within African Congregationalism is undergirded by the spirit of ubuntu and bana ba tshipa tshwaraganeng (‘the children of the meerkats look out/care for each other’).
Born out of Unity and for Unity
Ever since its union, the UCCSA has been known for being passionate about the unity of the church of Jesus Christ and about the oneness of all God’s people. A mere five years after its union the UCCSA and the Disciples of Christ (South African Association) entered into organic union, a development which earned the UCCSA the appellation of being a ‘trend setter’ in ecumenical affairs. The UCCSA became known as a church who ‘punched above its weight’ in giving leadership within the ecumenical community. This feature has been epitomized by the Rev Joseph Wing often having been referred in ecumenical circles as ‘Mr Unity’:
If Joe Wing were to be given an alias it would be “Mr Unity”… there can be no doubt that Joe will go down in the history of the Church in South Africa as the one person who has steadfastly, against all odds striven for its unity. He and ecumenism in South Africa have become synonymous. (J-Francois Bill, Honouring Joseph and Marjorie Wing)
At the occasion of its Golden Jubilee Celebration Service at Amanzimtoti, Kwazulu-Natal on Sunday, 1st October 2017, where the preacher was the Rev Dr Collin Cowan, General Secretary of Council for World Mission, the church signed a formal commitment to enter into union conversations with the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa. It is envisaged that this union commitment will culminate in the formation of a united church between the two denominations within the next five years.
In spite of its relatively smaller numerical size, namely about 500,000 communicant members, the UCCSA has been known for providing brave and decisive leadership – alongside other ecumenically-oriented churches in southern Africa. This feature of the church has been particularly prominent during the struggle against Apartheid.
In more recent years the UCCSA has taken on the challenge of more intentionally being and becoming a Missional Church with a particular focus on being a Justice Church. This desire however lies deeply embedded within the theological and practical fabric of the UCCSA from its earlier days when the church was one of the few ecumenical churches who responded in a major way to the challenge of the Kairos Document in 1985. When other prominent ecumenical church leaders in South Africa vacillated and were ambivalent in their reception of the Kairos Document and its challenge to the churches at the time of its release, the UCCSA’s first response to the document was unambiguous in its affirmation and support:
Official responses of the English-speaking churches to the Kairos Document, with the exception of that from the United Congregational Church, have been either restrained or critical. (C Villa Vicencio, Trapped in Apartheid: a Socio-Theological History of the English-Speaking Churches).
The involvement of other prominent leaders of the UCCSA in publicly supporting the Kairos Document, namely Bonganjalo Goba and John de Gruchy, helped strengthen its reception in the UCCSA. Yet it was above all Joseph Wing’s unambiguous stance and his clear leadership to the church vis-à-vis the Document – in his capacity as General Secretary – that proved to be a critical factor in the positive way in which the church responded. In these post-Apartheid times the UCCSA has recognized that its profile as a church on the forefront in the struggle for social justice has been diminishing. Presently there are renewed calls within and beyond the church for a much greater engagement with issues of justice within the African sub-continent especially.
Being and Becoming a Missional Church
The UCCSA has always recognized that the quest for union and unity was never an end in itself and that the church’s ultimate calling was that of mission. At the UCCSA 2017 Assembly meeting, the following social and environmental challenges within their contexts:
- In Botswana there exists a growing need for the church to provide a moral compass to society which is losing its way
- In the Mozambique context, both church and society have to find ways to respond to the devastating impact of socio-economic and environmental disasters
- The nation of Namibia is realizing more acutely that it has to come to terms with and to address the bitter national legacies of the Nama-Herero genocide
- For South Africans the historical inequalities from the apartheid era are being compounded by the dire consequences of state capture and corruption, alongside growing political turmoil
- In Zimbabwe, the Mugabe regime’s oppressive policies and practices have systematically brought the country to its knees socially, politically and economically
When delivering the biennial Joseph Wing lecture at the 2017 Assembly, the Rev Prof John de Gruchy observed that in order for the church to be more relevant in our time and to be more effective as missional church, the UCCSA’s ecclesiastical identity as African, prophetic, ecumenical and hopeful should become more prominent.
The UCCSA’S CWM Profile
Leadership and personnel from the UCCSA have played a significant role within CWM’s formation in 1977 and also within the organization’s ongoing life, work and witness up to the present time. Some of the names that readily come to mind are the Rev John Thorne, the Rev Gordon Abbot, the Rev Ivan Petersen, the Rev Joshua Danisa, the Rev Robin Thompson, the Rev Dr. Des van der Water and the Rev Dr. Prince Dibeela.
It is clearly evident that although women are the ‘two-thirds majority’ in the UCCSA this feature is not reflected in the leadership of the church. As such the UCCSA is very conscious of one of its major challenge within its ranks, namely that of achieving gender equality within the church. These and other challenges notwithstanding the UCCSA celebrates 50 years of united work, witness and worship, resolutely embracing the letter and spirit of its jubilee theme, namely ‘Reaching new frontiers: hope and healing’.