Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Black Methodist Consultation – from a white perspective.

I am part of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. There is a black caucus within my church called The Black Methodist Consultation, which has just met in Johannesburg. These are some of my random thoughts about an organization that has nothing to do with me, but at the same time has everything to do with my church. Its 2015 programme notes that the “BMC exists for the Transformation of the MCSA into a truly African Church (in character, doctrine, ethos, identity and practice) by challenging and equipping Black Methodists to contribute meaningfully, actively and intelligently in the MCSA given the context of Africans”.[1]

The BMC was founded in September 1975 in response to a Methodist Church that “was a mirror image of the apartheid society in which it laboured”.[2] Despite a black majority of members, the MCSA was dominated by a white clergy, white administrators and white financial muscle. In the words of the BMC: “The BMC then had to deal with issues that negatively affected the majority of the people called Methodists”.[3] This year it celebrates 40 years of a history that has succeeded in ensuring that the MCSA now has a majority black leadership: the MCSA has a black Presiding Bishop, black General Treasurer, black Lay Leader, and a majority of black Bishops, Superintendent Ministers and Circuit/Society Stewards. It must be acknowledged that the BMC has succeeded spectacularly in transforming the MCSA from a white led church to a black led church.

I do not for one minute think that this is the end of the road. There is still much work to be done in transforming our theological reflection and practice to represent an African context. The MCSA is captive in many parts to a western, materialist theology that is driven by wealth and glamour: we honour those ministers who are good fundraisers; we choose to hold our conferences and conventions in places of glitz and glamour; and we want to see our leaders dressed in the garments of the powerful. We also betray our own African roots by so easily singing songs written in other parts of the world, while ignoring our African rhythms and idiom. We still need to engage the split spiritual personality of our members who are Methodist by day, and African Initiated Church by night. This includes the way we use traditional cultural practices at home, but hide them from our Methodist community as if being African was not acceptable in the Methodist Church.  This practice also leads us to adopt anything from our culture into our spiritual practice without thorough theological interrogation – precisely because we do not allow the MCSA into this part of our lives. So I look to the BMC to help us to reflect on how we become a “truly African Church”.

That said – I am wondering if the BMC has been too successful in the work it has already done. What I am seeing emerge is not a black-led church. I am seeing a black Methodist Church. White members of the MCSA are a dying breed – literally! We are getting older and greyer, with our younger white membership dwindling to insignificance. Some of this attrition is a reflection of the general ageing of Christian Churches in our country: in general we as the MCSA are becoming older. But in addition to this, younger white members are leaving – some to other churches, and some to no church at all. Simply put: white people do not feel like they belong. They feel excluded from the MCSA, because the ethos of the MCSA has become black. It does so by using uniforms, rigid collective organisation, black caucuses, and organisational conventions. This is essential to black spirituality, but means nothing to white identity. So I am experiencing ‘white flight’ from my church: some white colleagues have joined other churches, and some are leaving for other countries. Those who stay have disinvested from Synods and Conference: they choose not to engage in debate, but instead grumble together on their own google websites. White members have withdrawn into white local church, and leave the national church to the black majority. So we struggle to get any white members to leave their local church meetings and go to Synod or Conference. And we have no white candidates for the ministry. In fact we have had no white candidates for the past three years.  

Now this is perfectly acceptable if we have decided that the MCSA is to be a black church. In some ways it feels like we have done so. The Presiding Bishop and the General Secretary of the MCSA have just visited the BMC as if it is an official gathering of the MCSA. This is the non-statutory caucus that makes decisions for our church. What puzzles me is why the black voices – who dominate the church – need the BMC to help them to be heard in the church. The annual Conference of the MCSA is a black majority voice! It is not necessary to mobilise against white oppression, because the whites are leaving. I predict that within 20 years the existing loyal white members will have died, and the next generation will have moved elsewhere because they find no space in the MCSA. In my experience black Methodists do not care whether we lose all our white members or not. And why should they? For 140 years black members were oppressed by white members before we had our first black President of Conference. I have sympathy for the fact that the black agenda right now is about occupying positions of power and influence in the MCSA. I am tempted to adapt Steve Biko’s famous phrase and hear the new slogan: “White man you are on your own”.

So should I dream of finding ways to help white people find a home in this church? Should I form a White Methodist Consultation to help us find identity? Because our culture and race really do affect the way we think and behave, and those who make the claim “I am not racist” are often the most racist of all! It is only in acknowledging my race/culture/history that I can authentically engage people who are not like me. But a caucus of ‘white Methodists’ fills me with horror, because I cannot bear those insensitive, self-righteous white members of my church who demand that the MCSA must run according to ‘their’ norms. I cannot stomach the white members who use their wealth to patronise poor black churches; and I hate the way my white colleagues make absolutely no effort to understand their black colleagues – or to support them in their work. I want no truck with those white members who whine about ‘the good old days’ and complain about their loss of privilege. I abhor those white people who sneer at the way black people practice their faith, and who keep telling our black leadership how to do things.  

What I am reaching for is how to define my church. I embrace the fact that I live in a black majority country in a black majority church. However, when I encourage young white people to enter the ministry of the MCSA, do I tell the prospective candidates that they must learn how to ‘do church’ like a black person – or find another denomination.  I cannot help thinking of the way St Paul dreamed of a church where in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave nor free……. And dare I say it: neither black nor white?  I am reminded of the John 17 prayer of Jesus that his disciples should be one. Should we as the MCSA not be an example to our country of a “one and undivided” people? Surely one contribution we can make to bring healing to our land is for us to model a community who respects, cares about and loves one another – irrespective of race and culture?

[1] The 2015 programme – to be found at http://methodistbmc.yolasite.com/resources/BMC2015_resources/BMC%202015%20Information%20Brochure%20-%20PRODUCT%20-%20SERVICE%20-%20FINAL.pdf
[2] Cited from the 2015 programme
[3] From the 2015 programme.