Ian McCormack seeks the reasons for the decline in the Catholic life in the Anglican Church of South Africa and how it can be addressed

The Anglican Church of Southern Africa (ACSA) is a study in contrasts. It is a Church in which the Blessed Sacrament is to be found in almost every church building in the Province – but in which daily Mass is impossible to find away from the cathedrals. It is a Church in which all confirmands are expected to make their first confession on retreat before the Confirmation – but it will probably be their last, since the sacrament is advertised virtually nowhere.

It is a Church which has allowed women to become bishops since 1993 – but has never had one. It is a Church which was heroically at the forefront of the fight against apartheid, and yet still finds its congregations largely defined by skin colour. It is a Church where there is a real yearning for the religious life – but in which many of the clergy do not say Morning and Evening Prayer every day. It is a Church which is served by some of the most dedicated and self-giving priests I have ever met – but in which there is precious little coherent theology of priesthood, and indeed little understanding of catholic ecclesiology as a whole.

Saldanha Bay

I was privileged to make two trips to South Africa during my time as an ordinand, spending four months there in total. I visited six dioceses in different parts of the country, though the bulk of my time was spent in the Diocese of Saldanha Bay, which was created when the old Diocese of Cape Town was divided in 2005. Saldanha Bay is still a massive diocese, comprising parts of the city of Cape Town and the entire east coast to Namibia. It thus includes inner-city, suburban, and deeply rural parishes.

The most inspiring experience of my time there was when I travelled to one of the northernmost parishes in the diocese, set in an immensely poor area where there has been little work since the mines closed, and in which the cosmopolitanism of Cape Town has yet to arrive. One priest – living apart from his family whose work and schooling keeps them in Cape Town – looks after five churches, two of which are an hour’s drive from his home. His work is heroic, and deeply rooted in the catholic faith. Since each church has one midweek Mass, there is almost a daily Mass within the (massive) area under his care. A house of mission priests could work even greater wonders here.

Lack of clarity

In Cape Town itself, the situation is more mixed. There are more heroic priests doing great work in the townships and settlements. But elsewhere there is a lethargy and a lack of clarity and vision about why the Church exists and how it should move into the future. What is the reason for these contrasts?

I believe there are three reasons: apartheid, apartheid, and apartheid.

The fight for equality

In its earlyyears, the Anglican Church in South Africa had a mixed track record with regard to racial equality: it saw one of its duties as ensuring that mine-owners treated their black workers decently, for example, but was happy to pay black clergy less than white clergy. With the passage of time and the growth of racialist policies, however, the Church’s voice became slowly more prophetic, culminating in the righteous position exemplified by Fr Trevor Huddleston cR and his work in Sophiatown. In some senses one of CR’s greatest contributions to the South African Church was to inspire, form and nurture the vocation of Desmond Tutu.

His (ultimately successful) fight against apartheid does not need retelling here: but with it went an equally strong conviction that equality in one sphere must lead to the championing of equality in other spheres. Readers of New Directions will be familiar with the argument that women’s ordination is a matter of equality and justice: the Church in South Africa had no defence against it. Anglicans there were so used to seeing Tutu as their leader and hero in all things, and bought so completely into his heroic stand against the evils of apartheid, that when he turned his attention to (so-called) equality in other areas, those who were opposed to the innovation were simply unable to challenge his position, and quickly faded away, along with many aspects of the catholic life. The destruction of apartheid at much the same time meant that ACSA was faced with an identity crisis, since so much of its energies had gone into the fight against it.

Back to basics

These are not, of course, the only reasons for the decline in the marks of the catholic life: the spread of secularism on the one hand and Pentecostalism/Charismatic religion on the other are significant factors. The Church is also desperately searching for a new prophetic voice: poverty, AIDS, and ongoing racial tension are all areas which desperately need addressing. But the foundations have been destroyed, and the righteous do not know what to do. Perhaps the answer lies in going back to basics. As already mentioned, there is a thirst for the catholic life, among clergy and laity alike. South Africa needs priests who will take the initiative and reintroduce the daily Mass, public daily offices, and advertised times of confession.

My feeling is that people want these things, because they sense that life is fuller with than without them. They will not solve any problems over night: but they are a pretty good place to start. ND