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Africa: Conference on African Culture and Anglican Liturgy

Posted on: December 19, 1996 4:02 PM
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Some 20 African Church leaders met near Johannesburg in November to discuss African culture and Anglican liturgy. It was the second conference on this subject in three years, both of them organised in association with the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa (CAPA).

The Very Revd Jo Seoka, Dean of Pretoria and a guest speaker, told the conference that the development of African spirituality has been handicapped by a Western approach to the subject in which African experience has been treated as an afterthought and African interpretation of the Gospels as incomplete. He said that, in fact, "In African spirituality the 'Great, Great One' is the one who penetrates all beings and is the source of all being," and this concept is amazingly Biblical and predates the arrival of Christian missionaries.

He said that the African story of creation is consistent with the Genesis story, except that it avoids controversy about the number of days in the process of creation. Religion for Africans, he told the conference, is nothing more than "human being, spontaneous response to a living power, the wholly Other, a power mysterious, present." It is this power which evokes that which is divine in human beings, seeking to reconcile what is fallen in human nature and bring it back into union with everything. According to African tradition religion is a channel through which human beings relate to one another: they relate to the Ancient of Days, the source of all things, through whom they are related to one another.

African people have come to understand their religion through stories told and retold in the oral tradition, said Dean Seoka. African people believed in God, revealed in the wonders of creation, long before the missionaries came.

Dean Seoka told the conference that African people do not believe their ancestors may be worshipped but they insist on giving them the respect they gave them when they were alive. The ancestors do not compete with God and they are not gods, but they are of God. The notion of "ancestor worship" is a misunderstanding.

Western culture, said Dean Seoka, sees things in personal terms, while African culture is communal and suggests, "I belong therefore I am."

Dean Seoka suggested that these things must be considered in relation to liturgy. "We need to ask critical questions about the Africanization of our liturgy," he said. "What do we mean," he asked, "when we say Christianity should be Africanized? What will it cost us to revisit and to reject the teachings of the past about African culture?" He told the conference that there is a responsibility to try to make worship more meaningful and acceptable.

Dr John S. Pobee, a member of the staff of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, addressed the conference on the subject of, "African Cultures, African Liturgy, Anglican Communion." He said that the cornerstones of religion are belief, ritual and religious experience. "Liturgy is not only the ritual," he said, "it is ritual that captures and articulates a religious experience and a religious belief. It is 'materialised prayer.'"

Liturgy is not to be seen in isolation from godly living, said Dr Pobee. He noted the teaching of John Chrysostom that we have two altars, one in the sanctuary and the other in the public place. Noting as an example the long civil war in Mozambique (with 1,000,000 dead and 3,000,000 displaced) and the civil disorder in Zaire, he asked, "Does the liturgy of the Gospel of hope not have anything to do or to say to this?"

Dr Pobee said that today the Anglican Communion has outgrown its English provenance. "Our self-understanding as Communion compels us to look for a paradigm of diversity in unity," he said, referring to the imagery of Revelation 7 where people of every nation, of all tribes, peoples, and languages, stand before the throne of the Lamb to praise God.

Dr Pobee noted that the Book of Common Prayer has been the model and paradigm for Anglican liturgy but now has limited importance and value among people who are not English. He said that Africans must ask themselves, "In what does fidelity to the Anglican tradition consist." He quoted the Orthodox theologian, G. Florovsky, who said that tradition is the witness of the Spirit. From this point of view, "Tradition is not so much the text of the Book of Common Prayer as the living experience of the Holy Spirit in the present." At the same time, Dr Pobee stressed the principles of the Book of Common Prayer, notably commitment to the use of vernacular languages, emphasis on the Biblical insight that the Eucharist is a gathering of the people of God in one place, and participation in the mystical body of Christ. "If you do not know whence you came," he said, "neither will you know whither you are going."

The two parts of the Eucharist in the Prayer Book are the liturgy of the word and the ministry of the sacrament, Dr Pobee reminded the conference."The task is to find the African's idiom and art with which we can proceed in the ministry of the word and of the sacraments." He asked, "In what liturgical form and language can we express adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication in the African idiom so that it can grip and engage the African for God through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit?"

At a practical level, Dr Pobee suggested that dialogue prayers are important everywhere in Africa and that the Eucharistic prayer used by Africans should be composed in that form. He also stressed the importance of spontaneity in African worship, proposing that, "the rite (words and actions) be so enrapturing for the worshippers that they could without inhibitions express their innermost feelings." Recurring themes in traditional African prayers, which reflect traditional faith and are not inconsistent with Christianity, require attention. These include divine governance, the earth as fertile mother of living things, heavenly symbols of prosperity and good fortune, mediation and reciprocity, crisis and desperation, victory and war, old age and death, gratitude, conversion, forgiveness and purification, transmission and continuity of life, health and healing, memorial, protection from evil, judgment and peace, and sacrifice as the means of right relationships between women and men and with God. He asked if the structure of Eucharistic celebration as a whole (and not only the central prayer) could be so moulded along the categories of traditional sacrifice that it would be more meaningful to African people.

Archbishop Njongonkulu Winston Ndungane visited the conference. He said that liturgists are those who energise people to worship God so they can have a vision for the future and energy to realise what they want. He reminded the conference that Africa has a rich history: it is the cradle of humanity and of the beginnings of Christianity. He also recalled leaders of the 1960's and their vision of pan-Africanism and the creation of a United States of Africa with cooperation for the common good of all.

Archbishop Ndungane said one of the major challenges for Africa is the question of poverty. "If we want to retain the dignity of people," he said, "we have to address poverty." He said it is important for Anglicans to meet to determine the issues and the agenda. He spoke of the need for liturgical celebrations to be part of the people's expression of exuberance and not something they do afterwards.

Representatives of the Provinces reported on their regions. The Provinces of Nigeria and Tanzania have published new Prayer Books. In Zambia the occasional office books have been translated into local languages and the use of local music is now being encouraged. In Uganda work is being done on a draft of a new Eucharistic rite. The Church of the Province of Southern Africa has produced the Prayer Book in eight languages and work is underway on two more languages. The Province has completed all assigned supplementary work--occasional celebrations, praying at home, a bishop's book, and other material. Separate hymn books have been required in each of the languages; the most recent to be supplied is in Zulu. An altar book has been produced in 14 languages. Work has started on a children's Eucharist and on a new English hymn book which the bishops have requested.

The conference discussed its relationship with the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa and agreed to strengthen it. Members of the conference also agreed on the structure of a committee to administer its future deliberations.