Was the President betrayed on church reopening by a chameleon identity of SACC led COVID-19 leaders?

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By: Clyde Ramalaine & Arthur J van Nel

An about-turn that confirms a crisis of clergy legitimacy –

The novel virus christened COVID-19 has exposed many from politicians to scientists yet it is also exposing church leadership on many fronts. On the eve of SA moving to Level 3 of its March 26, 2020, launched lockdown, faith in general and church formations, in particular, are now having second thoughts on the re-opening of the church doors as of June 1, 2020. On Tuesday President Ramaphosa convened a special briefing session the only item of  his address was the subject of the ‘reopening congregational church life.’ In his previous address, the president alluded to the fact that talks were still on regarding the resuming congregational fellowship in church life expression.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that places of worship will be allowed to operate subject to strict restrictions in alert level 3 of the lockdown from the 1st of June. Ramaphosa addressed the media in Pretoria where he also announced that May 31, 2020, will be a National Day of Prayer. Ramaphosa made it clear that the decision to reopen places of worship and allow religious gatherings comes after engagements with the religious sector.

What did the President say on re-opening of congregational fellowship?

On Tuesday night, May 26 the president did two things: 1. He acknowledged that pastoral care which is a much broader construct than the narrowly conceived notion of preaching, singing, tithe/offering receiving and prayer constitutes an essential service. The president went further stating religious leaders will in level 3 be recognised as “essential religious frontline workers” for purposes of spiritual counselling to members of their faith organisations. The second thing the president announced that congregational fellowship will resume under level 3 with attendance limited to 50 with all necessary regulations as prescribed ordered to be kept as it relates to social distancing, temperature checking of attendants, sanitization of facilities and members.

What was the response from the SACC?

As soon as the announcements were made the SACC as represented by the Anglican Archbishop Makgoba whom we also learned was the chairperson for the Christian religious group that was consulted by the president was interviewed on eNCA news platform. Makgoba in his interview said “we welcome the announcement with open arms.’ He went on to add, ‘we welcome it also with a sense of trepidation for the enormous responsibility placed upon us as shepherds.’

The South African Council of Churches as represented by Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana equally so welcomed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that religious gatherings will be allowed to take place under Level 3 restrictions. He added ‘ online services weren’t possible in rural areas or for churches that couldn’t afford to stream video sermons.’

The church opening about-turn by the SACC

Truth be told hardly 48hours following the president’s announcement and the subsequent welcoming with excitement by these leaders we witnessed among others the Jesuit Institute informing SA it will continue not opening the Synagogues, the Muslim Judicial Council equally so made a similar announcement. We then learnt that the Zion Christian Church resolved not to resume congregational fellowship notwithstanding the President’s announcement. While we are not sure who made up the group of leaders of faith that were consulted by the President from the start, we may not know if there was any representation from among others the Jesuit, Islamic and ZCC leadership groups.

However, what shocked us was the fact that the SACC affiliates whom we know were very active in these deliberations with the State one after others began announcing they will not resume congregational fellowship. Of those in the SACC fold who despite welcoming the announcement on Tuesday, have come to a different mind are the Anglican Church, The Methodist Church and Rhema and Christian Revival Church denominations coming out publicly saying they will not open their respective church doors.

Shall we remind ourselves again these were the same clergy that all welcomed the President’s announcement on Tuesday?  These are the same leaders who have been in talks with the president from before the first announcement of a lockdown as planned. These are the same leaders who claimed easy victories to attach themselves to the president’s announcements as a conveyed on May 26, 2020.  Yet these now plead for a ‘common sense’ to prevail and common sense leads them that congregational fellowship in opened church doors is not a correct choice or decision regardless to the announced 50 members compliant with all regulations for level 3.

We are compelled to ask what happened between May 26th  – May 28th when the clergy  had this change of mind in denominational expressions?  We may never know yet we may surmise. These leaders that the President engaged increasingly attests a very interesting group whose morning and night speech differs diametrically.  We know they could not make the case for pastoral care to be declared and accepted as an essential service, if they in any sense could have clergy would already under level 5 have been frontline essential service religious workers with permits continuing the work of pastoral care to the congregants.  We can now categorically state it here, they could not make the case for pastoral care until some of us penned our submissions that unequivocally made the case for pastoral care please see attached our submission to COGTA and Health Departments respectively as forwarded on  May 12, 2020.

We must have very little faith in a clergy that flip-flops like the ones whom the president engaged on COVID-19. In a nutshell, the case can be made that these leaders misled the president into an announcement they claim was their work when they hardly 48 hours later could walk away from it citing, they make the president look like an idiot for having decided to open the church for groups of 50.

Keeping church doors closed is a ‘common sense’’ decision says some.

What we have learned from the presence of COVID-19 is that nations often wholly adopt the lead of other nations on how to deal with lockdown regulations. We thus heard Donald Trump announced a week ago that all faith congregational gatherings are open and he will override Governors should these resist. After Trump’s announcement, we have seen church formation leaders pronounce what will inform their respective choices. In this regard, it is perhaps important to hear a recognised ‘mega-church’ leadership in this regard  Bishop Terence Dexter Jakes of the Dallas based Potters House. The Potter’s House is a megachurch in Dallas, Texas, United States, founded by T. D. Jakes. Outreach magazine ranked it the 10th largest in the US as of 2008 based on a weekly attendance of 17,000 and a capacity of about 8,000. He is on record to have said, “ I want to admonish all my followers around the world to use their common sense and stay at home even if your governments eases the lockdown. I have seen very close friends die from COVID-19.”  [Sic]. We may also engage Jakes to be more forthcoming and to perhaps the typical mega-church setting simply can’t come back to life in formations of 50 or 100 because it takes to too much at logistics and economics to prepare a sanctuary that holds for only 50 people. We may engage Jakes on his claims of his followers and having seen close people die of COVID-19. Yet we will leave that for now. Suffice to say the average church congregational size in attendance on any Sunday morning in both the USA and SA is between 75 – 150 people. It is simply a sophism to pretend congregations are all on average 1000’s strong.  What we therefore have in definitions of  mega-churches are phenomena instead of the normal.

What then to make of the actions and reactions of the colourful SACC clergy as a key player in COVID- 19 talks with the State?

It becomes important to ask what are plausible implications for the actions and reactions of the SACC led clergy group that was engaged by the president? It is our submission that the secrecy around the delegation’s earlier government engagements – and with it the lack of reporting and feedback – have cost the broad Christian formation dearly on a few fronts in general and legitimacy in particular.

To this end we herewith note the following:
Perhaps the first critical error the negotiations between the state and religious delegations assumed was the need to identify the faith as a sector in the most clinical sense of the word. The nature of faith and here we speak from the Christian Faith in its practical sense depicts the only institution that exists not to speak on its behalf but behalf of God and people. Thus, its mandate is consummated in the reality of all aspects that define godliness and humanity. Reducing Faith to a sector is a clever ploy that is aimed confusing the identity of the Christian Church and muzzling its voice to speak when workers are robbed of a living wage when township dwellers as in the case of Khayelitsha have a 150 people share a single toilet. It robs the church to speak on the necessary land redress issue or radical economic redress. Unfortunately, the delegation appears to have attended to speak on behalf of faith as a sector in equivalence to other sectors and thus missed the golden opportunity to engage from the true space and identity of the Christian Church.

 

It will remain our submission that this group of leaders upon being informed by the president of the looming crisis of a novel COVID-19 virus, failed to advise and counsel the president in directing themselves to enquire from God to hear what God had to say on this. The state is used to engaging with labour and business formation knows the value of consultation and would have been open and willing to have a feedback what praying leaders may have enquired from the God of their profession. These leaders compromised the prophetic identity and voice of the Christian faith as representative in SA at least in government deliberations.

 

If clergy had too little time to consult wider and canvass a greater plurality of opinions from within the church landscape in preparation of engaging the President on the first occasion, why was greater care not taken on subsequent occasions to reach out to those the delegation claimed to represent? The unrepresentative nature of the delegation and its exclusion of the significant compliment of independent churches poses serious questions of its legitimacy to have entered the Union Buildings and be regarded by its interlocutors as duly representative and mandated.

 

It is further our submission that the delegation erroneously engaged government on a narrow interpretation of the church’s purpose and potential partnership in the integrated response to the pandemic. Instead of arguing for pastoral care as an essential service, a role for church-controlled NPO’s to procure and distribute humanitarian assistance, avail its physical infrastructure for quarantine and testing facilities, demanding that the brutality of the armed forces be reined in and condemning the unjustified, irrational and illegal regulations – such as the premature opening of schools.

 

It appears the delegation was fixated on corporate worship resuming thus they’re now disowning this outcome the moment it was conceded to by the government. And they did so without proper regard for the legitimacy crisis they may be subjecting us all to by association.

 

Now that some of the delegation’s core constituent formations such as CRC and Rhema announced that their buildings will remain closed concerning corporate worship, including its failure, on the very least, to reopen its cell groups, the legitimacy questions of the delegation have mutated into legitimacy questions for the broad Christian landscape. By getting what it wanted and not wanting what it got, we have been reduced to ridicule.

 

We submit that this about-turn innately holds severe impact in future representations and deliberations with the government on pertinent matters of national interest.  We shall forgive the President if he is more circumspect to accept the bona fides of church delegations in future since these leaders cast a long shadow on whether the church should in the future be considered as a meaningful actor on the stage of consultation. It would be interesting to see the energy of the same delegation on the pressing issue of land redress.

Can we claim that we preach a gospel that is good news to the poor, justice for those who are treated unjustly if the nature of the submission was devoid of any meaningful proposal that was biased to the poor? Our very prophetic voice and its alignment with mass struggles have been indicted.

What would the implications be in, for example, the government making concessions on resuming certain sport codes and competitions only to find that the very people consulted in delegations of representing sports eventually distance themselves from resuming competitive sport?

Have we produced a chameleon type clergy that can be this callous to enjoy being consulted shut the doors on others yet gloat in pride when the submissions of others are made to stand as their labour and then 48 hours later betray what they welcomed? They will forgive us to accept they engaged with the president and the state in bad faith from the start. Unfortunately, SA clergy as led by the SACC confirms a factional group.