Why we are called a United Church
Rondebosch United Church is a congregation in a southern suburb of Cape Town called Rondebosch. It was founded in 1900 as a congregation of the Congregationalist denomination in South Africa. In 1989, after negotiations for union between the Congregational and Presbyterian denominations in southern Africa that made this possible, the congregation was reconstituted as ‘Rondebosch United Church' (Congregational & Presbyterian). That means that (although the attempt to unite the two denominations in the end failed) the congregation, like some 20 others in the Western Cape, is now linked to both of these two multiracial denominations and is a constituent congregation in both.
Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa
THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH
Through the Word and the Spirit God calls the Church into being and sustains it as a people gathered into fellowship in Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ is the King and Head of the Church. Its purpose and function is to bear witness to his saving gospel to all the world, to build up in faith, hope and love those who believe in him, to proclaim his sovereignty over all of life, and to work for his will in the world.
The Church is holy because it is of God, Christ covers the sins of all believers and the Holy Spirit sanctifies it through Word and sacrament. It is catholic in that God of his love calls all people of every race, culture and class to be members in it. It is apostolic in that it is founded upon the Word of God taught by the apostles, hands on their teaching, and celebrates the sacraments and worships and prays as they did.
The Presbyterian family of churches, like all Christian churches, traces its roots back to the apostolic Church. It stands in the tradition of the Church fathers and also of the 16th century Reformers like Martin Luther, Huldreych Zwingli and John Calvin, who called the Church to return to the gospel. Tragically that call split the Church. The main Protestant streams that issued from the split were the Lutheran, the Reformed and the Anabaptist. The Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa belongs to the Reformed family of Churches, which stems from Zwingli’s reformation in Zurich and Calvin’s in Geneva.
John Calvin was born in France in 1509. He studied Latin, logic, philosophy, theology, law and classical literature at several universities in France. While still a young man he became convinced of the truth of the Reformation. As a result he was forced to flee from France and eventually found refuge in Switzerland.
Calvin became the leader of the Protestants in the city of Geneva, which became the centre of the Reformation in Europe. His theological masterpiece was the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which became the basic guidebook for very many Protestants in Europe and Britain. Calvin's particular legacy is in his teaching on the authority of Scripture, the sovereignty and glory of God, the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, the Church as the mother of the faithful, the nature of the sacraments, the priesthood of all believers, Presbyterian church structure, church discipline and the demand of the gospel that we live according to God’s will in both our private and our public lives. His ethical ideas helped to shape democratic society and Western thought.
From Zurich and Geneva Presbyterianism spread to Germany, Scotland, mainly through John Knox, who studied under Calvin, and to England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Hungary, America and eventually other parts of the world, including the Dutch and British colonies.
Some 50 million men, women and children throughout the world belong to ‘Reformed’ or ‘Presbyterian’ Churches. About 30 million call themselves Reformed and some 20 million Presbyterian. The name Reformed comes from Calvin’s intention to establish a Church reformed according to the Word of God. The name Presbyterian comes from the Reformed form of ‘polity’ or church government with ‘presbyters’ (Elders).
THE BEGINNINGS OF PRESBYTERIANISM IN SOUTHERN AFRICA
From 1795 to 1803 Britain occupied the Cape in its war with revolutionary France. Some of the occupying troops were Scottish, and W. Reid, a missionary of the London Missionary Society, inspired them to form a ‘Calvinist Society’. When the war against Napoleon led Britain to reoccupy the Cape in 1806 with the first battalion of the 93rd Sutherland Fencibles, they revived the Calvinist Society. This met every week for prayer, Bible study and public worship and invited any passing missionaries to preach.
In 1812 George Thom arrived at the Cape. He was a Presbyterian minister on his way to India as a missionary with the London Missionary Society (LMS). A meeting with the Calvinist Society led him to stay at the Cape and establish the first Presbyterian Church there. In 1814 the Scottish regiment was withdrawn from the Cape, and in 1818 George Thom left to work for the Dutch Reformed Church. The following year the depleted Presbyterians invited Dr John Philip to preach. Under his leadership they became the first Congregationalist congregation in South Africa.
By 1824 a growing number of Presbyterians formed a new congregation. In 1827-29, with help from the British Government and from Dutch Reformed congregations, they built a church in what is now the centre of Cape Town. First called ‘the Scottish Kirk’ and later ‘St Andrew’s’, this is ‘the Mother Church’ of Presbyterianism in southern Africa. The congregation also started a great work among the slaves and other people of colour. In 1827 Dr John Adamson, cousin of the famous Dr Thomas Chalmers, arrived from Scotland to be its first minister. He served as minister until 1841 and helped to found the University of Cape Town, which he served as its only professor for some time. (Later most of the ex-slaves broke away and became part of the Dutch Reformed Church’s Mission. The St Andrew’s congregation absorbed the rest.)
MISSION WORK IN THE EASTERN CAPE
In 1821 the Glasgow Missionary Society (GMS) sent its first two missionaries to work on the eastern frontier: John Bennie and William Thomson. Others soon followed. In 1824 they established a mission station at Incehra named Lovedale after Dr John Love, former secretary of both the GMS and the LMS. In later years, under the leadership of Dr James Stewart, Lovedale became the most famous Presbyterian institution in South Africa and the springboard for Livingstonia, the equally famous Presbyterian mission and institution on the shores of Lake Nyasa in the north (now Lake Malawi).
As early as 1823 a Presbytery was formed and churches spread rapidly throughout the whole eastern frontier. In due course the work was divided into three Presbyteries: Kaffraria, Mankazana and Transkei.
The mission stations on the eastern frontier eventually fell under the oversight of the Free Presbyterian Church and the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Later when these Churches reunited with the Church of Scotland, its Missions Committee took over this oversight.
Meanwhile the 1820 Settlers had also arrived in the eastern part of the country. They erected the first Presbyterian church building actually completed in South Africa, at Glen Lynden in 1828, and gradually spread through the eastern Cape.
IN NATAL AND IN THE INTERIOR
The beginnings of Presbyterianism in Natal go back to missionary work. Organised Presbyterianism began in 1850, when Presbyterians met in the Congregational Chapel and resolved to form what they called ‘The Presbyterian Church of Natal’. William Campbell, a minister of the Free Church in Scotland, accepted a call to become the first minister of this young congregation the next year.
The growth of the Presbyterian Church in other parts of South Africa followed in the wake of the Great Trek that began in 1830, the discovery of diamonds in the Northern Cape in 1870 and the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886.
IN ZIMBABWE AND ZAMBIA
In 1896 the first Presbyterian congregation in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was formed at Bulawayo, and in 1903 another at Salisbury (now Harare). Others soon followed. Several important educational institutions such as David Livingstone Secondary School, Gloag Ranch and Mondoro Secondary School were also started.
The first Presbyterian congregation in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) was established in 1926 at Livingstone and named the David Livingstone Memorial Presbyterian Church. This congregation was to remain the only PCSA congregation in Zambia until 1956. Now two Zambia Presbyteries, Central and Copperbelt, make up a vibrant branch of the Church.
FORMATION OF THE PCSA AND THE BPC
Meanwhile back in 1882 St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Cape Town initiated a move to unite all Presbyterians (if all colours) in South Africa. This led to the meeting and constitution of the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa in Durban in 1897. John Smith, minister in Pietermaritsburg, was elected the first Moderator. By the end of the next year this had brought together congregations and mission stations scattered all over the Cape (west, east and north), Natal and the Transvaal and also the congregation in Bulawayo.
Some missionaries and leaders feared white domination in a united Church, however, and felt that the Scottish missions should stay out of the union unless the PCSA adopted a rule that separate white and black majorities had to approve all important decisions. Tragically the negotiating committee did not accept this, so that all the Free Church and most of the United Presbyterian Church mission stations and black congregations eventually stayed or opted out of the union. The intention nevertheless was that all the groups would one day unite. In 1923 all the mission stations and congregations that had stayed out of the PCSA united to form the Bantu Presbyterian Church. In 1979 this renamed itself the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa (RPC).
Meanwhile in 1958, the PCSA, because its work in the countries north of South Africa had now expanded, also changed its name, to the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa.
THE UNITING PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN SOUTHERN AFRICA
Several attempts to unite the two Churches were pursued during the 20th century. All failed until, with the coming of democracy in South Africa, the RPC in 1994 initiated a new attempt. This culminated in the formation of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa (UPCSA) on 27 September 1999
Congregationalism in Africa by Dave Wanless
The United Congregational Church of Southern Africa traces it's beginnings in Africa to the arrival, on 31st March 1799, of four missionaries sent to the then British Cape Colony by the London Missionary Society. From the vision and mission of that small beginning 200 years ago, uncounted thousands have served the cause of God's kingdom in five countries of southern Africa: Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
A second missionary initiative to which the UCCSA traces its roots is the arrival of personnel sent by the Foreign Missions Board of the American Congregational Church to the Natal Colony in the 1830's. A third tradition incorporated into the UCCSA (when it was formed in1967), was the Congregational Union of South Africa, whose membership was comprised mainly of churches established along the lines of British Congregationalism by white settlers.
The work of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) entered the union in 1972. Today, the church estimates its total membership of adults and children at over 400 000, grouped in over 350 local churches, many of which have widely scattered 'outstations' in the rural areas.
In common with Congregational churches around the world, the UCCSA believes that the initial biblical model of the church was of an autonomous gathering, in one particular place, of those who had confessed the faith that 'Jesus is Lord'. They governed their life together according to the teaching of the first apostles revealed through the Holy Spirit.
Today, while each church reserves the right to govern itself according to those teachings in each local setting, we acknowledge that we are inter-dependant on all other churches in the denomination, and that, by pooling our resources, we can do more together than we can separately. Congregationalism has always been based on the biblical principle of covenant, in which individuals and groups of God's people respond to God's revelation. They bind themselves to one another and the Lord, to “walk together according to God's ways, made known or to be made known, the Holy Spirit so helping us”.
Although Congregational churches embrace a wide variety of theological positions in the varying historical and cultural contexts in which they have taken root, they trace their common understanding to the Reformation teachings of John Calvin. They also stand in the radical Anabaptist traditions that developed in England and Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Religious toleration is dear to the hearts of Congregationalists. To escape the intolerance of the English authorities, 'separatists' (as they were then known), rejected the establishment of the church in England, and what they saw as an incomplete reformation. Congregationalists were thus among the “Pilgrims” on board the Mayflower, which sailed for the new world of the American colonies in 1620.
Missionary zeal, rather than an escape from intolerance was what brought Dr Theodorus van der Kemp and his colleagues to Cape Town in 1799. The first permanent missionary station they established was on the eastern frontier at Bethelsdorp. Today the congregation continues the work of witness and mission in the present-day city of Port Elizabeth.
Missionaries sent to southern Africa have played an important part in the development of both religious and civil life in southern Africa. Among the most prominent LMS personnel was Dr John Philip, the Society's first Superintendent in South Africa. While his wife undertook the then unpopular task of organising a school for the children of the slaves and indigenous people of the colony, Philip oversaw a rapid expansion of mission work. The settler farmers initially saw him as a champion of their cause against the colonial administration, but turned against him because of his efforts to promote the adoption of Ordinance 50, which safeguarded the rights of the Khoi and San farm labourers and herders.
Educational work was an important part of the missionary task. Among the most notable institutions in the LMS work was Tiger Kloof College in the Northern Cape where, among many eminent leaders, the first two presidents of independent Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama and Sir Quetumile Masire, were educated. Inanda Seminary and Adams College arose out of the work of the American Board.
During the nineteenth century, there were many others who left a permanent mark on the life of the peoples to whom they brought the gospel. Robert Moffat of Kuruman set down the rules of the Setswana grammar, and printed the first Bible in Africa south of the Sahara in that language. The missionary explorer Dr David Livingstone joined Moffat and they extended the work northwards among the Batswana and Ndebele peoples.
From 1820 onwards, groups of English, Scottish and Welsh Congregationalists settled in the colonies and established fellowships which reflected the church life of their congregations 'back home'. For long periods, the 'settler' and 'mission' churches had little contact, although clergy often served both groups.
In 1835, the first American Board missionaries arrived to work among the Zulu people in Natal. Daniel Lindley was among the first to establish mission work around what is now the city of Durban. He did not, however, limit himself to work among the black population. He became concerned at the increasing conflict between the native population and the 'Boers' (descendants of the original Dutch settlers) who had trekked to the interior to escape British rule. For a time, he ministered to the Voortrekkers, in the hope that, by converting them from their harsh and somewhat primitive Calvinism, the tasks of mission among the colony's black inhabitants would be made easier.
Perhaps the most notable 'child' of the American Board Mission was Chief Albert Luthuli. His grandparents had been converted by one of the early American missionaries, Aldin Grout, and Chief Luthuli was a Life Deacon of the Groutville Congregational Church. He played a prominent role in the work of the South African Christian Council. Luthuli's Christian conviction led him to champion the cause of disenfranchised black South Africans, and he eventually became President of the African National Congress. He was banned by the apartheid government, and stripped of his title of Chief. The world recognised the justice of Luthuli's cause, and in 1962 he became the first South African to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Congregationalists in South Africa were among the trailblazers in other respects. Denominational tradition regarded all distinctions void in Christ, and full equality was accorded to men and women in church life. CUSA was among the first to ordain women from the 1930's onwards. In 1937, Miss Emilie Solomon, a laywoman, was appointed as the Chair of CUSA, the highest office in the denomination.
From the time of its formation in 1967, the UCCSA has been in the forefront of ecumenical endeavour. Ministers and laypeople have played an active role in the Christian Councils of the five southern African countries. The first General Secretary of the denomination, Rev Joe Wing, also served with great commitment and enthusiasm as the Secretary of the South African Church Unity Commission.
Rev Steve Titus, President of the UCCSA from 1997-1999, serves on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. The current General Secretary, Dr Des van der Water is the Chairperson of the Forum Heads of Churches in South Africa.
Rev Ian Booth of the Glenashley Church in Durban serves a two-year term as president of the UCCSA from September 1999.
The UCCSA also has strong ties with the World Council of Churches, national Councils of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Council for World Mission (the successor body to the London missionary Society) and Global Ministries, the joint Mission body of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ in the United States.
While not ignoring or rejecting its historical tradition, the church is currently involved in a search for ways in which to locate the gospel more firmly within the African context. It recognises the need for its life, work and witness to incorporate the spiritual experience and cultural diversity of all its members at the southern tip of the African continent.