South Africa

In the last few weeks, I have been thinking a fair bit about religion in the public sphere in South Africa and have – not for the first time – been rather dismayed by the level of discussion. This is a topic that could fill several books, but I wanted to record a few points here, even if they only serve as a springboard for further reflection.

I couldn’t help being struck by the juxtaposition of two clusters of discourse around this topic in the course of the same week. The first was the reaction (here, among other places) to Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s speech suggesting – in rather measured tones – that religious traditions could make a positive contribution to the social good by influencing our legal framework. The second was a conference at which a group of Christians got together because they were concerned that freedom of religion is under threat in South Africa.

The problem, as I see it, is that the shrillness of the reaction to the Chief Justice’s speech only serves to underline the concerns of those who feel that freedom of religion is under threat, while the issues around which certain Christians seem intent on lobbying – such as the right to spank children – only confirms the prejudices of the secularists who see religious groups as inherently oppressive and basing their arguments on an arbitrary appeal to (often conflicting) religious texts.

In the midst of the heat-without-light reaction to Mogoeng’s speech, Ryan Peter published a helpfully sane article entitled “Are today’s secularists really secular?” In it, he argued that, instead of wanting to keep a neutral secular space, today’s secularists are rather seeking to impose their own views on others. While Christians should not be able to impose their ethical standards on others – and, predictably, much of heat generated had to do with sexuality – neither should secular society be able to impose its norms onto Christians, and, presumably, the followers of other religions.

Now this is fine as far as it goes, but the problem is that it does not go that far, and I fear that the idea of a neutral public sphere is something of a modern illusion. Acknowledging this does not mean retreating into theocracy, but it does mean that the sort of conversation the Chief Justice was initiating is a conversation that needs to be had. And it forces us to reflect on where our social values and norms come from, the different weight that we give different “rights,” as well as their sometimes mutually incompatible nature.

The fact is, there are areas in which the law will inevitably curtail freedom of religion in one form or another. Should the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses be allowed to die because their parents’ religion does not allow blood transfusions? Should Quakers be exempted from paying taxes that fund the military because their religion requires them to be pacifists? Should Christians who appeal to certain biblical verses be exempted from laws prohibiting corporal punishment? And, if they are going to base their argument on such verses, what is to stop another group arguing that stoning adulterers is a religious duty? The list could continue and it is small wonder that secularists accuse religious believers of cherry picking from often conflicting religious texts.

Yet there are also weighty matters at stake at stake here. Not so long ago, a Methodist minister who had been disciplined by her church for supposedly marrying her female partner, took her church to court on the grounds that they had discriminated against her unconstitutionally. While she didn’t win, it was not inconceivable that she could have done so (and she is continuing to appeal the judgement) and some of her most vocal supporters are precisely those people attacking Mogoeng’s speech. Moreover, while the forthcoming Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill has been amended to exclude religious bodies, there are nevertheless voices that would like to see religious groups forced to comply with what is seen as gender equality.

These are real issues and they will not ultimately be solved simply by appealing to a supposedly neutral public sphere, for it is precisely the values of that public sphere that are being contested. This is not to suggest a retreat into theocracy, but rather that we should critically examine where the values of the public sphere are coming from and what they are informed and nourished by. Neither secular nor biblical fundamentalism is particularly helpful here – and the former can be just as fundamentalist as the latter. But what is notably absent – at least as far as I can hear – is a robust articulation of the Christian vision of the human person in the South African public discourse.

Of course it’s understandable, given our history, that South Africans should be wary of the role of religion in the public sphere. Too often, Christianity has come to be identified with a fundamentally pessimistic view of humanity in which human potential is stunted out of deference to an arbitrary and vengeful God. And yet, ousting and controlling God does not so much mean freeing human beings as redefining and reducing them. For what is at stake is not so much God as humanity – what it means to be human. For ultimately, for Orthodox Christians, to quote the words of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive. And the life of a human being is the vision of God.”


Some brief and probably disjointed appendices:

1. I’m not the only one who has noted the lack of any local forum for discussing issues of religious or theological concern in a serious way, and now Ryan Peter has come with a new initiative which looks promising. Do go and look at The Christian Blogger, which he is in the process of setting up.

2. Very close to the surface of any discussion on religion and public life are questions of sexuality. I’d better not start on this now as it probably requires a separate post – if not several books – and I sort of wish someone else would write it. But there are important questions that need to be probed, especially on the contrast between how such discussions play out in our context with how they played out in the early Church. (Of course, there are other issues too – individual autonomy, economics, etc. – but they too will have to wait).

3. I’ve recently started listening to the podcast series Paradise and Utopia by Father John Strickland on the rise and fall of Christendom – and on how the faith of the early Church influenced the society around it. It raises issues that are not unrelated to this post and which I may say more on again.

 I’m sort of thinking aloud here and may not be expressing myself well.

This is more than a day late for the feast of Saint Nicholas, and the things I had been considering saying on the punching of heretics will have to wait. But as I drove around Cape Town yesterday, seeing flags flying at half mast and feeling shaken by the news of Nelson Mandela’s death, I couldn’t help being moved by the appropriateness of him dying on the eve of the feast of the great saint of Myra. (Sister Catherine Wybourne has some thoughts on this connection here and Deacon Stephen Hayes has written on what it means to speak of Madiba as an icon here).

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this seems appropriate – they were, after all, two very different figures and comparisons are probably dangerous. There is also a danger in viewing Madiba in ecclesial terms which are inappropriate for him – to speak of a secular saint is a contradiction in terms.  Plus there is the real danger of trivializing his legacy as those who once did everything in their power to work against him now seek to co-opt the once-banned image.

But as I drove around thinking about this, I kept being reminded of Father Thomas Hopko’s words about Saint Nicholas. In The Winter Pascha, he writes that Saint Nicholas is not known for anything extraordinary, but that what stands out about him was that he was a genuinely good man. Father Hopko continues: (more…)

A couple of weeks ago I went to Pietermaritzburg to see my mother, travelling by bus instead of flying as I had done on recent trips. And, while driving through the Karoo, I realised that, while I had travelled through it by bus shortly after coming back to South Africa, that had been at night. I realised with something of a shock that it must have been at least fifteen years since I had travelled through it by day.


I have always loved the Karoo, that vast expanse of emptiness and semi-desert at the heart of South Africa. I remember driving through it as a child and, long before I had heard of the Desert Fathers or learnt the language of monasticism, longing to wander off into it, plunging myself into its arid emptiness. This was not an obviously religious longing, at least not in terms of the religious vocabulary that I knew at the time. And yet I somehow think that it may account for quite a lot. Later on I used to fantasize about a monastery in the Karoo, although I have learnt in the meantime that fantasies are not a good basis for monasteries.

Driving through the Karoo I became aware of how air travel has distorted our sense of time and space, although I suppose that our ancestors could have said similar things about any automated travel. It is so easy to hop between cities without realizing what is between them, and to rarely experience the endlessness of a road that stretches on and on. And it is so easy to assume that the concerns of the “city” – and of instant communication that now encroaches even into the “desert” – are indeed the real and only ones.

I have been reflecting a bit in recent months on the need for a thorough consideration on how the patristic teaching on the passions relates to the various “issues” that are thrown at me through the daily news. From rape and violence, to greed and corruption, to the way we are programmed to become consumers, to the various discussions around sexuality, to what often seems like a mindless cultivation of anger and aggression … the list could continue and I suspect that many of them are intertwined. And yet all too often the response of religious leaders is mere platitudes and moralism, whether of the “right” or of the “left.”

Driving through the Karoo and thinking about these thoughts that had been going through my mind, I was reminded that the systematization of Christian thinking around the passions and the virtues originated in the desert. It was in the starkness of the Egyptian desert that the early monks came to insight into what it means to be human, the forces that shape and control us, and how we can engage them at their roots and be transformed by actively cooperating with God.

The proper locus of theology, in an Orthodox understanding, is in the desert. This is not just the emptiness or the endless permutations of postmodern thought. The desert has a history and a clearly dogmatic content. But it is a content that leads to transformation. And somehow, if we are to speak of transforming society, we surely need to pay attention to this content.

Okay, I’m always a little wary about these sorts of things, but I have gone and entered the SA Blog Awards. Deacon Stephen Hayes of Khanya made me aware of this and suggested that it would be a good way to make more people aware of the existence of Orthodox Christianity, something that far-too-many South Africans are unaware of. I think that Khanya probably stands a better chance than this blog, which has really been rather neglected of late, so if you want to vote it might be better to go there and to vote for it. In any case, I’m putting the badge in my sidebar in case anyone wants to vote for this blog.

Another, perhaps more compelling, motivation for entering was that I had thought that all the blogs which were entered in the “Religion and Spirituality” section would be listed on the SA Blog Awards website, and this would have been a good resource to see who is blogging in this area. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case, which is rather a pity. Of course, I would find it rather embarrassing to be associated with an award in a category for “spirituality” (“religion” I can more or less live with, Father Schmemann notwithstanding), but what can one do?

The truth is that there doesn’t seem to be very much going on in the area of Christian or theological blogging in South Africa – I have the impression that there was more happening a few years ago, but, well, perhaps that is just how blogging has gone. I’m aware of two places online that list such blogs, but neither are that up to date or reliable. Amatomu is notoriously unreliable. The blog it lists first purports to be Christian, but, the less said about it the better, except that if that is genuinely the most popular religious blog in South African then we are in a worse state than I realised. The second is a Muslim blog that doesn’t seem to be particularly South African. The third looks like a decent enough Muslim blog, although it’s been a bit inactive recently. The fourth is a Christian blog that has been inactive for a few years. The fifth is Khanya. After that one gets some decent Christian blogs that are (relatively) active. The other resource that lists blogs that claim to be Christian is Mark Penrith’s My Blogroll. This is also outdated and while Mark, being a Calvinist, is perfectly entitled to his categories, these don’t make any sense to someone who is not a particular type of Protestant.

The other curious thing is that I have not seen any Roman Catholic blogs in either of these lists. I have found a couple myself, but this just reinforces the perception here that Christianity is a basically Protestant thing. (Of course, it’s a bit ironic that there are two Orthodox blogs in the top ten blogs at Amatomu – this one hovers somewhere around there – but that’s a bit of an anomaly!)

Anyway, as a start to compiling a list of Christian blogs that are both reasonably irenic and reasonably serious (or at least written by people who seem to know what they are talking about) I have come across the following blogs. I should note that my time is limited and so this is by no means exhaustive and I would value helpful pointers. I hope that I don’t offend in any of the categorizations I give and I fear that I will end up using words like liberal and conservative which I really hate doing as I find them seriously inadequate, but, well, one has to use words… This roughly follows the Amatomu order, which would not necessarily be my order of preference.

  • Khanya, Steve Hayes, Orthodox, includes wider ethical, social and political reflections.
  • Urban Ministry Live and Unplugged, Thomas Scarborough, Congregationalist (fairly Evangelical I think), lots of short posts about his pastoral experiences.
  • Because He Lives, Mark Penrith, Baptist, Calvinist but Irenic and generally thoughtful.
  • An Uncommon Path, Dion Forster, Methodist, left of centre – or has this become the new mainstream? Into “spirituality” which puts me off, but serious and irenic.
  • My Contemplations, Cobus van Wyngaard, Dutch Reformed, engaging South African reality. Also blots in Afrikaans at Anderkant. One of the more valuable SA bloggers and I should read him more, especially in Afrikaans.
  • Ryan Peter, Protestant, somewhere on the Evangelical to post-Evangelical spectrum (I think), has written some worthwhile things but I find his blog difficult to navigate so don’t often go there.
  • Daylight, Stephen Murray, another irenic Calvinist, serious if infrequent.
  • Carpenter’s Shoes, Jenny Hillebrand, fairly evangelically-inclined Methodist (I think), has fostered some serious theological reflection although now mainly focused on pastoral experience. One of my favourites.

Of those blogs that don’t fall into the Amatomu top 25 (or aren’t there at all), I would also include:

  • A Piece of my Mind, Reggie Nel, Dutch Reformed, infrequent but worthwhile. (Also in Afrikaans at Kopstukke).
  • Blissphil, Philippa Cole, Methodist seminarian, left of centre and into “spirituality,” nice tone but too into “inclusivity” for my tastes.
  • Quod Semper, Peter James-Smith, Roman Catholic, not terribly theological, but intelligent and irenic reflection.
  • Mark Cogitates, Mark Nel, Roman Catholic, right of centre but generally irenic. Cat lover, which is always a good thing!
  • African Distributist, Jonathan Waldburger, Roman Catholic, focus on Distributism. Inactive but says he intends resuming blogging, which would be a very good thing.

This is a very rough list. I may have missed something obvious and further suggestions would be welcome. And I do rather wonder why there are not more Catholics blogging, or are there?










Some readers may be interested to know that we have just made public the new website for Bedehuis Bethanië in Robertson that I have been working on for the past few weeks. Unfortunately for most readers of this blog it is in Afrikaans, and some things still have to be added, but it can be found here if you are interested.

In case anyone is interested, I have recently uploaded two files of Orthodox liturgical music in Afrikaans. The Kontakion in Tone 3 can be found here and “All the generations…” from Good Friday Vespers can be found here. They come from CDs that Father Zacharias has produced and I have uploaded them because I am busy working on a new website for Bedehuis Bethanië which I’ll link to once it has been made public – which I hope will be reasonably soon!

Update: I’m afraid that those links aren’t working, but you can listen to them here.

As I mentioned previously, I have been working on a new site for Life-Giving Spring and it has just gone public. I was originally just going to make a page on this blog for those who may want to contribute to what we are doing, but realized that making a separate site allows one more freedom for putting up material that one will need to have somewhere in the long term anyway. I will hopefully develop it more before too long once things are more organized.

As one can see on the news page, I am making slow progress and have had to accept that it will take time to settle. And I am having to get used to living in two places at once – the biggest disaster so far happened this week when I forgot my laptop’s cord in Robertson, when I had been planning to do serious computer week on the weekday evenings! But overall, I have been delighted with the way things are coming together there and with the space that is emerging… and I am very grateful to God for the people who are supporting this venture!

For anyone in or around the Cape Town area who is interested in the interface between psychology and Christian faith, the Orthodox Archbishopric of Good Hope is hosting a lecture by Professor Renos Papadopoulos, director of the Centre for Trauma, Asylum and Refugees at the University of Essex and Honorary Clinical Psychologist and Systemic Psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, London. As consultant to the United Nations and other organisations, he has been working with refugees and survivors of political violence and disasters in many countries. He consults and offers specialist training courses internationally.


Psychology and Orthodoxy:
Complementary or Contradictory

Thursday, 5 January at 7 pm for 7.30 pm

at the Hellenic Community Centre, 24 Bay Road, Mouilles Point.


The outline for the lecture reads:

In our increasingly demanding, perplexing and oppressive modern world, people are constantly looking for answers. They often turn to psychology to find comfort, meaning and reason. Is psychology able to provide reliable and appropriate answers and solutions? In this talk, Professor Papadopoulos will explore the relationship between psychology and Orthodoxy, their similarities and differences. Particular attention will be given to the issues of suffering and traumatising experiences, within the context of both everyday living as well as in situations of natural or man-made disasters. The talk is aimed at medical practitioners, other mental health professionals, students, as well as the general public. There will be plenty of time at the end for questions, discussion and dialogue.

There is no entry fee, but please call Erine on 021 433 2374 to reserve seats or Evgenia on 082 311 9885 for more details.

Life-Giving Spring
Orthodox House of Prayer

It’s about time to share something of what is going on around here, even though things are still very much in process. As some readers of this blog know, I have been going out to Robertson regularly for the Liturgy (I posted some photos here) and during the course of the year the possibility has emerged of moving there and developing a place of prayer and retreat not far from the church. A building on the neighbour’s farm has become available to rent and I am in the midst of moving there, although exactly how it must develop must still become clear. I am – slowly! – learning that God makes these things clear one step at a time.

View of the house from the farm road

The Orthodox Church around here is still small and fragile and we have limited resources. Yet we are also immensely privileged and have a heritage that is largely unknown in this country. While the tasks ahead of us are great, we need to create the space to nurture an inner life, enter into a rhythm of prayer, and allow ourselves to be formed by the tradition of the Church. This new venture is a small and tentative initiative to establish a place of silence, prayer and spiritual formation, in order to make the riches of the Christian tradition available to those who seek God in our context. Although informed by the monastic tradition, it does not claim to be a monastery but is simply a small step whose future will become clear with time.

Front entrance of the house. We plan to paint it and replace the security doors, and also get some burglar bars put on.

The project has the blessing our His Emminence ArchbishopSergios who is encouraging me to take things one step at a time and to see where God leads us. It will also work closely with Bedehuis Bethanië although it will have its own identity and maintain a certain separation. Father Zacharias and I are hoping to offer some weekend retreats or study days together. But how things develop depends very much on who God sends and what is asked of us.

View from the Church property. The sheds in the foreground are not part of what we will be using.

At least in the beginning, I will be keeping my job in Cape Town and just going there for the weekends – in fact in the last week I have had very positive news about work which should hopefully lead to a more part-time post in more conservation orientated binding work. If things work out according to plan, I hope to be able to work perhaps three days a week and go out to Robertson for long weekends. However, being in Cape Town is not only a practical necessity for work, but is also related to the needs of the Church here where I am being asked to contribute – and the thought of having more time freed up for this feels a great relief. His Emminence has very kindly offered me a room close to the Metropolis in Rondebosch for when I am in Cape Town which will not only save on rent, but will also make it easier to be involved with the local Church.

The building in Robertson is very basic and, because it is rented, we won’t plan any major alterations at this point. However we do hope to put up some dry walls to make simple rooms for guests. If funds permit, we also hope to have a wooden hut for more solitary retreatants. And we hope to have another wooden hut for a small chapel.

There is a very nice enclosed courtyard - and one of the parishioners has offered to come and help with setting up a garden.

 One of the Archbishop’s concerns is whether it is best to rent property and whether this will be sustainable in the longer term. There are a few plots of land available for sale in the vicinity. One of these is just behind the Church and Father Zacharias would very much like us to get it in order to prevent someone buying it and building a casino or something there. It has a wonderful view and could be ideal for a house of prayer, but we don’t have any money!  If we were to do serious fundraising for that we would have to look carefully at setting up a trust and getting advice from people who know about these things. (Of course if anyone reading this either has money to buy land, or knows of sources for funding, they are welcome to get in touch!) In the more short term, however, if there are people who would like to contribute to the present project, I am planning to set up a site for the new house which will give details on how to contribute and also include a wish list for books as building up a library is something that seems an important priority.

The view from the land we would like to get our hands on. Unfortunately one can't see the mountains properly due to the clouds.

Anyway, that gives some brief news. Please do pray for this new project. It is really amazing how things have opened up – some of it has really just been very providential – but at the moment it is also a little stressful as I am in the midst of moving to two places at once! By Christmas I should have everything in Robertson and I can then use the week between Christmas and new year to settle in. There is a lot that needs to be done on the house and that will take time so things really will develop slowly and will also depend on the available funds. I had hoped that we might be able to do a weekend retreat at the beginning of Great Lent, but am now beginning to think that it’s more realistic to have it ready to use for overflow accommodation at Pascha. But I will post news once it is available!

Some time ago Joe asked me in a comment if I would post some photos from Robertson, where I go to Church as much as I can. It’s taken me a while to do so, but I finally remembered to take my camera this last weekend, so here are some photos of the Church of Saint Mary of Egypt and its surroundings outside Robertson. It is about 150 km from Cape Town and on the edge of the Karoo. There is more information on the Afrikaans Orthodox website, but, well, it’s all in Afrikaans.

There are more photos on Facebook which, luddite that I am, I’m still trying to find my way around with some hesitation. But I think that they are available to view.

It’s probably obvious by now that I’m not doing much posting on this blog. I keep hoping that that will change as I would at least like to finish off some posts I was busy with, but, well, we’ll have to see as I am simply trying to do too much at the moment.

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