Eish, talk about famine or feast - I don't blog for weeks, then I put up three posts in one day!
Anyway, this morning I was worshipping at Unit 14, which is a Zulu-speaking congregation situated in what is part of the Edendale township just outside Pietermaritzburg. This is part of the system whereby each seminarian is formally attached to one of the local congregations - preferably in a cross-cultural context. (I am also "informally" attached to Prestbury, being the congregation my family started worshipping at when we arrived in Pietermaritzburg.)
The congregation at Unit 14 is relatively new (probably in existence as a separate congregation for about five years), and is in the process on erecting a new building that will seat about 120 people. At the moment they have erected the bare walls and put the roof on, and while the doors, windows, and finishes still need to be installed, what they have done thus far is a fine achiement considering that (a) this is a relatively poor community, and (b) all the building work so far, including materials and what little outside labour they have had to utilise (most of the work has been done by congregation members) has been paid for in cash.
Unfortunately, no context is without it's picadilloes, and in the case of Unit 14, one of the main problems is getting Local Preachers to take their preaching appointments. Since there are only three men in the congregation (two Society Stewards, a new member who was welcomed today, and yours truly), and with the ministry of Local Preachers still being largely a male preserve in this context (**), most of the Local Preachers are from other Societies, and now that word has got out that there is a batallion of seminarians in Tupperware collars running around attending services, many of the preachers simply don't bother to pitch up.
The result has been that in six visits by me to services at Unit 14 thus far, I have ended up conducting the service at five of them.
Now don't get me wrong. I enjoy preaching - I really do, the struggle with the Zulu liturgy and Scripture readings notwithstanding (although I can read Zulu fairly well, I do not as yet speak or understand the language). It is, after all, what I am called by God to do. However, I have found that pitching up in a collar each time kind of obliges me to preach, since it would be churlish of me to arrive seemingly dressed for the occasion, then refusing to take the service.
So this morning I decided to attend worship in a pair of slacks and a golf shirt. Now in a historically white context, that wouldn't matter. At Prestbury, for instance, I have seen Michael Stone (the resident minister) wear a collar exactly once, while a previous youth pastor (Michael Bishop, who together with his wife Kym are now ministers in Krugersdorp) apparently gave up wearing shoes for Lent one year and consequently preached bare-footed ever since. Last year at Uitenhage, the youth pastor preached in shorts, T-shirt, and slops (I wore a T-shirt once, but couldn't bring myself to risk scaring the young ladies with my 40-year-old legs and ingrown toenails, so stuck with longs). But in a black context, such apparel is an absolute no-no, and while I would be considered to be "smartly dressed" at Prestbury, there is just no way that I would be permitted to conduct the service at Unit 14 wearing a golf shirt and a pair of slacks - which was all part of my plan to try and force the issue.
Unfortunately for the poor steward who was pressed into service as the preacher of the day, having been given all of 10 seconds' notice, the preacher didn't arrive - again! Fortunately for him, he has learnt from what appears to be a regular occurrence, and he prepares a sermon irrespective of whether he is preaching or not, so he managed to conduct the service with aplomb under the circumstances.
As a result, for the first time in months I was actually able to simply be part of the congregation, and it was quite cool to park myself on a bench among the Sunday School. At one point I was in the joyous (if somewhat absurd) position of being the mlungu (a derogatory Zulu term for a white person, which I have sort of adopted as a nickname for myself) teaching the Zulu liturgy to a young Zulu man. Priceless!
However, my dilemma with the preachers remains. If this was my own congregation, I would simply raise an objection at the next Local Preachers' Quarterly Meeting against the names of the recalcitrant preachers (***), and they simply wouldn't be planned to conduct services until they bucked up their ways (not that it would make any difference to the current state of affairs, in which they simply don't arrive anyway). Unfortunately - and this is a common problem with our church attachments as seminarians - things are never quite that simple...
(**) Officially, all offices within the Methodist Church of Southern Africa are open to both males and females. However, in some of our more conservative communities (both white and black), patriarchy is still fairly entreanched and female participation outside the traditional "ladies' ministries" (Women's Auxiliary / Association / Manyano) is not encouraged. Many of my female colleagues in ministry have, in fact, had a torrid time at the hands of such patriarchal congregations, even in situations where women are overwhelmingly in the majority. But that's the subject of another post.
(***) Lest anyone thinks that I am all about law instead of grace, nothing could be further from the truth. However, Local Preachers are well aware of the discipline whereby if they are unable to conduct a preaching appointment, it is their responsibility to source a suitable replacement, and let the Society Stewards know. The only exception is in the case of illness or similar incapacity. In any event, the nature of communities such as Unit 14 is that the leaders would soon rally around someone who is going through difficulty, which is not the case here. According to one of the Society Stewards, many of the Local Preachers have been on plan for years and are "getting tired", but are unwilling to relinquish the "status" of being a Local Preacher - despite this particular Circuit continuing to recognise their long-serving preachers as "emeritus" when they are no longer active. To be honest, I don't quite know what the answer is in this case - certainly the Circuit has learnt to live with the situation, and seems to tolerate it.
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