jQuery Slider

You are here

"Ancestor veneration to be approved by the Church"

"Ancestor veneration to be approved by the Church"
Is this an authentically African expression of Christianity, or is it heresy?

by Andrew Symes

A recent article in the UK's Church Times (printed in full in The Church in Africa page) says that the CPSA is "contemplating moves" to give full approval to African cultural rituals such as slaughtering of animals in honour of ancestors. The article doesn't make clear at what stage these contemplations are, nor what they will result in. However Archbishop Ndungane's comment that ritual slaughter is a "liturgical function which connects the living and the dead" suggests that such a practice may well be included in new liturgies for the church. If so, this, like rites for same-sex blessings in North America, will present a grave crisis of conscience for many Anglicans who will feel that such a practice has no place in Christian worship.

The necessity of African Theology, and its dangers.

African theology, in the sense of theology written by Africans, is not a new phenomenon. The great theologians Origen, Clement and Augustine were African, and some have suggested that the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews may have been from Alexandria in Egypt.

In recent decades though there has been a flowering of writing on the Christian faith by black Africans from all over the continent. This development of "African Theology" has been necessary because in every generation and in every culture the Christian faith needs to be expressed in "new clothes" - in ways that make Christ genuinely incarnate among those people. Many historians have pointed out - correctly - that when European missionaries came to Africa with the Gospel, they often made two basic mistakes:

* they confused elements of Western culture (eg dress, forms of worship and administration, etc) with essential parts of the Gospel message * they confused the task of Christian mission with their countries colonialist agenda of taking over and subjugating lands and peoples

In response to this, African theology developed as African Christian thinkers and preachers sought to uncover the essential gospel of Christ and plant this Gospel so it could become an indigenous plant growing in the soil of Africa, rather than an alien Western import. African theology sought to expose the reality of the evils of Western political oppression through colonialism, and to bring a Christian perspective to the African struggle for liberation. Also, African theology has addressed issues such as tribalism, corrupt political leadership and engagement with African Traditional Religions.

Any white interlocutor with African theology (such as myself) needs to begin by acknowledging with humility the need to reject forms of racism and imperialism, the need to critique Western forms of Christianity that are not compatible with the Bible, and the need to search for an authentic African expression of Christianity which may challenge some of my own cherished cultural assumptions.

However, in that spirit of humility, evangelical theologians (both Western and African) have warned of the dangers of pursuing African theology without the right foundations. There is a danger of throwing "the baby" of biblical Christianity out with "the bathwater" of Western culture. Some African theologians seem to have crossed a line - where according to them the Gospel is no longer salvation through Christ in a spiritual sense through repentance and faith, but liberation from Western influence, and self-assertion as Africans. According to some African thinkers, the doctrine of sin and justification does not apply to Africans, who are not sinners in need of reconciliation to God, but victims deserving of compensation by their former oppressors. For some, an authentic African expression of Christianity will involve the uncritical incorporation of anything "African" into church life, especially those things that were frowned on by former missionaries such as magic and the ritual veneration of ancestors.

Before we go any further, we need to point out that this "syncretism" is not exclusive to African theology, but is found everywhere. What is "prosperity teaching" but a syncretism of consumer capitalism and Christianity? The current insistence by some of celebrating homosexuality as a God-given gift is syncretism of Christianity and Western romantic liberalism (and psychology) which originates in ancient Greek thought. In Nazi Germany in the 1930's many churches supported Hitler and his programme of expanding the "living space" for racially pure Germans - and theologians underpinned this with concepts of "authentically German" Christianity.

All theology then, in trying to make the Gospel incarnate in a culture, runs the risk of syncretism. But we must carry on! We cannot refuse to do African theology!

The theology of ancestors.

Clearly human beings in most (if not all) cultures have an understanding that there is life beyond the grave, and even that the spirits of the dead are around us in some way. African theologians have pointed out that for Africans, the departed are usually viewed as if they are part of the community like elderly relatives: present but unseen, with power to help or to harm, and who communicate with the living through dreams, through certain gifted individuals (seers or mediums). What happens, and what should happen, when such a deeply entrenched world-view encounters the Christian Gospel? There are three main approaches:

a) Innovation

This approach, taken by radical black theologians such as Gabriel Setiloane, says that all non-African theology, including the Bible itself, comes from a foreign culture and should not be treated as authoritative. The task of African theology is to find ways of expressing a living faith in God, by looking into various sources. These sources include the Bible, but more valuable are the old pre-missionary understandings of God which the Africans had.

b) Adaptation

The Roman Catholic Church, which of course had its origins in the Christian mission to animist Europe, largely adopted a policy of accommodating the spirits of the dead, and incorporating them into the life of the church through the idea of "communion of saints". Many African theologians take this approach today. While medieval Catholicism held that "Masses for the dead" help to get the dead person into heaven, today universalism is prevalent - the belief that everyone is saved and lives their life in God, whether living or dead. So we do not have to pray for the dead because they are seen as "close to God". Rather we pray to them, as conduits of God's blessing, or even as sources of blessing.

In practical terms, on the ground, ancestor veneration by Christians can take the form of "parallel worship", in which the church members have a church funeral then openly celebrate a ritual of calling on the ancestors at home. Or, more and more, the ancestors are addressed as part of the congregation and life of the church. (This might be the understanding behind today's Requiem Masses in some African contexts). It is important to note that the power and holiness of ancestors is not perceived to derive from their being in Christ, but from connection to ancient sources of power through blood relationship within the clan. Christ is still honoured, but perhaps still seen as somewhat remote, so in effect the ancestors are seen as "mediators". This seems to be the dominant approach found in the mainline churches and also the "Zionist and "Ethiopian" type independent churches.

Key to the acceptance of this practice among Christians is the insistence by church leaders and theologians (some of whom are quoted in the Church Times article) that ancestors are not worshipped but venerated. We will return to this later in our discussion.

c) Radical discontinuity

This was the approach adopted by most Western missionaries (and for this reason is tainted by associations with colonial domination). No doubt sometimes it was taught in a crass way which appeared to Africans as if they were being told to reject their parents. As evangelical Christianity took hold on the continent (especially in West and East Africa) the message of radical rejection of elements of African culture incompatible with the Gospel was embraced and preached by African preachers independently from Western influence. So today, in South Africa, many independent Pentecostal and evangelical African churches urge people to put away everything connected with the cult of ancestors, which is seen as a deceit of Satan, something which holds people in bondage from which they need to be delivered as they trust in Christ alone.

Which approach do we take?

Jesus did not expect his disciples to suspend their critical faculties and to give an unqualified acceptance to every form of religious expression simply because it was "cultural". Instead, he taught them to evaluate everything according to the standards of God laid down in the Law and The Prophets. As disciples of Jesus today, we have the same responsibility.

The Bible, and particularly the Old Testament, is specific on the issue of the "cult of the dead". The surrounding polytheistic and animistic cultures were similar to pre-Reformation Western Europe, or to Africa today. The people of God were not to uncritically imbibe the culture, but they were to be different. The instruction was crystal clear: worship the Lord your God only, and steer clear completely of any attempts to contact spirits of the dead.

Why was this? Because death is a time of strong emotion and yearning, and also an open door to the spiritual realm, it can be used by Satan to deceive and enslave with fear and false hope. This is why we find the strong prohibition in Deut 18:10-12. Magic and necromancy are part of an attempt to take control of life, not by trusting in the sovereign God, but by manipulating and appeasing other spiritual powers .

So one has to ask three questions with regard to incorporation of ancestors into the life of the church. One: is it biblical? We can and must celebrate the lives of the saints (those in Christ); remember and give thanks for the faithful departed (eg Hebrews 11; 12:1-2). We must honour our parents and praise them, even when they are dead. But we should not pray for the salvation of the dead as our prayers cannot influence their fate. We definitely should not pray to the dead. Leviticus 19:32-33 expresses this well:

Do not turn to mediums of seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the Lord your God.

Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord.

Secondly, is it true that African cultural rites do not worship ancestors but merely honour them? To "worship" is to address oneself in supplication towards a being who one believes has the power to meet one's needs in a unique way. In many discussions with Xhosa-speaking Christians I have received the strong impression that ancestors are indeed "worshipped" in this sense: rites are conducted at great expense because of the belief (even among churchgoers) that ancestors have the power to help or to harm in life's struggles. But even if this is not worship as Archbishop Ndungane states, can a Christian really countenance the shedding of blood to effect a connection with spiritual beings and say this is Christian? Surely it is occultic.

The third question is this: does it work? The Church Times article says that this uncritical incorporation of occult practices will stop black Anglicans from defecting to independent churches and traditional local religions which are experiencing a revival. Perhaps Anglican clergy will now have to be trained in spirit mediumship to make this more effective. But even so, does the worship/veneration of ancestors in animist cultures, given the huge expense attached to it, actually bring benefit to individuals and communities who are often in the grip of poverty? This question is an "elephant in the living room" which one never hears discussed on radio talk shows and the like. Is it any coincidence that economic underdevelopment always seems to affect cultures where the dead feature prominently in people's devotions and financial investment? The ancestors are said to provide good fortune, and yet those communities which give them most honour are most troubled by AIDS, crime, violence, family breakdown, mental instability and indeed demon possession. While there is a continual need to recognize the role of the evil legacy of apartheid in this, it could be argued that apartheid and oppression by colonial powers is a result of spiritual disobedience and adultery, not a first cause of continued poverty. The Old Testament prophets came to the same conclusion when teaching the people about the reasons for the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions.

In the name of liberation and finding our true selves as Africans, then, there is an insistence by African theologians and church leaders that we must "return to our roots" , reject Western domination, and incorporate that deep desire for fellowship with the "living-dead" (to use Mbiti's phrase) into the church. Tragically, if this is unbiblical, it will mean that this attitude of rebellion and cultural self-assertion is directed against God, and this can only result in disaster.

Western culture is now becoming spiritually bankrupt. So the African does not have the option of becoming Western in an attempt to find God's blessing. But now is the time for brave African leaders who will acknowledge that the so-called "gods of Africa" will not bring liberation but only more slavery and impoverishment. Now is the time for African church leaders to declare trust in God alone as revealed through Jesus Christ, and for a new African Reformation through which the Holy Spirit will reform the African church, so that it can reach out to rescue the church in the corrupt West, and the rest of the world.

--Andrew Symes is an Anglican priest currently involved with grassroots theological education under the auspices of an interdenominational Bible College in Port Elizabeth. He can be contacted on acsymes@mweb.co.za

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top