UCCSA – One Church, Five Countries

History

Welcome to United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA). Although the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa was only formed in 1967, it traces its origins back to over 200 years, to the arrival of the first personnel sent to the sub-continent by the London Missionary Society. Today, it reckons over 500 000 people in its membership, grouped in over four hundred and fifty local churches in five countries.

In common with Congregational churches around the world, the UCCSA governs itself in the belief that each local church is a ‘gathered’ company of Christian believers, whose only credal statement is the biblical affirmation: “Jesus is Lord.” Each local church retains the right to govern itself in all matters that affect its life and work, but is inter-dependent on all other churches in the denomination, as they voluntarily pool resources and work to do together what they cannot do apart. The liberty of each local congregation does not mean that the UCCSA is a loose grouping of separatist churches, for Congregationalism is based very firmly on the biblical principle of covenant – individual members covenant, as the local church, to “walk together according to God’s ways,” and each church also exists in covenant relationship with other member churches, “the Holy Spirit helping us”.

Theologically, along with many member churches of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the UCCSA traces its roots back to the Reformation teachings of John Calvin. It also stands in the radical Anabaptist tradition that developed on the European continent and in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The London Missionary Society was formed in 1795 by Christians enthused with the idea of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to every land. Their intention was not to propagate any form of denominational polity, and missionaries were free to decide ‘on the spot’ which form of church government best suited their local situation.

After landing at Cape Town on 31 March 1799, Dr Theodorus van der Kemp, a Hollander, engaged in missionary work on the then eastern frontier of the Cape Colony, and in 1801 established what is generally regarded as the first Congregational church in southern Africa – at the mission at Bethelsdorp, in the present day city of Port Elizabeth.

Among van der Kemp’s prominent successors, Dr John Philip, the first Superintendent of the Society, was active in securing rights for the indigenous inhabitants of the colony while overseeing a rapid expansion of mission work. During the 19th century, David Livingstone and Robert Moffatt were among the best know LMS missionaries, opening up work among the BaTswana and AmaNdebele peoples. After 1820, groups of English, Scottish and Welsh Congregationalists among the new settlers in the colony formed their own churches, which were reflective of the kind of congregational life they had known ‘back home’.

A second thrust of missionary activity in southern Africa originated among Congregational-ists in America. Following their charter in 1812, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions dispatched their first personnel in 1835 to work among the Zulu of the Natal colony, and the Ndebele in what is today Zimbabwe. With the discovery of gold in 1886, the work of the LMS and American Board spread to the Witwatersrand. The early missionaries were not simply intent on founding new churches. From the start, they fought for the rights of the indigenous peoples, and established educational institutions. Among the best known is the LMS Tiger Kloof Institution, which counts among its alumni Sir Seretse Khama and Sir Ketumile Masire, the first two Presidents of Botswana. In 1921, a young Congregationalist was appointed to the staff of Adams College in Natal. His name was Albert Luthuli, who later became President of the African National Congress, and was the first South African to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

During the first 150 years of their work in southern Africa, the LMS, American Board and churches of the Congregational Union of South Africa (CUSA) worked closely together. There were few theological differences, and personnel moved freely between work in all three organisations. The discovery of gold in the Free State province at the end of the 1950’s provided the impetus and challenge for them to move towards union. Within the brief space of 7 years, all the necessary agreements were in place, and the UCCSA came into being at its Inaugural Assembly in Durban on 3 October 1967, under the leadership of its first Chairman, Rev J K Main. In 1972, the South African congregations of the Disciples of Christ entered into union with the UCCSA.

In the years since, the United Congregational Church has been prominent in ecumenical church life in southern Africa, most notably in the national Christian Councils of the five countries where it is represented. In South Africa, it has played a decisive part in the Church Unity Commission, with its own General Secretary, the Rev Joe Wing acting, for many years, as Coordinating Secretary of the CUC.

The UCCSA was very clear in its stance against the evil system of apartheid. In 1978 the Assembly of the UCCSA voted to accept the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism. This led to some of the white churches leaving the union as they perceived this to be a radical move that they could not live with. In 1984 the Assembly rejected the concept of the tricameral parliament. This was a bold decision that led to many so-called coloured ministers, notably Rev. Allan Hendrickse, being thrown out for embracing this racist policy.

The UCCSA also played an important role in the development of the Kairos theology of the 1980s. Through its ministers such as Bonganjalo Goba, Roxanne Jordaan and Steve DeGruchy it participated in the development of the Kairos document. The UCCSA Assembly did not only adopt the Kairos document as an official document but it also initiated a denomination wide process of responding to the Kairos. This process was called the Pastoral Plan for Transformation.