Fedsem: Mixing church and politics

2011-11-22 00:00

IT was a painful and unique experience reading T he Native School That Caused All The Trouble. A History of the Federal Theological Seminary of Southern Africa. Painful, because I taught in the institution which is the substance of the book, and I witnessed the beginnings of its collapse and demise. Painful, because it brought back a period of my own personal history and the history of Pietermaritzburg, which was often extremely dangerous. And unique, because of the extraordinary privilege I feel at having had the experience of life, with all its ups and downs, in the Federal Theological Seminary.

The Federal Theological Seminary (Fedsem) was established in 1963 in Alice, in the Eastern Cape. From the beginning, the apartheid state watched it with concern. It was multiracial. It was a place where critical thinking was encouraged. It was a place where black people could get quality education and think however they chose. The state expropriated the land on which it was situated in 1974, forcing it to become a nomad, settling first in Umtata, then in Edendale and finally in Imbali, Pietermaritzburg.

In the eyes of the apartheid state, it was a radical hotbed of revolution. A sinister and dangerous place. For the churches, which sent students to study there (from the Methodist, Anglican, United Congregational and Presbyterian traditions), it was, for three decades, the main place for training their black students (which is not to say that the churches did not have their hesitations about the place either).

Because that was the curiosity of Fedsem. It was paradoxical and contradictory. It was certainly a place where radical thought could be espoused, but at the same time, it was a place of extraordinary conservatism. It was ecumenical, but it was divided. It was multiracial and challenging, but never unified. The very design of the buildings in Imbali gave impetus to this paradoxical existence. Revel Fox was instructed to design a set of buildings that both retained the separate essence and existence of the various church denominations, and joined them.

The result was bewildering. Three separate but identical blocks, cascading from cell-like single rooms, to student married houses, to larger lecturers’ houses. Everything looking exactly the same as everything else. The redbrick of the place, stark and monochrome, but strangely, not entirely unpleasing. These three identical blocks were all joined by a rigid system of corridors — and seldom did the interconnections get used. We all lived together, but mostly (and sometimes aggressively) we lived apart.

The architecture of the seminary was indicative of its disastrous attempt at forging the kind of unity where everything is presumed to be equal. And equal means “the same”.

There is another feature of the architecture that the writers of the book neglected to emphasise. The seminary was bounded by a huge impenetrable fence, separating it decisively from the surrounding community. We may as well have been living on the moon, for all the contact we had with the people of Imbali. The surrounding community seldom, if ever, had access to the place. They didn’t own it or use it in any real way. And when the opportunity ­presented itself, they tore down the fences and looted the place, until there was not one brick standing on top of another.

Philippe Denis and Graham Duncan make much of the standard of theology which was taught at Fedsem — and rightly so. Compared with many other colleges, the students at Fedsem were given the freedom to explore and question their faith, their history and their context in a way which few others seemed prepared to do. This proved not only to raise the eyebrow of suspicion in the state, but in the churches themselves. Church leaders, even the greatest among them, do not generally like to be questioned. They seldom like to be challenged. And if they are questioned, then they prefer it not to be too rigorous.

So there was then (and I have no doubt that there remains today) a preference for “tame” priests and ministers, rather than hell raisers. Contextual theology was regarded with alarm. Biblical criticism, redaction criticism and form critical analysis — the real basics of Biblical study and systematic theology — were regarded as apostasy or heresy. The centre could not hold, because there really was no centre to hold. There really was no standard of education that one could apply from anywhere else. And in that kind of a religious context, fairy tales will always trump analytical fact.

The other rather complex point, which I think the writers underexplored, was the issue of the political operatives who were working in the seminary. For instance, they assume that some of the lecturers were raising funds for primarily theological purposes. They find no link between the students or staff of the seminary and the unrest in Imbali. That may be indeed true. Because the political operatives were not interested in Imbali. They were interested in recruiting students from every corner of the country, which is what made the seminary such a suitable place to be. They were interested in building political critical mass in the church (something, I think those of us who were involved can say, without any shadow of a doubt, we failed hopelessly at doing). The purpose was political. And it was that which was spotted by some of the ultraconservative (and allegedly corrupt) elements in the leadership of the seminary. And that is the reason we became such threats to their power. The allegations of corruption against them, by the way, were legion towards the end. This is a subject that is simply avoided and needs to be faced, in my opinion.

Arrogance, ignorance, stupidity and greed are a very heady mixture. The book shows that the leadership of Fedsem had that in bucket loads, in the end days. They seemed utterly incapable of seeing the consequences of their actions.

The book is a fine one and I can only congratulate the authors. Its readership is unlikely to be wide. But if only the buffoons who brought about the collapse of what was both a progressive and noble ideal read it — and learn something from it — then it will have been well worth the effort.

• The Native School That Caused All The Trouble. A History of the Federal Theological Seminary of Southern Africa by P. Denis and G. Duncan is published by Cluster Publications, Pietermaritzburg.

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