It is with a great deal of pleasure that this brief description of the origins and purposes of Congregationalism is produced.
The information is divided into several areas dealing with the historical foundations of Congregationalism and the attempt on the part of the members of a Congregational Christian Church to practically live out a shared heritage. May you find this information helpful as well as informative! Questions that will provide you with more information are always welcome.
Congregational Churches were first organized in England in the Sixteenth Century. The Church developed as a result of the perceived abuses of power in the State Church. The Separatists sought to reproduce a Church according to the New Testament model of simplicity and democracy. Separatists wanted to choose their own ministers rather than to be forced to accept the choice of the bishop. They wanted no elaborate garments or ritual. They wanted the earnest prayers of the people led by Christ, instead of set prayers chanted from the Book of Common Prayer. They declared themselves subject only to Christ and the covenants they would draw up in independent churches.
Congregationalists thus trace their heritage to the Separatist Movement in England and the settlers of Plymouth Colony. The important factor in the founding of Plymouth was the deeply held belief that a person should be able to worship God free from imposed outside regulation. It was maintained that liberated men and women would then be encouraged to develop their personal and congregational spiritual experience.
The literature of Congregationalism begins with Robert Brown. In 1582 Brown defined the local church as:
"...a company or number of believers which by a willing covenant made with their God, are under the government of God and Christ, and keeps His laws in one Holy Communion."
In 1616 Henry Jacob was instrumental in gathering the first Congregational Church to gain a permanent foothold in the city of London. The event is recorded in this way:-
"Each of the brethren made open confession of his faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and then, standing together, they joined hands and solemnly covenanted with each other … to walk in all God’s ways and ordinances, according to what He had revealed, or should further make known to them."
Congregationalists seek democratic life and organization, simplicity and vitality of faith, intellectual freedom to follow the dictates of conscience enlightened by the Holy Spirit, educational quality, evangelistic purpose, missionary zeal, social passion, non-sectarian fellowship, and unselfish devotion to the kingdom of God.
The object of a Congregational Church shall be to bind together the followers of Jesus Christ for the purpose of sharing in the worship of God and in making His will dominant in the lives of men and women, individually and collectively, especially as that will is set forth in the life, teachings, death, and living presence of Jesus Christ.
A Congregational Christian Church is a church of self-governing Christian believers organized on a democratic basis. Congregationalists believe in a free church, one unfettered by established creeds and outside control, under the sole authority and leadership of Jesus Christ represented by the Holy Spirit. The Free Church insures true freedom of the individual before God, liberty of conscience, the autonomy of the local church, and the free fellowship of churches.
A Congregational Church acknowledges Jesus Christ as its head and finds in the Holy Scriptures, interpreted by the Divine Spirit through faith, conscience, and reason, its guidance in all matters of faith and practice. The government of the Church shall be vested in its members, who exercise the right of control in all its affairs.
While Congregational Churches recognize no superior denominational law, they accept all the obligations of mutual council, courtesy, and cooperation involved in the free fellowship of the Congregational Christian Church, and pledge themselves to share in the common aims and work of the Congregational Christian Churches in state associations or fellowships and in the national association.
Congregational Churches emphasize beliefs in which all evangelical Christians agree, exalt nothing trivial or sectarian, repudiate dogmatism, and all legislative control, ecclesiastical or civil, of spiritual life and practice. Spiritual union with all churches is sought on the basis of mutual freedom and fellowship. The rule of action is, "In essentials unity, in non essentials liberty, in all things charity."
A Congregational Church recognizes the Bible as the source of faith and the practice of Christianity. It holds that living in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ is the true test of fellowship.
Each member of a Congregational Church should have the undisturbed right to follow the Word of God according to the dictates of conscience under the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.
STATEMENT OF FAITH
The following Statement of Faith is not a test of membership, but an expression of the spirit in which a church seeks to understand and apply the Word of God.
"We believe in God the Father, infinite in wisdom, goodness and love; and in Jesus Christ, his son, our Lord and Saviour, who for us and our salvation lived and died and rose again and lives forevermore; and in the Holy Spirit, who takes the things of Christ and reveals them to us, renewing, comforting, and inspiring the souls of human beings."
A Congregational Church is a gathered congregation of Christian believers who are willing to enter into covenant relation with God and one another. A covenant is a solemn agreement or vow, to walk in the ways of the Lord made known or to be made known. We covenant together for religious worship, work and fellowship, acknowledging Christ as the only authoritative Head of the Church.
THE CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH IN SOUTHERN AFRICA
The Congregational Church in southern Africa was founded by two strands – one from Europe and one from America.
The London Missionary Society (LMS) founded the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa in 1799 with the arrival of Dr Johannes van der Kemp and his team. Most of the early missionaries of the LMS came either from the Reformed Churches of northern Europe or the Calvinist atmosphere of Scotland.
Dr John Philip, superintendent of the LMS in South Africa, invited the first party of the American Board missionaries (ABM), led by Daniel Lindley and Newton Adams, to come to South Africa in 1835.
The United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) was constituted on the 3rd October 1967 in Durban by the union of:
- The London Missionary Society in Southern Africa (founded in 1799);
- The Bantu Congregational Church of the American Board (founded in 1835)
- The Congregational Union of South Africa (founded 1859).
- The Covenant entered into on 3rd October 1967 is based on five affirmations, which are embodied in the Preamble of the UCCSA Constitution.
- We believe in God our Heavenly Father,
- We confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour,
- We depend on the guidance of the Holy Spirit,
- We seek to live in God’s presence according to all that He has made known to us or will make known to us,
- We covenant to worship, work and witness together in the fellowship of the UCCSA for the building up of the Body of Christ and the extension of the Kingdom of God in the world.
On 23rd September 1972 the South African Association of the Disciples of Christ merged with the UCCSA.
The United Congregational Church of South Africa (UCCSA) is a united transnational church, geographically located in the following countries: Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe.
We are as such an African church, albeit with missionary roots in England and the United States of America.
RESTRUCTURING OF DENOMINATION
Since the inception of the UCCSA the churches outside the borders of South Africa formed themselves in Synods. The South African churches and ministers reported directly to the Denominational Office situated in South Africa. This resulted in the fact that the Denominational agendas were dominated by South African issues.
A consultative process started where representatives of all Synods outside of South Africa and representatives from each region/synod in South Africa negotiated the way forward. This consultation led to a decision by the 2001 Assembly in Windhoek where it was decided to restructure the denomination whereby the Regions/Synod in South Africa be asked to become a Synod.
In July 2002 the inaugural Synod Conference took place in the Roselane United Congregational Church in Uitenhage. The South Africa Synod consists of 11 Regions.
REFORMED TRADITION & LIBERAL/CONSERVATIVE/LIBERATION THEOLOGY
The UCCSA relates very closely to other churches in southern Africa who are part of the Reformed Tradition and in terms of our theology we are located within the liberal, and to a lesser extent, the liberation paradigm.
We are a member of the South African Council of Churches, the All Africa Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and other such ecumenical organisations.
The UCCSA is fully committed to mission that is the declaration and demonstration of the love of God to all who need healing, peace and God’s saving power in their lives. We believe that the whole life of the Church is bound up in mission. Without a positive intention to call others into the gathered community of faith a church has no real meaning. There is no validity for a church that is nothing more or less than an introverted social club, content with the familiar faces and patterns of life.
In terms of size, the UCCSA is one of the smaller denominations in southern Africa. During the mid 1990’s the church comprised of some 500 000 members and adherents, some 250 ministers (including ministers-in-training) and some 350 local churches.
The South Africa Synod was started in 2002 with 280 local churches and 270 ministers.
The UCCSA is one of the ecumenical churches in southern Africa, which stood at the vanguard of Christian opposition to Apartheid. We recall with justified pride that the social revolutions that transformed life for ordinary people in southern Africa in the past were often led Congregational men and women. These members of Congregational churches continued in the traditions of Congregationalists who played an important part in ending the slave trade and the beginning of universal education provision. They were involved in providing elementary health care and fighting for better working conditions just like the nonconformist churches of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
These modern day missionaries include great personalities like Albert Luthuli, Joseph Wing and John Thorne (in South Africa), Saul Damon (Namibia), Sir Seretse Kgama (Botswana), T Shisho Moyo and Joshua Danisa (Zimbabwe) and AT Litsuri (Mozambique).
The officers of Assembly and Executive are the President, General Secretary and Treasurer. The General Secretary is the CEO of the organisation. The General Secretary has oversight of the Church in its entirety and exercises that oversight in a ministerial manner by regular visits, personal contact, counselling, and correspondence and through the courts and committees of the Church at local, regional, Synodical and denominational levels.
The officers of Synods are Chairperson, Secretary and Treasurer. The Synod Secretary is the CEO of the Synod. The Synod Secretary has general oversight of the Synod, exercising such oversight in a ministerial and collegial manner. The Secretary is responsible for the general administration of the Synod, maintaining the official records, data and documentation of the Synod.
The officers of Regions are Chairperson, Secretary and Treasurer. These portfolios are currently non salaried positions.
THE STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION OF THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE
The Ministerial Committee, together with the Training for Ministry Committee (TMC) is overseeing the training of candidates for the Ministry. Theological Training became the responsibility of the Synods. Each Synod is training Ministerial Candidates at accredited Institutes of Learning. The following institutions are currently used:
- Kgolagano College (Botswana)
- Ricatla Seminary (Mozambique)
- Lutheran Seminary (Namibia)
- University of KwaZulu-Natal or Fort Hare (South Africa)
- Evangelical Seminary of South Africa (South Africa)
- United Theological College in Harare (Zimbabwe)
The Mission Council is responsible for the training of laity through the different Units. The main focus of the Mission Council is leadership development and capacity building etc.:
- To strengthen leadership capacity within organizations, and thereby to build local churches,
- To build confidence and skills in lay people in order to organize for change and to develop their local churches;
- To develop liturgical programmes in line with the church’s liturgical year and different styles of worship;
- To develop and implement an HIV/AIDS programme to educate and train our members/ministers. To continue to be involved ecumenically in the local communities in the campaign against AIDS and assist people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS;
- To strengthen the ministry to children, women, youth and the gender desk.
- To monitor social issues and give as much a lead as possible whenever it is appropriate to do so.
- To address the alleviation of poverty by developing self-support projects.
PLACE OF WOMEN
Both men and women have equal opportunities in both clergy and lay training. Women are eligible for any position in the church. Hence, one lady minister was already elected for the Chairperson of Assembly position. The church leadership often request the various constituencies to be gender sensitive when doing nominations of any portfolio.
USE OF LANGUAGE
Formal training for the ordained ministry is done within the respective Synods. Training will therefore take place in the particular local language e.g. the Mozambicans are studying in their vernacular. However, when training takes place on a denominational basis the tuition is purely in the English language.
Denominational meetings are mostly in English, but members are free to use the language in which they are comfortable. However, someone needs to act as interpreter for those that do not understand.
CHALLENGES FACING THE UCCSA
There are many challenges for the UCCSA. Amongst others, the following:
- To overcome the scourges of poverty, violence, crime, and injustice.
- To be healed where we remain broken by the sin of disunity, racism, ethnicity, sexism and other social ills.
- To overcome our diversity and transnationality;
- To address women and child abuse;
- To address power struggles in our local churches;
- To evangelise our constituencies with the Gospel in which we will be able to show our faith by what we do;
- To create an awareness and advocate the prevention of HIV/AIDS among our church and society;
- To get involved in peace and reconciliation;
- Lack of support to empower and equip our churches for mission;
- Lack of financial resources to sustain the mission, ministry and witness of the church due to the difficulties faced by churches not being financially viable to call a minister;
- Enabling established congregations to grow in numbers and financial viability, allowing for specialized ministries, e.g. Youth and children