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June 25, 2012


Indaba and Power

by Admin

Rev Janet Trisk is Rector of the parish of St David, Prestbury in Pietermaritzburg, Diocese of Natal, South Africa

 Introduction: The Church and Power

Douglas John Hall in his book, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World argues that triumphalism, which presents itself as a “full and complete account of reality” and which excludes the possibility of error or difference of opinion, is a characteristic of the church in our time.[1] He contrasts this with the theology of the cross, first fully articulated by Luther, but more recently explored by Jurgen Moltmann in his, The Crucified God.

The theology of the cross is a theology rooted in paradox: the paradox that God is revealed not in glory and power but in weakness and shame. As Luther noted in his twentieth thesis; “He (sic) deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”[2] In other words, God is revealed, according to Luther, not through reason, but through the passion of Christ. The key texts (though by no means the only texts) underlying this theology are the linked ideas of Isaiah 45:15: “truly you are a hidden God” and 1 Cor. 1:18-35, namely that the message of the cross is foolishness. For Luther the theologia gloriae (which is the much better loved theology) results, ironically, in confusion because it presents God’s revelation in a straightforward, authoritarian way. At best, according to Luther, we catch glimpses of the reverse side of the hidden-ness of God in the cross.

Hall suggests that the choice between triumphalism and the theology of the cross is not simply a question for academic debate. As he asks, provocatively:

is the violence in which a religion is involved … coincidental, perhaps even accidental, or can it be traced to core beliefs or unthinking presuppositions of the faith in question? … What must be asked is whether a religion directly or indirectly courts [the use of violence] … whether its foundational teaching and tone render it open to misuse or whether … it manifests any clear checks and balances against co-optation by such mentalities [3]

This is not the place to discuss fully the theology of the cross. However, Hall’s comments on ecclesial triumphalism should be sufficient to alert us to the dangers of a theology of glory, particularly when we are discussing the inner workings of an institutionally hierarchical church, because, as Maggie Ross points out:

The heart of Christianity is the self-emptying, kenotic humility of God … It is from this authority, this ground … that all discussions … that are termed to be ‘Christian’ must proceed.[4]

It is in the light of these brief introductory remarks that I wish to consider the adoption of the indaba process in the Anglican Communion.

Indaba and power

Thanks to the 2008 Lambeth Conference the concept of indaba (or imbizo or lekgotla in some of the other Southern African languages) is, in some of its aspects, quite well known in the Anglican Communion. The indaba format was also used at ACC 17 in Kingston in 2009. The process is more conversational than the traditional formal debating procedure which has been followed in meetings and synods in the Communion over the past 150 years. It has met with acclaim from participants in both the Lambeth and ACC meetings (though reportedly, there seems to have been a degree of scepticism prior to the meetings which adopted the indaba method).

There is a danger though, of romantically assuming that this “new” model of conversation and decision making provides all the answers. An uncritical adoption of the indaba process runs the risk of the very thing it is supposed to obviate, that is, the exclusion of some voices. In traditional Southern African communities an indaba is called by the chief (usually on the advice of the elders) to discuss an issue which concerns the community – such as the stealing of cattle, or threats posed by a drought. Usually only men participate in the meeting and in communities where male circumcision is practiced, only circumcised men may participate (for example amongst the clans of the amaXhosa). Only members of the clan are invited.

In rural village life one can see the logic of these rules of participation. Rural village life is structured on patriarchal lines and there are seldom, if ever, community members from another clan or tribe. One cannot however, simply transpose this rural village model onto an international institution, particularly one which is trying to be more inclusive in its decision making structures. Many women, in particular, would feel sceptical about the adoption of the indaba process. This is just another way of excluding their voices: culture and religion working on concert to perpetuate patriarchal power.

The village indaba model can too easily be uncritically adopted into already hierarchical ecclesial structures with devastating consequences for those on the margins. Some questions which illustrate the dangers of bias and the exclusion of certain voices are:

  • Who decides what issue is to be discussed? What is of concern to a bishop for example, may not also be of concern to a single mother, or someone excluded from ordained ministry in a particular diocese. Similarly, what is of concern to one bishop may not be seen as an issue at all by another.
  • Who is called to the conversation? If it is “the elders” who are invited to converse, those who discuss the issue may well not be those directly involved. For example, much of the conversation in some quarters of the Communion at present is about LGBTI people rather than with them. Furthermore one might ask: Who are “the elders” in the Anglican Communion? Some would say it is the Primates; others, the Standing Committee of ACC, or ACC itself. Others would point out however, that all these groups exclude millions of “ordinary” Anglicans – children, Sunday school teachers, Mothers’ Union members and so on.
  • At what “level” is a matter to be discussed? This is of course already an issue in the Anglican Communion. Are the invitees to an indaba to be people from one Province, or from the whole communion? Who decides this?

These questions should not be seen as a total rejection of indaba, which has much to recommend it. However, like any other process indaba can be used both to challenge but also consolidate power.


Indaba, if by this we mean discussion involving many participants, brought together to share concerns and opinions, without necessarily needing to reach firm conclusions, is a way of questioning the “full and complete account of reality” of which Hall speaks. If the process is to be used to allow Anglicans from different Provinces and backgrounds to learn more about one another, to listen and to ask questions, it is to be celebrated. If however, it is simply another way of allowing those with power to make decisions for the church, then whatever name we give it, the process is only “more of the same” and will not help us heal our divisions.

[1]  Douglas John Hall (2003). The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 17.
[3]  Hall The cross in our context
[4] Maggie Ross (1988) Pillars of flame: Power, priesthood and spiritual maturity London: SCM, xvi
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