During the first few decades of the 20th century, the Nkhoma mission of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa became involved in an ecumenical venture that was initiated by the Church of Scotland’s Blantyre mission, and the Free Church of Scotland’s Livingstonia mission in central Africa. Geographically sandwiched between these two Scots missions in Nyasaland (presently Malawi) was Nkhoma in the central region of the country. During a period of history when the DRC in South Africa had begun to regressively disengage from ecumenical entanglements in order to focus on its developing discourse of Afrikaner Christian nationalism, this venture in ecumenism by one of its foreign missions was a remarkable anomaly. Yet, as this article illustrates, the ecumenical project as finalized at a conference in 1924 was characterized by controversy and nearly became derailed as a result of the intransigence of white DRC missionaries on the subject of eating together with black colleagues at a communal table. Negotiations proceeded and somehow ended in church unity despite the DRC’s missionaries’ objection to communal eating. After the merger of the synods of Blantyre, Nkhoma and Livingstonia into the unified CCAP, distinct regional differences remained, long after the colonial missionaries departed. In terms of its theological predisposition, especially on the hierarchy of social relations, the Nkhoma synod remains much more conservative than both of its neighboring synods in the CCAP to the south and north. Race is no longer a matter of division. More recently, it has been gender, and especially the issue of women’s ordination to ministry, which has been affirmed by both Blantyre and Livingstonia, but resisted by the Nkhoma synod. Back in South Africa, these events similarly had an impact on church history and theological debate, but in a completely different direction. As the theology of Afrikaner Christian nationalism and eventually apartheid came into positions of power in the 1940s, the DRC’s Nkhoma mission in Malawi found itself in a position of vulnerability and suspicion. The very fact of its participation in an ecumenical project involving ‘liberal’ Scots in the formation of an indigenous black church was an intolerable digression from the normative separatism that was the hallmark of the DRC under apartheid. Hence, this article focuses on the variegated entanglements of Reformed Church history, mission history, theology and politics in two different 20th-century African contexts, Malawi and South Africa.
Müller, Retief, "Traversing a tightrope between ecumenism and exclusivism" (2021). University Faculty Publications and Creative Works. 152.