Lay President, Mr Fungile Dotwana to the 2011 Conference, Maseru, Lesotho

BREAKING NEW GROUND: A CHURCH ON THE THRESHOLD OF THE PROMISED LAND

The Presiding Bishop, Presiding Bishop-Elect, Executive Secretary, District Bishops, District Lay Leaders, various Heads of Connexional Organisations and Units, members of the Connexional Executive, Conference delegates, distinguished visitors and fellow Methodists, allow me once again to greet all of you in the wonderful name of our Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Oh! What an honour, joy and priviledge for the Methodist Conference to meet for the first time ever outside the boundaries of South Africa, since its first sitting in Cape Town in 1883. This is indeed a gigantic step by the leadership of our church which deserves to be applauded for it re-affirms our commitment to be one and undivided church. It also helps in dispelling the perception that one of the six member states (countries) regards herself as the so-called BIG BROTHER or rather SISTER to the others. To this extent, our church has indeed broken new ground.

Members of Conference, you will recall that the first Black President of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, Rev. Seth Mokitimi, was born and bred in the mountaneous kingdom of Lesotho. As I drove through the border gates on Monday, I was so excited that I felt a strong urge to run to the highest mountain top in Southern Africa, Thabana Ntlenyana, also here in Lesotho, our own Kilimanjaro and proclaim loudly to Lesotho nationals (citizens),  “Even you, Lesotho of the African continent, you are not the least of all nations, for out of you, the first black President of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa was born.

Members of Conference, I present to you an overview of the state of church insofar as human empowerment is concerned over the three-year period I have been in the office of the Lay President. One of our four mission imperatives is Human and Economic Development and Empowerment and it is our responsibility to check and gauge as to how far the church has gone in terms of developing and empowering the laity, the youth and women.

Some of us who were at the 2009 Conference will recall that we had a crisis situation of not being able to have a quorum as Conference due to our failure to meet our targets of 40% women representation and 20% youth representation. Conference recommitted herself to the transformation principles and promised that in future Conferences this would never happen again. I hope all Districts have done as my own District Queenstown has done which out of nine (09) delegates, four (04) are women and two (02) are young people. Presiding Bishop, if this is so, I think this Conference deserves a pat on the back.

It is therefore against this background that I have entitled my presentations as follows: “Breaking New Ground: A church on the threshold of the Promised Land”. I have done this because I have personally witnessed concrete strides and tremendous efforts taken by the leadership of this church towards its transformation. For me, it has been a singular honour and humbling priviledge to be part of that leadership which has made an indelible mark in the history of Methodism. Before I make some observations under these three headings, allow me to, again, express a word of gratitude for giving me the opportunity to serve in this highly responsible office.

LAITY EMPOWERMENT

Since the implementation of the programme of the Journey to the New Land in 1995, there has been a clear direction in terms of roles and functions of lay leadership at both Society and Circuit level. But when it came to District and Connexional levels, it remained a grey area until Conference 2010 adopted a document which created an office of the District Lay Leader with clear roles, duties  and functions and it also added other duties to the office of the Lay President. What remains to be done is for those roles to be refined for inclusion into the 12th Edition of the Laws and Discipline by the Revision Committee.

I wish to take this opportunity to thank the Presiding Bishop, General Secretary and all District Bishops for helping to ensure that this milestone is achieved. It is with great joy and excitement to advise members of Conference that all twelve (12) District Lay Leaders have been formally commissioned into their offices by their Bishops in services which defy description in terms of organisation and sharing of the Word. I was priviledged to attend eight (08) of the twelve (12) services and the last of these held in Mavalane Circuit, Maputo, Mozambique District on 28 August 2011. A Nguni idiom or saying which goes like this; “isinamva liyabukwa” (translated He who dances last, dances best) is indeed true. Amongst those who attended were representatives of the Mozambican Government, Council of Churches, ex-Bishop Mahlalela, to mention but a few. (Visuals from the services will be shown at the end of the address; time permitting). I, indeed, see a New Church on the Horizon.

To my District Bishops, your firm commitment in ensuring that these services were successful reminded me of what our founder; Rev John Wesley did in 1740, after having heard that Thomas Maxfield, a lay man, had preached at Wesley’s London headquarters, the Foundery. He hurried back from Bristol to London to stop him. His mother Susana, cautioned him and said, “John, take care what you do with respect to that young man, for he is as surely called of God to preach as you are. Examine what have been the fruits of his preaching, and hear him yourself.” Wesley listened to his mother as well as Maxfield and he was convinced. He said; “It is the Lords doing. What am I that I should oppose God?”

In my humble view, if Rev Wesley had used his authority without discernment and stopped Thomas Maxfield from preaching simply because he was a lay person, the `rocks would have cried out` for it was God’s design that the Methodist Church would grow in leaps and bounds because of the use of lay preachers, amongst other reasons. Your different charges to the Lay Leaders carried a simple and loud message that both the clergy and laity are merely partners in doing God’s mission. You also allayed fears of those who were worried about the socalled “two centres of power”. There is only one centre of power and our Lord Jesus Christ is that centre of power. For there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. To Him be the Glory for ever and ever Amen!

I wish to thank the office of the General Secretary for providing space in the Yearbook for Lay President’s address since 2010 and for reflecting the District Lay Leaders as being part of the District Executives. We also have a list of the past and Ex-Lay President though it appears under miscellaneous matters. On a lighter note Bhuti Zikhali, would we be asking too much from your office to consider listing them alongside the Presiding Bishops and General Secretaries with whom they served and that their academic qualifications (if any) be reflected as well?

To the Lay General Treasurer, a big thank you for the support you gave to the office of the Lay President. You will recall, Ant, that as at 2009 the budget was R50 000 but because of your understanding of the involvement of the office in various Committees of the church, it has since been increased to R120 000.

My office also carries the responsibility of convening and presiding over two meetings of District Lay Leaders each year sothat they can also be empowered and equipped to be able to discharge their functions properly in their various Districts. During February we met at Alexandra Circuit and the General Secretary addressed us on various issues of the church. We also visited former President of the Republic of South Africa, Dr Nelson Mandela, a staunch Methodist for a prayer meeting, accompanied by one of his chaplains, Rev Don Dabula, former Bishop of Clarkebury District. We also resolved to introduce a programme on Sacrificial Giving which we call “Methodists 4 Life: Vision 2016”.

The second meeting was held in Durban a day before the opening of the World Methodist Conference. We were addressed by the Lay General Treasurer as well as Rev Purity Malinga, former Bishop of Natal Coastal District. In the afternoon, we visited Rev Constance Oosthuizen, the first woman minister to be ordained by our church in 1976.

I wish to thank the Director of the Communications Unit, Bongie, for the support she has given to the Lay Leaders in terms of reporting about their commissioning as well as their visits to both Tata Mandela and Rev Oosthuizen. Bongie, your unwavering support has not gone unnoticed.

Members of Conference, allow me to proceed to the second topic (heading), namely:

YOUTH EMPOWERMENT

It is a truism that at Mission Congress held in Mthatha in 2004 our church resolved to be a Youth and Child Centered Church, amongst other things. All resolutions of that Congress were in turn endorsed and adopted by Conference held at Central District in 2005. This was a profound statement indeed but one wonders as to how seriously it was taken by the Youth and Children’s Ministries (Units). We need to acknowledge the efforts by our Mission Unit which has created a Children’s Desk in its office.

Insofar as the Youth leadership is concerned, I recall that at 2007 Conference in Cape Town the Presiding Bishop, in the spirit of the yet-to-be “Invitation to a Round Table” invited the young people to elect one of their own to the office of the Youth President. To show his commitment to this principle of youth empowerment, he asked the MCO to create a budget for that office. I am made to believe that this issue is still pending before the Youth Synods of our Districts.

One can only hope and wish that the discussion and debates taking place throughout the Connexion around this matter will yield good and positive results. It would be regrettable that the Youth who have been clamouring for recognition by the church in a meaningful way would shut the very door which has been opened for them to participate in giving leadership and direction to this our church. I sincerely hope that it will not be a lost opportunity. However, being mindful of the respect which one should accord to the young people in terms of their line of thinking and manner of engaging on this issue, one is tempted to ask if there are alternative proposals which they would like to place on the table for consideration?

I wish to remind our young adults that the Methodist Church is a brainchild of young students at Oxford University. Had it not been for the enthusiasm and zeal of the “Bible-moths” and “Holy Club” members like John, Charles and William, the seeds of Methodism which were planted in that institution would not have germinated. Frankly, there would have been no Methodist Church. I therefore urge young adults to stand up and be counted and occupy their rightful places as part of the leadership of this church forthwith.

Members of Conference, allow me to deal with the last heading

WOMEN EMPOWERMENT

In my humble opinion, this is an area where our church has made tremendous strides in terms of affirming women that they are equally capable and competent to occupy any leadership position in this church as men are. Other than in their own organisations and/or units, they have occupied almost all the offices except for a few which I wish to deal with later. We have women class leaders, society stewards, circuit stewards, district lay leaders, and we have had two women Lay Presidents before me. We have Biblewomen, Evangelists, Deacons and Local Preachers who occupy leadership positions in these orders and units. With regard to women ministers, we have Superintendents almost throughout the Connexion. Some women, both lay and clergy, serve in the office of the District Statistical Secretary, while only women ministers serve/or have served in the office of the District Secretary including our stalwart, Rev Oosthuizen. There is a number of women ministers serving as Vice-Chairpersons of the Districts or Vice Chair-Elect. Only one woman minister has been in the office of the District Bishop.

Except for the offices of the District President and General President of the Local Preachers’ Association, the only two critical offices which women ministers have never occupied are those of the General Secretary and Presiding Bishop. As a Geography student I wonder if this has anything to do with the saying that:

“The higher you go, the colder it becomes”

If my two immediate predecessors were women, what would prevent women ministers from ascending to the two offices mentioned above?

I dare say that there is nothing which disqualifies them from serving. All they need do is to discern God’s will and when they hear His call, they respond as Peter did;

“If it is you Lord let me come to you walking on the water”

The responsibility that the Church leadership has is to create an environment, space and a platform conducive to them serving effectively. There is a number of challenges which makes the playing field not to be level eg. Culture. We should not be seen to be celebrating when such challenges rear their ugly heads and inhibit God’s mission but instead we should “break away from the pack” and create an enabling environment.

Before I come to the conclusion of my address, allow me a minute, members of Conference to express a sincere word of gratitude to the entire body of Methodism in Southern Africa, on behalf of my family, for supporting us in many ways during the time of our loss of our mother, my own Susanna, Constance Dotwana, during March this year. Messages of condolences were received from all over the Connexion including District Bishops, General Secretary and Presiding Bishops (the last two being out of the country at the time of her burial).  As if this was not enough, the family was overwhelmed by the attendance of Methodist people at her funeral. Rev Dr Charles Mehana received her body at home, two former Bishops, Reverends Dabula and Mbete, together with Reverends Matyumza and Msotyana conducted her funeral in the presence of many other Ministers and District Lay Leaders. The little mountainhill of Gungululu in the Clarkebury District was painted in red by members of the Women’s Manyano who came to pay their last respects to her. I will always remember that great praying warrior for constantly reminding me as her son in Christ service that there are two kinds of churches; the militant church and triumphant church. May her soul rest in peace. To all of you, I say thank you. If I had a beautiful voice I would sing Xhosa hymn 209, “Ndibulela ngoko Msindisi wam”.

In conclusion, let members of Conference be advised that the Lay Leaders have committed themselves in their last meeting to assist the church leadership in creating an enabling environment for all God’s people to serve Him as called without any hindrance whatsoever. It is therefore clear to me that our church is indeed on a new path, breaking New Ground and approaching the Promised Land. I really hope that by the year 2016 when we celebrate our bicentenary of the Methodist mission work in Southern Africa, we would also say John’s words in Revelations 21:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.’

I thank you.