Rev. Roux Malan, Introductory paper on South African Unitarianism


The purpose of this article is two-fold.

Firstly, it show-case how the three-fold structure of (1) experience/reality; (2) theological discourse; and (3) conclusion can used as a form that will enable anyone who feel the need to make a contribution towards a spiritual and theological conversation to do so.

Secondly, it also argues for the formation of a liberal theological circle where member can use the three-fold structure to support each other in order to contribute towards the publication of a digital liberal theological/spiritual publication. This publication can become a support in development of Unitarianism and Universalism in in Africa. It can also leave a legacy that future generations can build upon.

History of Cape Town Unitarian Church
The founder of the Free Protestant Church (later Unitarian Church) in Cape Town studied at the University of Leiden from 1861 to 1866. During this time, he was particularly inspired by the theological liberalism of professor Joannes Hendricus Scholten and the theological writings of Unitarian minister Rev. Theodore Parker. On his return to Cape Town he sought to become a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, but in 1867 concluded that his theology was not compatible with that of the DRC leadership. He consequently began to proclaim the “Nieuwe Rigting” (English “New Direction”) in a series of public lectures. It was these lectures that eventually led to the establishment of an independent congregation in 1869 in Cape Town.

Rev. Faure also became a contributor to a monthly periodical called “De Ondersoeker” that was established in 1860 to support liberal ministers within the Dutch Reformed Church who came into coflict with the church due to their liberal theological views. This publication seems to mimic a Unitarian publication that was published in the UK called “The Inquirer”. The Inquire is the longest-lived non-conformist paper and its first issue was published on 9 July 1842. “Het Ondersoeker” can roughly be translated as “The Inquirer”.

In 1897 Rev. Ramsden Balmsforth arrived in Cape Town to become the successor of Rev. David Faure. He became one of the most prolific South African theologians of his generation. As such he wrote dozens of books and articles published in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. These publications covered a broad spectrum of topics ranging from modern theology, comparative religion, anthropology, economics, contemporary politics, and educational reform among others.

Despite the fact that none of Rev. Balmforth’s successors ever matched his output a significant number of them did leave behind their own theological reflections. In 1950 Rev. Magnus Ratter published “Albert Schweitzer, life and message” through Beacon Press. Rev. Robert Steyn who served the Unitarian Church Cape Town from 1979 to 1997 left behind a significant legacy of theological reflections as well as prayers. He also instituted a unique annual universal christmas celebration during which the birth of all religious prophets such as Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna and Buddha were celebrated.

The need for deeper theological and spiritual reflection in Unitarian-Universalism
Today more than ever the Unitarian movement is in need of deeper theological and spiritual reflection. In an article by Daniel Burke in the Huffington Post (August 2011) called “Can Unitarian-Universalists make it another 50 years?” he quotes from an internal UUA report published in 2005 which states: “The consensus of experts from an array of fields — from organizational development to systematic theology — is that to grow effectively, a religious organization needs clearly defined boundaries”.

He also calls his reader’s attention to Rev. David Bumbaugh (now retired - professor of ministry at the UUA’s Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago) point of view, who emphasized that it is important for Unitarians to publicly wrestle with foundational theological or spiritual questions such as:

“What do we believe? Whom do we serve? To whom or what are we responsible?”

In addition to this need I believe it is equally important for us to democratize theological and spiritual reflection. In other words we need to empower ordinary members in our movement to learn to reflect spiritually and theologically on their life experiences and the events in our world.

Rev. Richard S. Gilbert’s three part “Build Your Own Theology” series made an important contribution to make theological reflection available to ordinary members in the Unitarian movement. Unfortunately, the “Build Your Own Theology” course could leave the impression that theological reflection happen once and then you are done. The truth is that it is something that takes place almost daily and throughout our lives. What we therefore need to do is to find ways to encourage our members to continue the work they started in courses such as “Build Your Own Theology” and I believe the three-fold structure gives us such a tool.

A need for training of ministers and lay leaders in Africa
In August 2013 Gur Mouanga and I were invited to attend a conference hosted by the International Council of Unitarian-Universalists. This conference brought Unitarian ministers and lay leaders from Burundi, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Uganda together to deliberate about the future of Unitarian-Universalism in Africa.

Delegates at the meeting agreed that one of the most urgent needs was to better equip Unitarian ministers and lay leaders for their task and to train more ministers and lay leaders. In a report to the ICUU Executive Committee on his visits to Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Nigeria and the Congo in 2007 Rev. Gordon R. Oliver also emphasized the need for ministerial training and lay leadership in these countries.

In South Africa, the Cape Town Unitarian Church for the most part employed ministers who were trained our raised in a different denomination and consequently had to receive additional training to develop their understanding of the Unitarian heritage and ministry. In addition they had to find ways to continuously engage the Unitarian heritage and models of ministry to deepen their understanding and experience of it.

During my tenure as settled minister, I became convinced that Cape Town Unitarian Church would serve its future needs for ministry well if it could develop a focused program of lay leader development. Such a program will ensure that a pool of future church leaders could be developed. In addition, it will expand the possibilities of ministry for Cape Town Unitarians.

My predecessor, Rev. Gordon R. Oliver, shared this need to democratise the ministry of the church beyond the formal role of the minister to include all the members of the congregation. He captured this idea in the phrase: “ministry is what we do together”. He often referred to this principle in his ministry.

Given the history of theological reflection by the past ministers of the Cape Town Unitarian Church, the need for theological and spiritual reflection in the broader Unitarian movement and the need for training of ministers and lay-leaders for the Unitarian movement in Africa let us now turn to our Unitarian heritage.  What can we learn about theological and spiritual reflection from fellow Unitarians and our Unitarian ancestors?   


I will broadly cover five themes that seems to provide a context for theological and spiritual reflection in our liberal Unitarian movement.

(1) It Includes Everybody
When we trace the history of our movement it is clear that spiritual and theological reflection has never been considered to be the exclusive domain of the clergy or ministers. Why?

Firstly, Ference Dávid, the father of Unitarianism, found inspiration from Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus was a Dutch philosopher and Christian humanist who encouraged the ordinary members of the church to read the Bible for themselves rather than to rely exclusively on the exposition of the clergy. Ferenc Dávid consequently encouraged public debate on religious matters that will enable people to make up their own mind. It is a clear indication that his aim was to empower people to think for themselves and to come to their own conclusion on religious or spiritual matters.

Secondly, Unitarianism also inherited one of the foundational principles from the Protestant Reformation, namely the idea of a “universal priesthood”. It emphasized that nobody has the last say on religious or spiritual matters. We all can connect to what is divine within ourselves and we all can speak about and reflect on that experience.

(2) It Takes Place Within A Circle Of Conversation
Another theme that seems to run through the Unitarian heritage is that theological and spiritual reflection and practice takes place within a circle in the form of a conversation where each voice is heard and acknowledged. 

The circle allows for a safe space where nobody is coerced to adopt a particular theology or spiritual path. In order words theological and spiritual reflection is a communal activity. We cannot do it alone. We need each other to grow in our understanding and practice. However, it must always take place in a conversation of give-and-take instead of a monologue.

(3) It Confers A New Responsibility
The freedom of this circle does not however mean that you are absolved from the responsibility to choose. In fact, Unitarianism is often called a “chosen faith”. Unitarian minister, Marilyn Sewell in an articled called “The Theology of Unitarian-Universalists” writes: “You are required to choose your own beliefs — you promise, that is, to use your reason and your experience and the dictates of your conscience to decide upon your own theology, and then you are asked to actually live by that theology.  You are asked to take your chosen faith very seriously.”

(4) It Includes Both The Past And The Future
This fourth theme is closely connected to the previous three. In Unitarianism there remains an awareness that theological and spiritual reflection always takes place against the background of our ancestors or those who came before us. Therefore, the circle is bigger than just the living. We are also in conversation with those who already passed away. 

The circle also includes those who are still to come - our children and grandchildren. It is our responsibility to keep the conversation alive so that they will continue it.

(5) It Gives Expression To That Which Lies Beyond Expression
The Unitarian movement is in part situated within liberal theological movement of the Protestant tradition of which Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 - 1834) was the father. This fifth and last point is derived from Schleiermacher’s thoughts on theology and its purpose. According to Schleiermacher religious feeling comes first and only then it is expressed in language. To put it differently theology is our reflection on our experience of the sacred.

Take note though that the word “feeling” translated from German (Scheiermacher’s mother tongue) could be misleading. For Schleiermacher “feeling” wasn’t only something that is within ourselves. For him “feeling” mean the inner movement that occurs when we relate to that which is bigger than ourselves such as God, other people, nature and society. 

Therefore. theology or spiritual discourse is the way we express in both words and gestures our deeply felt (“feeling”) sense of connection to that which is bigger than ourselves. In fact, Scheiermacher came to the conclusion that we all have an innate need to find ways to share, to communicate and to express what we deeply experience at the core of our being. In other words, we all have an innate need for theological and spiritual reflection and expression.

Let me summarize:

Theological and spiritual reflection within the Unitarian movement includes everybody and it takes place within a circle of conversation where everybody is given freedom of expression. At the same time each person is called upon to take responsibility to come to their own conclusion and to use your reason and your experience and the dictates of your conscience to decide upon your own theology and to live accordingly. We also need to be mindful that we are not the only ones participating in this conversation. Our ancestors and our children and grandchildren are part of the circle and so is the natural world. Lastly, we are trying to express the in expressible. Therefore, it make sense to be humble and open to the expressions of others.

I wish to conclude with a proposal that is based on what I shared in the first two movements of this article namely (1) Experience/Event and (2) Theological Discourse.  Given the legacy of people like David Faure and Ramsden Balmsforth and the need for Unitarian theological training and reflection in Africa I believe that we could make a tangible contribution in this regard through the establishment of a Unitarian Theological Circle or Liberal Theological Circle.

The aim of such a circle would be to inspire, support and guide members to express their thoughts and reflections on liberal religious and theological themes that arise from their own experience and their lived-reality as liberal religious thinkers and practitioners in Africa.

There are various ways in which such a circle can be conceived. It is my hope that this article will inspire additional creative ideas of how it can be structured.

I offer the following as suggestions:

The first aim should be to create a tangible result so that the circle can stay motivated to do this work. Therefore, we should aim to create a digital liberal theological publication (at least) once a year that contains the contributions of those who participate in the circle. In order to ensure that everybody feels empowered to make such a contribution the three-fold structure can be a point of departure. 

Since - as expressed in the article - theology is not something that we do in isolation, but rather something we do in community the publication must be supported by a minimum of four meetings per year. The aim of these meetings can be to support the participants to formulate there theme and assist them in using the three-fold structure to give expression to their experience, their conversation with their theological or spiritual heritage and their conclusion.

Lastly, it will be important to have a team of three or four who are willing to take ownership of the project so that the support for writers, the quarterly meetings and the actual publication takes place. A suggested date for the first publication can be end of July 2020 so that it will be ready of the yearly celebration of the founding day of Cape Town Unitarian Church as well as Pan-African Unitarian Day.