The dominant narrative has been that the church must speak truth to power but it is time that the church speaks truth to the church, according to Rev Prof Peter Storey.

Prof Storey was responding to the Peter Storey Lecture, written by the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana and delivered by Prof Mokhele Madise of the University of South Africa (UNISA), on 11 May.

“I hear a lot of talking about the church speaking truth to power, of course it must. I think it is much easier for the church to speak truth to power than for the church to speak truth to the church. We have to speak truth to the church,” Prof Storey said.

He spoke against the tendency of churches seeing themselves as better than others adding that by so doing they are worshipping themselves.

Prof Storey said, “The question is not ‘Are Methodists different from other churches?’ Rather it is ‘Are Methodists different from the status quo?’ Every church is severely tempted to worship itself, to become its own idol so that ministry is seen as perpetuating and enlarging this thing called church. God does not even understand that kind of church. If we become boastful about Methodism being a form of Christianity which has had social impact – and it has – let us remember that like any other church, we become fat and comfortable, and when that happens we lose our way. The question is what Steve Biko asked: ‘When will the church start following Jesus?’ When will the church stop worrying about itself and start following Jesus?”

He said the authenticity of a faith is judged by its attitude towards the poor and was quick to warn the church against spiritualising Jesus. “At the end of the day, the way I judge a religion is how its teaching and its action touch the poor and the marginalised. I have observed how we repeatedly try to spiritualise the message of Jesus. In following Jesus, we try to be religious about him. Not once did Jesus ask us to be religious; he just asked us to follow him and do what he did.

“When John Wesley set up the class meetings where people gathered on Sunday afternoon, the first question they asked one another was ‘What have you done in the past week to help the poor?’ But three or four decades later when Methodists started to become respectable, they did not like that question anymore. They dropped it and started asking another question which was much easier to answer: ‘How is it with your soul?’” Prof Storey said.

He ended by suggesting that God’s prophets are not only found in the church.

“Never believe that God’s prophets are only found in the church. I think some of God’s best prophets are cartoonists. I think Zapiro will be right up there next to Elijah, Jeremiah and Isaiah, because Zapiro has been one of God’s prophets in our country. He tells the truth; he pricks the proud and pricks their bubble. And so let us read carefully what God’s prophets like Biko have said. He grew up in the church and he had the courage to speak truth to the church, not just to power. We like it when he spoke truth to power yet we are not so happy when he spoke truth to the church,” Prof Storey said.