Former apartheid church has first synod with black members

By Ecumenical News International
January 11, 2009

Black and white delegates are for the first time together attending a general synod of a former apartheid-supporting church in a farming town near South Africa's largest city of Johannesburg - writes Hans Pienaar.

The Gereformeerde Kerke in Suid-Afrika, or Reformed Churches in South Africa (GKSA), began their annual general synod on 4 January in Potchefstroom, which is also a university town, about 150 kilometres (93 miles) from Johannesburg.

Although the church still has a majority of Afrikaans-speakers from South Africa's white minority, most of the church's black congregations have sent delegates to the 10-day gathering that ends on 14 January. A unification process that involves converging new regional synods of black and white churches will be finalised during the week, the Johannesburg newspaper Beeld reported.

Called the Gereformeerde Kerk (Reformed Church) during the apartheid era, the church will on 11 February begin commemorating the 150th anniversary of its institution in the then Boer republic of Transvaal.

As part of a family of three South African churches in the Dutch Reformed tradition, it later supported theological justifications for the apartheid ideology of racial separation after the Second World War. This led to the expulsion of the three churches from international ecumenical bodies.

At least one district of a regional synod of the GKSA, Greater Johannesburg, currently has a minority of white congregations. One of its congregations has a Congolese minister who preaches in English and French, a departure from the traditional dominance of Afrikaans.

About 20 of the 240 delegates to the general synod are black. At the Sunday service on 4 January the Rev. Abel Modise, a black pastor who serves congregations in the former townships of Kwa-Thema and Ratanda near Johannesburg, which were black dormitory towns under apartheid, was elected as one of two assistant "skribas" (scribes) of the general synod.

While the main medium at the synod remains Afrikaans, a language derived from Dutch, translation services in English are provided. The synod opened with the singing of psalms in Afrikaans and Tswana, two of South Africa's 11 official languages, the latter spoken by most black GKSA members.

High on the agenda, apart from further advancing the process of unification among the formerly racially-divided churches, will be allowing the singing of religious songs other than psalms during gatherings. The GKSA also forbids dancing, but members say it is not strict in imposing this constraint.

Some observers have speculated that the presence of delegates from black communities renowned for more lusty singing during church gatherings, will bring a new dimension to worship. Another controversial issue is allowing women to preach from the pulpit.

The new GKSA moderator, the Rev. Neels Smit, said during his 4 January acceptance speech he expected that the church tradition of robust debate would be continued, but he expressed the hope that this year's synod "will not be remembered for the bitemarks left behind".

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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