South African churches still living with difficult legacy of apartheid

By Ecumenical News International
May 27, 2009

A South African church suspended in 1982 from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches because of its support for apartheid, is "still not ready for readmission", a meeting of the grouping's executive committee in Geneva has been told - write Stephen Brown and Hans Pienaar.

The Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk van Afrika (Dutch Reformed Church of Africa), or NHKA, had been excluded from the global Reformed Alliance because of the theological and biblical backing the church gave to the system of white domination under which South Africa was governed from 1948 until the early 1990s.

The church has applied to rejoin WARC but the Alliance's executive committee said in 2005 that the NHKA first needed to demonstrate to the churches in South Africa and the world that it has renounced apartheid "fully and completely".

WARC general secretary, the Rev Setri Nyomi, presenting his report on 23 May to the 2009 executive committee meeting in Geneva, noted that a WARC team had visited South Africa in March to meet the denomination.

"Our discussions showed a deep division in the church about moving beyond apartheid," said Nyomi, a Presbyterian from Ghana, in his report. "It was our determination that they were not ready for readmission." In comments to the Geneva meeting, Nyomi noted, however, "There were a few voices that … were committed to challenge the leadership of their church."

Five of the NHKA's leading theologians, writing in an article in South Africa's Afrikaans-language press early in March declared their "shame and hurt" that the NHKA has not yet officially declared apartheid "unevangelical" and "evil".

In 2007 the NHKA's general commission, or synod, had a motion calling for such a declaration on its agenda. But emotions ran so high before the meeting even began, the matter was taken off the agenda.

The theologians called for other members of the NHKA to add their names to their dissident declaration, in which it is also acknowledged that apartheid was dehumanising and caused great suffering which had to be redressed.

In his report, Nyomi referred also to mediation by the team sent to South Africa in separate discussions about the "stalemate" in the reunification of the Dutch Reformed church family, which was divided along racial lines during the apartheid period.

These discussions involve the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa and the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK), which was the white Reformed church in South Africa with the biggest membership.

Confusion in the identity of the churches can derive from the fact that the full names of the NGK and of the NHKA, which is much smaller, both translate into English as Dutch Reformed Church.

Both of them had supported the system of apartheid but the much larger NGK later rejected the racist ideology and was readmitted to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

The NGK is seeking reunification with the URCSA, which is itself a union of the formerly black and coloured (mixed race) branches of the Dutch Reformed family.

One of the issues hindering unification is the status of the "Belhar Confession", a doctrinal statement issued by the coloured church and later adopted by the black church, which rejected the theological and moral justification of apartheid as being a heresy.

The NGK has acknowledged that the Belhar confession was biblically grounded but declines to accept it as a fourth confession of faith, as was done by the URCSA. While the NGK leadership has been amenable to the move and most of its leadership desires it, the NGK says there is no unanimity among its lay membership over the confession.

In 2008, the URCSA declined to recommend the NGK for membership of the All Africa Conference of Churches, and its general synod placed a moratorium on any further reunification discussions. URCSA leaders insist this decision can only be rescinded at its next general synod in 2012,thereby suspending further unification moves.

While the NGK has long been a racially open church with many non-white members, its membership, tested in surveys, overwhelmingly reject the Belhar Confession as false doctrine. Many adherents claim the Belhar document is grounded in "liberation theology", long demonised by many Afrikaners.

URCSA members, on the other hand, say it would be difficult to renounce the confession as the basis for church unity. "They have to understand where we come from. The deep racism from the past still figures strongly," a URCSA source requesting anonymity told Ecumenical News International. "The inequalities produced by apartheid are still the cause of much suffering."

In his report to the WARC meeting in Geneva, Nyomi said, "Regarding the unification process, we hear both sides. We were encouraged that both agreed that what is needed includes a process towards reunification that is based on truth, restorative justice and reconciliation. It was also agreed to put in place a process of studying the Belhar Confession."

[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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