The abbreviation “NGK” is nowadays better known in reference to spark plugs than to the once influential NG (Nederduitse Gereformeerde) Kerk or Dutch Reformed Church. Three decades ago this church was still a prominent player in the South African landscape because of the influence it held within the ruling National Party. Towards the end of apartheid it suffered from a severe credibility crisis because of the Biblical legitimisation it gave to apartheid and the fact that it was, along with other authority structures, discredited also among a new generation of white Afrikaners who constitute the church’s traditional membership base. Its membership has been in decline ever since.
In recent years the NG Kerk has struggled to make headway especially related to two issues: Its reunification with the black church which has originated from its missionary endeavours and which has succeeded in reuniting its black and brown strands just before the first democratic election into the Uniting Reformed Church, and its botched handling of decisions on same-sex relationships. While the struggle with the first mentioned centred around the Confession of Belhar conceptualised by the brown church in 1986, and speaking to unity, justice and reconciliation within the apartheid context, the confession was later taken up into the confessional basis of the new Uniting Reformed Church. The white NG Kerk, however, largely saw it as an anti-apartheid document and therefore an ugly reminder of things rather left in the past.
With the church still struggling to reunite with its black family church several years post 1994, the question around same-sex relationships was on the church’s table. After almost two decades which saw several research commissions and reports, first regarding homosexuality and then same-sex relationships, a unique opportunity for self-redemption came along at a General Assembly in 2015. This highest decision-making body of the church moved to scrap a celibacy clause for its LGBTQI ministers, also allowing its ministers to officiate at same-sex marriages. This suddenly put the Dutch Reformed Church in the forefront of church policy on the matter in South Africa, and certainly also on the African continent.
Immediately after the assembly there was upheaval in the church, perhaps echoing reactions to the anti-apartheid undertakings made by the NGK-leadership at the Cottesloe Church Consultation several decades earlier, which was stifled by the responses of then prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd alongside those of internal church structures. Threats were now coming from regional bodies and synods to withdraw from the denomination. Several appeals were brought in against the decision which the implementation of, according to legal opinion which has since been acknowledged to have been flawed, was frozen. A year down the line an extraordinary general assembly was organised, an appeal granted and the decision reversed.
Eleven Dutch Reformed members, clergy and theologians served the church with several legal opinions in the build-up to the 2016 assembly and the ensuing civil court case will be heard in the Pretoria High Court on 21 August. For yet another generation of NG-theological students, now coming from different racial backgrounds and already embodying a unified church while studying together at the Stellenbosch University and other places, it is time to take this even further than a court case. They want to strongly assert the values of non-discrimination taken up in our Constitution by showing where different forms of discrimination in our society intersect. They’re doing so by launching a campaign under the hashtag #WhyDiscriminate.
It’s a simple but bold question they’re asking; a challenging one which also contains an invitation. The students are taking their embodied presence in the church from which they come as point of departure. They’re therefore doing it from the deep conviction that the tenets of the faith tradition from which they come, subscribe to no form of discrimination. They’re seeking to reclaim these values precisely from that tradition. If the NG Kerk was in the past par excellence a place of exclusion, it needs to be redeemed from this apartheid legacy. A new generation wants to put the ball back into the church court prompting us with the question: Why continue discrimination on any grounds?
Coming from as painful a history as the Dutch Reformed Church does, how can one justify continued exclusion? If the content of the good news which the church as an institution seeks to uphold is about God’s unconditional acceptance and love for everyone, why discriminate? It’s tragic that religious institutions have recently again been on the forefront of protesting against hate speech and crime legislation in their own self-protection since they’re often the ones guiltiest of discrimination. Shouldn’t this be the other way around? A new generation is upholding a vision of an alternative reality which is more inclusive, diverse and dynamic than the one we’re coming from.
Perhaps this is the kind of movement necessary to be the spark plug for the NG Kerk to also redeem its name. Alongside many other churches and religious denominations, it needs reinvention in order to make a meaningful contribution to the manifold challenges of the South African context.
If a new generation could have their say this movement will go beyond the name of one church or religious denomination. It will remind us all of the non-discriminatory ambitions of our Constitution seeking to rise from out of the ashes of exclusion, and as we’re reflecting on #WhyDiscriminate. DM
Laurie Gaum is One of the NG-11