No easy bridge to church’s gay divide

The Dutch Reformed Church is unlikely to find a mutually agreeable solution to the ideological divide over membership for practising gays, experts said this week.

But while some expect the church to split on the issue, others predict a mere glossing-over to the detriment of gay congregants.

”This is the biggest crisis facing the church since its decision in 1986 to allow black people to join,” said gay minister Andre Muller. As a result of that change, tens of thousands of members left to form the Afrikaanse Protestantse Kerk.

”We are facing a similar situation now,” Muller said. ”As soon as the church takes a policy decision on this matter, it is likely to lose many members from whichever opposing side.”

Muller leads the mostly gay Reforming Church, which splintered off from the Dutch Reformed Church 13 years ago. He estimates that 10% to 15% of Dutch Reformed Church members are gay — in line with the demographics of the country.

According to Professor Fika van Rensburg, lecturer in New Testament studies at North West University, the conflict derives from opposing interpretations of biblical instructions on homosexuality.

Some believe the Bible dictates that it is sinful to act out homosexual feelings, while others think biblical references to the issue are not relevant to modern society.

”I don’t think it is possible to formulate a policy reconciling the two points of departure,” Van Rensburg said. ”Whichever way the decision goes, it is likely that those who are sufficiently unhappy in the other camp will want to form their own grouping.”

Last week, dominee Laurie Gaum was dismissed from the St Stephen’s Dutch Reformed Church in Cape Town because of his involvement in a homosexual relationship.

The church’s Moreleta Park congregation recently prevented the flamboyant Afrikaans singer Nataniël from addressing students because he ”makes a farce of sexuality”, and fired an organist when it emerged he was gay.

The church’s general secretary, Kobus Gerber, expressed regret this week at the pain being caused.

”But it is positive in the sense that many people are daring for the first time to make their voices heard.”

Task team

In October last year, the church replaced its 1986 position on homosexuality with one allowing for differing interpretations of the Bible.

It undertook to pursue discussion and study on the topic, but said gay people could not be excluded from the church.

In 1986, the church described homosexuality as deviant behaviour, and in conflict with the will of God.

The church has never had an official position on practising gays gaining membership or holding office.

Gerber said a task team set up to formulate policy on the matter will finish its work as soon as possible. A final policy is likely to be tabled before a general synod in early 2007. Issues arising in the meantime will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

”This is being handled as a matter of urgency,” Gerber said. ”We know people are hasty, unhappy and hurting, but we have a responsibility to consider this issue calmly and with integrity.

”We will not allow any over-hasty shooting from the hip.”

Gerber was not overly concerned about a split, saying: ”A church doesn’t tear quite that easily.”

The church is divided on many other issues, such as the lottery and capital punishment, ”but we always accept one another’s theological integrity”.

Breach of faith

But task team chairperson Andre Bartlett said on Tuesday he has given notice of his intention to resign over what he described as a breach of faith.

While he had been confident that a compromise could be sought in a calm and open-minded fashion, as provided for in the team’s mandate, church leaders have overtaken the process by making pronouncements against homosexuality.

Bartlett referred to the decision on Gaum, and a statement attributed to church moderator Coenie Burger that the practice of homosexuality can never be condoned.

”The process has been derailed, the framework destroyed,” he said.

University of South Africa theologian Christina Landman said a church fissure over homosexuality is unlikely.

”They will not allow the voice of gay people to be heard too loudly,” she said. ”I don’t think there are many people who feel so strongly about this that they will place their church positions on the line for it.”

She expects the issue to be packed away shrouded in religious language, without having been addressed.

The gay and lesbian NGO OUT welcomed the debate.

”The positions are completely contradictory, and the time has arrived for a clear policy,” said OUT director Dawie Nel.

He quoted statistics from 2003 research that found that between 33,8% and 54,3% of respondents to a Gauteng survey had experienced discrimination by religious authorities.

Between 12,6% and 20,4% had been asked to leave their church because of their sexual orientation.

”This is a difficult time for the Dutch Reformed Church,” Nel said. ”The opinions on the table differ like day and night. But it is good that they are finally dealing with it.” — Sapa

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Mariette Le Roux
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