/ 5 April 2012

The slow and steady death of the Dutch Reformed Church

The Slow And Steady Death Of The Dutch Reformed Church

It was during the one beautiful Afrikaans hymn that I closed my eyes and I was instantly transported about 40 years back to the platteland Dutch Reformed Church in which I was brought up.

I am a teenager in my dark green suit sitting close to my mom on the brown benches. My dad is sitting in the elders' benches next to the pulpit. The grey-faced, toga-clad dominee's droning voice and the airless church are dragging heavily on my eyelids. Not even the mint imperials my mom is feeding me are helping to keep me awake. At least the occasional singing brings variety, although the congregation lags a bit behind the histrionics of the organist.


That formerly omnipotent Afrikaner church I grew up in is in trouble. Officially it lost 20 000 members last year, even though the real numbers are likely to be much higher. It had always turned away people with different ideologies, skin colours, and sexual preferences. Now, it seems, we are witnessing the book of Exodus's "jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me".

Three, four decades ago Afrikaners could hardly get a job without a reference from their dominee. But, at some point that all changed.

"The church lost its grip over people," says Jean Oosthuizen, the progressive news editor of the Die Kerkbode (The Church Messenger), which once acted as National Party praise singer and the Dutch Reformed Church's Pravda during the apartheid days. He says many lost faith in the church because of its actions in the past.

"The Afrikaans churches' support for apartheid is now costing them a lot. Many people feel cheated and want to know, if the church lied to them about apartheid, what else it is lying about?"

They never had a proud record when it came to inclusiveness. They discriminated against women, who were not allowed on their pulpits, and black people, who were not allowed in their white churches. And, as Oosthuizen points out, women are still not allowed to preach in the Gereformeerde Kerk (Reformed Church), and the Hervormde Kerk (Restructured Church) is still arguing over whether apartheid was a sin. These days, almost all the Afrikaans churches seem to discriminate against gay people, except perhaps one.

Opening my eyes again, the contrast with my old church could not be bigger. It is 2012 in Pretoria and a gentle breeze is blowing through the church. The congregation is in full voice led by four young, casually dressed guys on microphones, looking and sounding like a boy band, but one that can really sing.

When they sit down in the front pew for the sermon, two of the singers sit close, like lovers. They hold hands and sometimes steal glances. But nobody gives them a second look. Because tonight it is a different congregation in this suburban church. The Reformerende Kerk (Reforming Church) is a small church for Afrikaans-speaking gay people who use this gay-friendly Dutch Reformed dominee's church building every Sunday evening.

Dominee Andre Muller, who was born and bred in conservative Pretoria, formed the church 20 years ago after he was expelled from the Dutch Reformed Church when they found out he was gay. His thriving church now has 300 members.

Tonight's sermon is centred on Luke 13: 34. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God's messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn't let me."

The white, brown and black chicks are a wonderful metaphor for the church, Muller says.

"It is a surprising metaphor for Jesus to use, comparing himself with a hen. He crosses the barrier of gender that was unthinkable in the patriarchal society of Israel 2 000 years ago. Jesus is clearly not prejudiced when it comes to sexuality. He is not some narrow-minded male character — he finds it natural to refer to himself in female terms."

One of the lead singers, Zak Jansen van Rensburg, tells me after the service that he originally belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church. "There I could not fully live out my Christianity because I always held back — you didn't want to offend and you also didn't want people to know that you're gay because you don't know if they would judge you."

His relationship with his fellow church singer, Hannes Retief, started on their first date here at the gay church three years ago.

Retief's father is a dominee in the Hervormde Kerk, which is even more conservative than the Dutch Reformed Church. Retief came out 10 years ago, when he was 24 years old. It was a huge shock to his father.

"He reacted very badly. He first took me to one of those old-school psychologists who unfortunately believes you can shock me right, pray me right and all those things. Five minutes in his office and he told us 'you'd better leave', because he didn't believe we would get along.

"He claimed gay men rejected their mothers — the biggest nonsense I've ever heard! And then he went off about absent fathers. My dad has always been present my entire life; in fact, he took me to every rugby match I ever played in."

His mother handled it much better. "When I told her she said: 'My child, you remain my child and end of story.' She helped my dad a lot.

"It is going a lot better — Zak and I visited my parents today, for my grandma's 84th birthday, and there was nothing strange."

A writer on religion, Johannes de Villiers, says the church has "failed the test of diversity miserably. People live and work these days in diverse environments and then feel weird to be in a church that is hetero-normatively exclusivist."

Oosthuizen agrees. "Just as the church had to apologise years later because it excluded black people and women, they will one day have to apologise to gay people as well for excluding them for so long."

But, he says, the church is also losing credibility because it does not realise that its members don't associate with a premodernist world view anymore.

"Postmodernist people are fully aware of the fact that Bible writers lived in a completely different world and that the Bible should be read in the context it was written."

Dullstroom in Mpumalanga is a quaint tourist town with restaurants and art galleries in its main street. It is about 260km from Johannesburg but, as the cliché goes, in some ways a world apart.

It is a crisp Highveld Sunday morning as the local Dutch Reformed church's bell rings to signal the 9am start of the service. Inside the spacious historical white church, 95 white people look up at their friendly dominee, Jan Potgieter (40), in his bright-green shirt and tie.

People are in casual clothes; the elders and deacons no longer wear the stiff white shirts, ties and black suits and the women no longer wear the hats and formal dresses I remember. There is a simple pink-and-white cosmos flower arrangement below the pulpit. The organist seems to play a completely different tune to the one the congregants are singing.

In his sermon, based on Acts 9:36 to 43, Potgieter focuses on a female disciple in the early church called Tabitha, who cared for widows.

"She wasn't in charge of a big non-governmental organisation, she didn't present a radio show on Radio Palestine, she was no Oprah Winfrey … she was a humble woman but she made a difference in many lives," he tells his tiny congregation. "Who will miss you if the church, the Dullstroom congregation, disappears? What difference do you make in people's lives?"

With the depopulation of the platteland his question may well be taken literally. He tells me after the service that it is an issue in the neighbouring Belfast, "especially with the farming community. There some of the mines closed. Kids go to university and only a small percentage come back. There isn't work on the platteland."

Manie Bredell, a 77-year-old farmer who was born in this congregation, knows who to blame for the diminishing church. "Must be the devil. If you are self-reliant, have enough possessions, you don't need the Lord anymore. Must be what they think."

Mariaan Holtzhausen, who has been a Dullstroom resident for 30 years, says: "We have a challenge to get young people in the church, ­especially those who work in the shops and restaurants."

She acknowledges churches have excluded people in the past. "I fully agree that it is a problem. I am seriously against black people being excluded. We don't have the right to say gay people should be excluded. We simply cannot do it!"

If Dullstroom is a world away from Johannesburg, its neglected township, Sakhelwe, which is just a five-minute drive away, is light years from Dullstroom.

Sakhelwe has a 47% HIV-infection rate. It may be even higher, because that is what its clinic estimates it to be based on the people who go there to get tested, says Christina Landman, the dominee in the township's Uniting Reformed Church — the amalgamation of the Dutch Reformed Church's black and coloured sister churches.

"There's an Aids hospice that stands empty," Landman tells me after her congregation's service. "The church is now the only institution that stands as a health asset. There is no doctor, there is no social worker, the local government is bankrupt.

"You have Dullstroom that is rich — 28 restaurants in one street — and then out in the township you have these very poor people with an average income of R900 a month. Only about 30% of the township people have jobs, if that."

Her congregation has grown from 13 members four years ago to more than 200 now. Most of them are packed into the shack-like built-on garage at the back of a township brick house.

Light streams into the building through a single window. When they harmonise with their warm, rich voices, their alluring hymn, Yizwanini ilzwi elihle (When he cometh) drowns out the too-loud shebeen hi-fi across the road.

Landman, who serves this poor congregation without payment, is a theologian at the University of South Africa. "Where God is, there is hope," she tells her flock, and it is translated into isiZulu by elder Petrus Mnisi. "Hope is for everybody."

They need a lot of it. On the next plot they are building a new church that is about shoulder-high now. As soon as they get more money, they will continue building, she tells me.

"Here you have vast class differences: the white people own land, the people here in the township are the poor people, they are the domestic workers. So we had a combined service with the white church last year. What an eye-opener, the white people kept saying. They were surprised to see that we've got Bibles and hymn books, singing the same hymns as they.

"You've heard how our people here sang today, robust and from the heart. That day, they could hardly make a sound. They were terrified in that church, they were just standing there … like they were supposed to sing for the 'baas'. So we've still got a long way to go."

Potgieter agrees. "The ideal is that we should worship together, but I don't know if the language and cultural difference would allow it. For many of our people it was strange with the translators that speak. Our guys aren't used to it. But I think it is a long journey that has still to be taken and many obstacles that will have to be overcome.

"There is still an uncertainty, a fear, especially with our people — we talk about us and them. The Afrikaans people, especially, are fearful. Take the farmers that are left — many are sitting with land claims, so the guys are uncertain if they can keep their farms.

"So you've got a bunch of people who are uncertain … uncertain about their language, about the language their kids will be educated in. They are uncertain if they'll get a job in case of BEE [black economic empowerment]. So the last fortress people feel that they have, the church, they feel must be Afrikaans and it must be reformed. So when they talk about unification, people feel that 'they'll take my church and I will have nothing left'. It is those obstacles we'll still have to overcome.

"The children play a large role the kids said we must have the joint service. Now they've said again: 'We've raised money, we want to hand it over to the people of the Uniting Reformed Church and have a joint service with them in their church.' I think the people who will play the largest role will be the children — tomorrow's church. I think the next generation will play that role."

Oosthuizen says shrinking membership figures are a worldwide phenomenon, especially in Europe, although Africa is seeing a rise in Christianity and Islam.

"The Afrikaans church experiences it in some way more intensely because of the declining birth rate of white people, the large numbers of people emigrating, some members deciding to go to the charismatic churches and, of course, the large number of people who quietly disappear from church and who become completely church-detached."

The 20 000 members the church lost last year is just a small part of the bigger picture. "It only reflects the numbers on the 'books' and isn't very accurate," says Oosthuizen. "There are many members on the records who go to church very seldom or never. The Dutch Reformed Church has about a million members, but I can say with safety that fewer than half of them are active congregants.

"In addition, the church is an aging church — for the first time in the NG church's history more than half of its members are over 60."

The church's moderator, Nelis Niemand, was recently quoted in a Rapport article as saying that secularisation was to blame for the exodus from the church. "Secularisation certainly plays a large role," says Oosthuizen. "Many people say those who leave the church are streaming to the charismatic churches. There may well be such a group, but I don't think it will be sustained in the longer run. Many become disillusioned after a year or two. They normally don't return to the reformed churches and become churchless and disappear off the church scene."

He concedes there are some members joining the charismatic churches, but, they "just drive past the malls and beaches on a Sunday during church time and see the large numbers of cars there. The exodus isn't to the charismatic churches but of people leaving organised religion. The large stream of people leaving the churches don't make a big song and dance. They simply stay away.

"People don't necessarily stop believing in God or aren't spiritual anymore. They simply prefer to express their faith differently and are tired of church structures and dogma."

The last time I went to my childhood church was to bury my beloved dad seven years ago. These days that is the only time many people, especially city folk, of my and younger generations visit the Dutch Reformed Church — to say goodbye to loved ones and, in the process, to observe a church dying.


A history of separation

The Dutch Reformed Church arrived in South Africa in 1652 when Jan van Riebeeck settled at the Cape of Good Hope. The church expanded with the arrival of the French Huguenots in the 1680s and was taken further north with the Great Trek in the 1830s.

It has accompanied the Afrikaner from being oppressed to being the oppressor, reflecting the volk's apartheid ideology. Separate churches for coloureds (1881), black people (1951) and Indians (1988) were established as part of the so-called Nederduitse Gereformeerde (NG) kerke or Dutch Reformed churches family.

There has always been a tendency to exclude. During World War II, my late father and other soldiers were not allowed in some Dutch Reformed churches in ­uniform because many dominees supported the Nazis.

"Many of the leaders in both church and [National] party had been educated in Germany, where they had been impressed by the ideology of Volk and Vaterland in Nazism," writes University of Cape Town professor of comparative religion David Chidester in his book Christianity: A Global History.

During the 1930s and 1940s the Dutch Reformed Church and the National Party had "formed a close working relationship in the racist design of apartheid". The church provided legitimation for the policy of "racist domination and separation". It worked out "a theology of apartheid that was based on a reading of the Bible".

Chidester writes: "As the National Party came to power in 1948, theologians of the Dutch Reformed Church read the Bible as an 'Apartheid Bible', finding that God was the 'Maker of Separations'.

"It took the church nearly four decades to admit in 1986 its error that apartheid could no longer be considered a 'biblical imperative'."

Some of those bad apartheid habits remain, because even now, 18 years into democracy, the Dutch Reformed churches are still partly separate. In 1996 the black and coloured churches merged to form the Uniting Reformed Church, but the white church remains apart. It took the church until 1990 to finally allow the ordination of women as ministers.

Charles Leonard is the news editor of the Mail & Guardian