S. African church, once shunned as racist, welcomed back as returning 'prodigal son'

(Photo: © Peter Kenny)Dominee Pieter Swanepoel, a pastor in the NGK Edenvale near Johannesburg on Aug. 18, 2016.

South Africa's Dutch Reformed Church, (NGK), once had prime ministers and the ruling white elite in its ranks. And so closely tied was its doctrine to the racist 20thcentury ideology of apartheid, it was sometimes referred to as "the National Party at prayer."

So, when the NGK, or Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk as the church is known in the Afrikaans language, re-joined the World Council of Churches in June after 55 years, other churches in the country rejoiced at "the return of the prodigal son".

The church, started in the 17th century by European settlers in southern Africa. South Africa's Calvinist roots go back to 1685, when French Huguenots fled to the Netherlands after the Edict of Nantes guaranteeing religious freedom was revoked before going on to South Africa as refugees.

Because of that for decades the church was isolated and ostracized by much of the global Christian community in the late 20th century.

On the readmitting of the NGK to the WCC by the main governing body, its Central Committee at its June 20-28 meeting in Trondheim, Norway, there was joy in the church and in the global Christian community.

WCC moderator Dr. Agnes Abuom, a Kenyan Anglican said then, "It is a special joy to welcome back to the fellowship the Dutch Reformed Church, one of our founding member churches and now, a generation after the end of apartheid, a partner in building a future of justice for all peoples."


Dr. Gustav Claassen, the general secretary of the NGK (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk) as the church is known in South Africa, said, "We were really overwhelmed by the reaction at Trondheim and back in South Africa.

"Our African brothers took special time and effort to share with us their joy in Trondheim," said Claassen. They "rejoiced with us in a way that was humbling."

The South African Council of Churches sent Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, its secretary-general, as a special delegate to Trondheim when the NGK's membership was restored, and it was followed by a special welcome celebration Aug. 12.

"It was a very special and the sermon was taken from Luke 15, The prodigal son," Claassens said.

The Cape and Transvaal synods of the NGK had been a member of the WCC from the council's inception in 1948. But when 69 black people in Sharpeville were shot dead by police on 21 March 1960, it precipitated a struggled for the soul of the church.

This led to the WCC discussing injustice in South Africa, and a summit of its member churches was held from 14 to 17 December 1960 in Cottesloe, Johannesburg. All eight South African member churches of the WCC, including the NGK of the Transvaal and the Cape provinces, were present.

The consultation repudiated apartheid and advocated the inclusion of blacks in South Africa's political dispensation. This was unacceptable to the white Reformed churches in the prevailing climate.

On 1 January 1961, South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, a key transformer of racist apartheid from a custom into an ideology, said the church leaders at Cottesloe, did not represent the official position of the Church.


One after another, the synods of the NGK rejected the decisions of Cottesloe. In 1961, the Transvaal and Cape synods decided to leave the WCC.

This prompted the moderator of the Southern Transvaal synod, the Rev. Beyers Naudé, to question the theological justification of apartheid.

In 1963, Naudé left the NGK. When he left the church he preached that obedience to God is more important than obedience to man. He founded the Christian Institute to promote ecumenical dialogue.

He later joined the black church: the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa, and went on, like Tutu, to become general-secretary of the SACC, which is part of the WCC. For his views Naudé was punished with banning orders, his Christian Institute closed down by the State in 1977.

During the apartheid era the ruling National Party in South Africa loathed the WCC, accusing it of being suversive and backed by communists, as it fought the system in the country through its programme to combat racism.

(Photo: © Peter Kenny)John Allen, executive editor of AllAfrica.com and former press secretary of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town on Aug. 28, 2016.

John Allen, executive editor of AllAfrica.com noted that after Nelson Mandela's release from prison in February 1990, that November there was a consultation in Rustenburg involving SACC members and other churches including Roman Catholics, the NGK and Pentecostal churches.                                                                                                                                                

"It was an unprecedented range of South African churches gathering. At that meeting Professor Willie Jonker of Stellenbosch University, a theology professor and ordained minister, dared on behalf of the white NGK for it to confess its role in apartheid and to apologize.

"As Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu responded and said that he felt his faith left him no option but to accept the confession," said Allen, a former press secretary of Tutu's.

As the NGK struggled to come to terms with its complicity in apartheid and Tutu's acceptance of Jonker's repentance, the relationship between them grew said Allen, who was Tutu's press secretary for a number of years.

That was the start of the NGK's journey back into the global Christian fold.

In 2009, when Protestants worldwide marked the 500th anniversary of Reformer John Calvin's birth, South Africans remembered how followers of the Protestant reformer had been among the most strident supporters of apartheid, and eventually also among its most vociferous opponents.

As refugees, the Huguenot settlers had accepted an offer of the Dutch East India Company to go to South Africa initially for five years to support white settlers who had arrived in the Cape in 1652 to supply ships with vegetables and fruit on their way to Indonesia.


The Huguenot immigrants received farms and implements, and were mostly well-educated. Doctors, teachers, pastors and lawyers were among the first to arrive in the Cape.

Due to the religious wars raging in Europe, none of the first Huguenots returned home when their five years were up on the southern tip of Africa.

Yet, as progressive as the Huguenots were in their first years at the Cape, they veered from European thought, and some historians say that the whole age of enlightenment passed them by.

The Reformed churches begun by Afrikaners descended from the Huguenots were by the end of the 19th century holding services divided along colour lines: black, coloured (mixed race), Indian and white. Four separate churches, each with its own structure, emerged in the 20th century.

In 1948, under the leadership of Daniel Malan, a former NGK pastor who had become prime minister, traditional racist practices were transformed into the apartheid ideology of the ruling party and onto the law books of the country. Mixed services were no longer possible.

Max du Preez an author and political commentator who had edited an Afrikaans-language anti-apartheid newspaper said, "The Dutch Reformed Church is now a diminished force, although this is a worldwide phenomenon for churches, but here it was more dramatic because the church was so powerful. Internal divisions are great though.

"The Reformed churches, are still divided on largely racial lines, although they do not propagate racism. There are also divisions on gay rights."

Du Preez said, "I grew up in the NGK, my brothers are dominees [pastors] and my sister was married to an NGK pastor. Now they serve a community that feels marginalized as a minority community, so they have a lot of work.

"Making it back to the World Council of Churches was not a big thing, but there was no resistance to it."

Today, the NGK has 10 synods, nine in South Africa and one in neighbouring Namibia. There are 1,158 congregations, organized in 144 presbyteries. Total membership is 1,074,765 and the church has 1,602 ordained ministers.

Dominee Pieter Swanepoel, a pastor in Edenvale near Johannesburg, said only about a third of his congregation of more than a thousand adults and about 250 children, are regular attenders.

"Despite dwindling numbers in the church we have a new influx of younger members with families in our congregation. Overall church numbers have fallen in recent times, but we have grown here."

"We are on a new path. The church has a new awareness of how it has to serve people who see a greater need for relationships with one another. Many of our congregants face daily problems."

"Anyone is welcome in our church, we have no race issues, but our language is Afrikaans," said Swanepoel.

(Photo: © Peter Kenny)The NGK Riebeek Kasteeel, 80 kilometers (48 miles) north of Cape Town, South Africa on Aug. 27, 2016.
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