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Die Student
An accountable church
Ecclesia de Lange, die homoseksuele predikant wat deur die Metodistekerk in die pad gesteek is nadat sy met haar lewensmaat getrou het. Foto: Danielle Karallis

Weeks ago, South Africa took note that Ecclesia de Lange dropped her suit against the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. She has since communicated her reason for this decision.

A similar case will be heard by the Pretoria High Court in August this year. This case, however, concerns the Dutch Reformed Church (otherwise known as the NG Kerk) and its members who experience discrimination because of their sexuality, according to #WhyDiscriminate.

These cases have made the public aware of the need for accountability. Interestingly, faith communities (such as the Dutch Reformed Church and the Methodist Church) continue to be trusted institutions in our society. Surely then they, too, should be held accountable. 

The question raised is if a judicial process is one such an accountability mechanism. Differently put, should churches be tried by courts to rule on discriminatory practices? 

Court cases could strengthen the practice of religious freedom

In answer to this question, I consider three reasons why these court cases may strengthen the practice of religious freedom – as per the Constitution. 

The claim that humans are created by the Divine is fundamental to the general Christian faith. Thus, possessing dignity. While this is a faith claim, one finds a similar notion in our nation’s Constitution (section 1), and clearly set forth in the Bill of Rights (chapter 2). From this observation it should not surprise us that the same document prohibits discrimination because of sexual orientation (section 9). 

Our national history is quite indicative of the power that may be exercised by religion. Lest we forget, theology was a major informant of what later became legal apartheid.

Given this legal framework, churches are expected – required even – to practise faith within this structure. Failure to do so would no doubt infringe on the Constitution. More importantly, to a believing community it would betray the most foundational claim – that is, the human dignity of sexual minorities – lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, and those who are intersex. 

As a democratic society we must be clear; theology is always informed by history. Therefore, a church may not propagate beliefs as though apartheid, colonialism and Nazism did not occur. Our national history is quite indicative of the power that may be exercised by religion. Lest we forget, theology was a major informant of what later became legal apartheid. 

With this as reality, the church in general must investigate if it has authentically interpreted its faith. For the Dutch Reformed Church this is particularly interesting. In 2015 its General Synod took a monumental decision that altered the dialogue on sexuality completely – taking a position of embracing and affirmation of sexual minorities. This, of course, was revoked in 2016 – which is the very basis of the case in August. 

Of late much has been said about the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities’ intention to regulate religion. Much criticism has been offered, which is needed. Even so, this begs an important investigation. Why does the church feel compelled to criticise any and all institutions, yet despise any criticism of itself? I contend that this may well be because of its struggle with honesty. 

Ashwin Afrikanus Thyssen.

If the church were honest we would prioritise the dignity of all humans. If the church were honest we would develop historically conscious theology. If the church were honest, we would grapple with the mundane manner in which sexism is exercised. If the church were honest, there would be no need to consider legal action the only option to hold it accountable.

South Africa remains a nation experiencing growth pains. One such a pain is making sense of the role religion ought to play in our society. For those in the church fold, this moment contains much uncertainty. Even so, churches – all churches – must take to task the recognising of the dignity of sexual minorities, unconditionally. Churches must be historically aware. Churches must be honest. If anything, churches must come out of the closet of dehumanising dishonesty – to be an accountable church. 

  • Ashwin Afrikanus Thyssen (22) studies theology at Stellenbosch University. He grew up in Elsies River.
  • This opinion piece was originally written in English. To read an Afrikaans version of the piece, click here.
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