The Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa (URCSA) has a checkered past when it comes to official LGBTQI+ support. As far back as 2005, the church opened the doors to the conversation, calling for non-discrimination and inviting dialogue, and commissioning a theological report to look at the issue. Despite gradual shifts in language, moving from “homosexual” to LGBTQ, the Synod has yet to officially change its position. In 2016, when change seemed most possible, a conservative faction presented their counter report and rallied enough last minute support to stop the adoption of a more inclusive stance. We spoke with two clergy in URCSA’s Cape Region, who are still waiting on their church to change its policies. In the meantime, these two leaders are among a number who are taking the conversation to the Presbytery and congregational level, starting smaller and building a consensus for change from within.
His own journey to embracing inclusivity in the church began during his own studies. “I prescribe to what they call the organic reading of the Bible, where we understand the Bible not as a book prepared by God and given to us but as a collection of books prepared by people written in their time and space with their culture.” Paired with a theology grounded in justice, inclusiveness, love, and compassion, Rev Jacques found it natural to extend that same theology to people of different gender expressions and sexual orientations, but not all of his colleagues or congregants feel the same.
Kickstarting the conversation
As the Chair of the presbytery in early 2019, he was tasked with organizing the annual workshop for the ministers and church council members of the ten congregations in the presbytery. They decided that the topic of the workshop would be around homosexuality, a conversation that had been at the forefront of URCSA debate in 2016, and invited IAM to present to the group.
The conversation was spurred by the fact that there are many LGBTQI+ individuals within congregations, serving on church councils and ministries, yet many still shy away from open discussions about the issues. “We just go on ordaining [LGBTIQ+] people as church council members, they’re serving on our ministries, without giving other people a chance to say what they think about it, because it is a strange thing for them, and so we just thought we will have to put this on the table.”
IAM facilitated a one-day sensitisation session and a Reading Together process workshop with over a hundred clergy, church council and community members of the Steinkopf presbytery in the Northern Cape. Participants were introduced to IAM’s Theory of Action. This process of open minds, open hearts and open doors created a dialogue space for participants to understand the impact of stereotypes, bias and prejudice that foster discrimination against LGBTQI+ people. Participants were also introduced to the wide variety of terminology related to diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC). The sensitisation process laid the foundation for a Reading Together process on Genesis 19, one of the key texts that are used to inflict harm on LGBTQI+ people by church communities. On the Sunday Rev. Michelle Boonzaaier from IAM preached and closed the weekend’s proceedings on sexuality and gender.
“The way it was presented was very constructive,” reflected Rev Jacques. “It was presented in a way that nobody felt they were excluded or that their privacy was violated, or that they were discriminated against, and there was no space for people to be bigots. Whether it was personal or theological, people got the opportunity to say what they thought and felt and it was respected.”
“The presbytery meeting was just the starting point, and from there we were meant to take that conversation back to our individual congregations to take it further. In our congregation we used that same model as IAM did, starting with giving information and then giving people the opportunity to air their views in small groups.” Though they extended the invitation widely, only a small group attended the first discussion. “We took a lot of time just to give information on different theological, biological, social perspectives, and then we gave people the opportunity to ask their questions. Mostly they were from this theological standpoint, ‘But the Bible says man and wife,” and so on, and we did our best to give other views as well and challenge that “Well, we know there is that scripture, but we also have others.”
In addition to this theological conversation, Rev Jacques also shared information around positive terms concerning gender and sexuality. “We tried to let them know that sometimes we think we know what we speak about but we actually first have to listen and read and listen and then start talking. By introducing the different concepts, they started to say to themselves “Okay, maybe I know very much less than I thought I knew,” and so they were much more receptive to information that we gave them.”
There is still much more space for continued dialogue, Rev Jacques believes. “At the moment I mostly work through my sermons, preaching inclusive messages. Even when it’s not openly about homosexuality, I try to use the kind of language that is gender neutral and so forth.” COVID-19 has challenged the continuation of these conversations, but he feels that he still needs to reach others who are more reluctant to discuss these issues.
“Unfortunately, it did not work out well in all of our congregations. There were some who decided they were going to change the model, they were just going to have a quick talk, and everything would be done, and of course it backfired.
Advice for other religious leaders
When asked if he had advice for other religious leaders looking to take the conversation around LGBTIQ+ inclusion forward in their congregations and church structures, Rev Jacques said, “I think the big thing is information, information, information. Don’t give opinions when you first start, rather give information. The minute people realise “I know less than I thought I knew” they are more receptive to you. Secondly, it is very useful to use scriptures that challenge the traditional views, do a Bible study that challenges someone’s traditional view, and once again they will realise “I knew less than I thought I knew.” I think that is what opens the gate and gets people to say “Okay, now I’m open to listening now. It maybe won’t change my view today but I’m willing to listen because I realise that I don’t know as much as I thought I knew.”
He also says, “I won’t suggest that any presbytery or congregation start the conversation without IAM at this point in time. That is my honest opinion, don’t do it without them. I think they have a model that works, they have content that works. So yes, that actually would be- my biggest piece of advice would be don’t do it without IAM.”