Travelling the road with the Dutch Reformed Church

When the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) at their General Synod of 2015 became the first Church denomination in Africa to be fully inclusive of their LGBTIQ+ members – including scrapping the celibacy clause for their LGBTIQ+ clergy, allowing their ministers to perform civil unions between same-sex couples and reject homophobia, IAM celebrated a major victory. This is what we were working for within the five mainstream denominations since our start in 1995!

But we did not, nor could we, claim that it was our doing only. That we played a major part in the individual lives of the pro-gay “voters” and the circumstances that swung their opinion over the preceding 20 years is, however, a reality (and a fact often overlooked by many recalling history). One very striking quote, seen on many LGBTIQ+ t-shirts over the years, reads: “It is not the weight of the drop that caused the rock to crack, but the constant dripping…”  IAM was a constant dripping on the unmovable rock of the DRC, and our dripping resulted in thousands of others who started “dripping” in their congregations – causing a slow but very certain shift in existing paradigms.

Identifying Allies

When Pieter Oberholzer started IAM in January 1995, his first obvious choice for “target allies” were amongst his DRC student friends and colleagues who were known for their open-mindedness. He also approached all the clergy in other denominations who had joined forces in the fight against Apartheid, hoping that they would recognize that the injustice of Apartheid and racism is of the very same nature as that of homophobia. While this wasn’t always the case, many indeed did become allies of the LGBTIQ+ community and IAM’s work.

He sent out 5,000 letters to all clergy in the Western Cape and further afield, inviting them to engage with him personally or within a congregational meeting in dialogue on the subject of being gay, a Christian, the Bible, and becoming more inclusive. Dr Carel Anthonissen, then a student pastor at Stellenbosch Central DRC congregation was the first to invite him, and in him he found his first real ally and good friend. In that first meeting he expected 25 interested participants and prepared an evening for so many students and some parents. More than 250 people filled the hall. 

At that meeting, Pieter told of his personal experience of being gay, being rejected for ordination by the DRC (after two years of intense electroshock therapy on advice of the seminary); of being ordained in the Netherlands and experiencing love and respect from a congregation, and how that acceptance changed his life. At that meeting Carel also introduced Pieter to Peter Cilliers, who just had just written a book about his life and shared a similar life story within the Hervormde Church. 

Apart from a few Bible-bashing parents and even a few young students, that first session was an overwhelmingly positive experience for most students (many of whom were still closeted gay or lesbian) Afterwards there were many tears, with one participant saying, “This is the first time that I have ever heard a proud gay Christian tell his story.”

A very rich relationship started between Carel and Pieter, with strong leadership from Carel. He started a weekly LGBTI student support conversation group, which Pieter (and later other IAM consultants) joined. On Pieter’s suggestion, Carel also started a parents’ support group, as he was already counseling many parents of gay children.

IAM wanted more change, and wanted it on the agenda of the DRC’s General Synod, the church’s decision-making body. Pieter and other friends went as visitors to the Western Cape Synod of the DRC of 1995. Carel was asked by Pieter to request that a new study commission be started since the existing DRC resolution of 1986 was very condemning. Carel said that one cannot just put a new agenda point on the agenda, so he and Pieter studied the existing pre-circulated (almost 700 pages) agenda and documents and found an opening. The Ring (presbytery) of Beaufort-West did not have an acceptable answer to a gay congregation member in dire need of pastoral care. That was the gap!

As a result, the DRC of the Western Cape decided in favour of IAM’s suggestion with Carel as our ally and partner within the church. A new study was commissioned that would include Pieter Oberholzer and other gay members to look broadly at issues of homophobia and changing to a more welcoming and embracing church. In 1999 Dr Carel presented a stunning pastoral and inclusive report that urged the Synod: “In God’s name I beg you – do something brave (dapper) for a change!” The synod did. They sent the report out to all congregations to be studied, which was a major accomplishment.

Sharing his personal story to expand our allies

In the meantime, from 1995-99 Pieter spoke to more than 500 individual clergy, mostly from the Western Cape across all denominations. At this same time, Dr Andre Bartlett from Gauteng and others gave their personal witness at more than 150 congregations before thousands of very interested (also very critical and abusive) audiences. 

A positive group of clergy, under the leadership of Dr Bartlett in Gauteng, invited Pieter to speak to them. The group included psychologists who were very supportive (including Marietjie van Loggerenberg) and a gay minister from the inclusive “gay” church, Reformerende Kerk. In this way a simultaneous process in Gauteng started shortly after the Western Cape DRC synod decision, and the network of strong partners and allies was expanded.

Capacity building of parents, friends and family of LGBTIQ+ people

Requests for counseling, from LGBTIQ+ people, their parents, friends and family members and even clergy were plentiful. After 1999, Carel joined Pieter in the talks to the congregations, explaining the major shifts between the report that was accepted and the existing policy.

The parents’ support group flourished. IAM created two more parents’ support groups (in Goodwood and Blaauwbergstrand). The number of inclusive clergy who openly supported our cause grew. Parents played a huge role in influencing their friends, family and church councils to become more inclusive and accepting of their children and other LGBTIQ+ individuals.

The stream of dripping water increased, and the circle of ripples became larger and bigger… and the rock started showing signs of giving way

Finding ways to be part of decision-making bodies of the DRC

Through IAM we made sure that Rev Judith Kotzé (part-time IAM staff member) and Dr Jean du Plessis (IAM board member) sat on the Synod commission of 2004 and later 2007. Both of these convenings were groundbreaking church meetings where LGBTI rights moved forward slowly but surely. More information can be found in the various DRC reports and agendas of many General Synod commissions that followed (www.ngkerk.net).

Supporting Gay clergy

In 2004 Rev Laurie Gaum’s personal tragedy and loss of his husband became front-page news, which led to the loss of his position within the DRC. IAM gave him full support, and Pieter (amongst others) testified on his behalf and later appointed him as a part-time member on the IAM staff. At the 2007 General Synod he was personally vindicated, when his suspension was revoked.

We will keep on dripping……

We were the “drops that kept on dripping.” We created thousands of new drops and movement. We were involved up to the last minute when we were part of the group of 12 people who took the DRC to court for revoking the 2015 inclusive resolution due to an “illegal process at a special General Synod.” (Read more about IAM’s role in the 2019 ruling here.)

The difference now is that where Pieter was a “beggar” at the church door for many years, pleading to be heard, IAM is now being held in high esteem by many, and is frequently invited to speak or train congregations. There are often too many people to honour that made this shift a reality, and that continue to fight for greater inclusion and celebration of all in the DRC.

IAM has drawn so many lessons from our work with the DRC over the past 25 years. We know that there is power in telling one’s own story, that personal narratives can spark empathy and build connections where none existed before. We know that dialogue can be the most constructive way through a seemingly intractable situation. We know that continued, sustained small efforts can bring about fundamental change. We will continue to use these and other lessons we have learned from our work with the DRC in our next 25 years.

Praise be to God who guided us and gave us strength to continue!