Churches for sale

2009-01-12 00:00

A small news story in The Witness in November last year recorded the sale of the Dutch Reformed Church on the historic Church of the Vow site at the Msunduzi-Voortrekker Museum in the central business district. Apart from this, the sale passed almost unnoticed by the public eye. However, it was a significant development that reflected the country’s changing socio-political scenario.

The church building which is being bought by the state for the museum is not the original Church of the Vow built by the Voortrekkers after the Battle of Blood River in 1838, which is already part of the Museum. The building changing hands was the third building erected to accommodate the congregation — called the Pietermaritzburg or Voortrekker congregation — as it expanded. It was built in 1961 and is currently home to the Jesus Celebration Centre, which is leasing the church.

Pieter Nel, immediate past chairperson of the Pietermaritzburg church council, said that the congregation had declined to the extent that it could no longer afford its operational expenses. The building of the new municipal taxi rank next door to the church was “the final straw” for the dwindling congregation, because the noise from the rank made worshipping in the building unpleasant. Former church members have moved to worship in remaining congregations in Merrivale, Prestbury, Pelham and Hayfields.

The history of the founding of Dutch Reformed Church congregations in the city, and then the closure of some, reveals a pattern that parallels the development of suburban Pietermaritzburg and the fortunes of the Afrikaans community with the rise and fall of the Nationalist government. After the Moedergemeente (mother church) in the city, the next congregation founded was Pietermaritzburg West in 1922, with a church building in Boom Street. Two congregations were founded in 1949: Pietermaritzburg North, serving the northern areas with a building in Prestbury and for the southern suburbs, Pietermaritzburg South in Pelham. Napierville followed in 1957 with a building in Tritonia Road. The last two congregations founded were Merrivale in 1974 and Hayfields in 1975. While the church used to enforce congregational boundaries and required members to attend their local church, these restrictions have now been relaxed.

The first congregation to close down was Napierville in 1993, when the building was sold to the Baptist Church and the congregation merged with Pietermaritzburg West. In 1999, the Merrivale congregation combined with Pietermaritzburg (Voortrekker) and shared a minister, but kept two places of worship. Pietermaritzburg West combined with the North in 2000 and the building was sold to Breakthru Church International. Four congregations remain: Hayfields, Merrivale and Pietermaritzburg North and South.

Statistics quoted in an electronic newsletter state that total membership of the Dutch Reformed Church nationally fell by more than 100 000 members between 1996 and 2005 (Posduif 27, February 25, 2008). The document also notes the “greying” of the church community as “our children are getting fewer and our people older”, making it “probably the last time” that members younger than 16 (21%) will outnumber those over 60 (20%).

Dominee Pieter Raath, current moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church Synod of KwaZulu-Natal, confirmed that church membership is falling because of a decreasing birth rate among white families and mortality among older members. “There used to be seven or eight congregations in the city with 13 or 14 ministers. Now there are four congregations with five ministers. Many people have moved away from the area, especially to the Free State and Gauteng where there are jobs.”

Dutch Reformed Church archivist Elbie Raath confirmed this and identified several other factors that have contributed to the demise of local congregations which become too small to afford the financial commitments of being an independent church, including a minister:

• the closure of the local Spoornet workshops and then the branch offices;

• affirmative action and/or closure of government departments in the city, especially after 1994;

• unemployment; and

• emigration — nationally, the Dutch Reformed Church loses an average of 10 members per congregation per year and this trend continues.

The newsletter notes: “What is cause for concern is that there are claims that the flood of members who have left the country could be followed by a tsunami if matters don’t come to order in our society.”

Opinion seems to be divided on the significance that the sale of the Voortrekker church building has for the Dutch Reformed Church and the broader Afrikaans community.

“There is huge symbolism associated with this site,” Nel said. “The Gedenk Kerk site was the mother church for the old Natal and Transvaal. The city of Pietermaritzburg was laid out around the market square and church, just as Cape Town was laid out around the Groote Kerk and Market Square in Cape Town. Also, Dutch Reformed Church congregations around the country collected money to build the church building being sold, which was used as a conference centre as well as a worship space. The last service there was a very sad moment.”

However, Pieter Raath said: “Of course it’s a loss, but there are more important things than just church buildings. People will tell you that the value of a church building is its value less the cost to demolish it. As a church we should focus on people rather than on buildings. The time for big church buildings is, to a certain extent, over. People now tend to gather in smaller groups in smaller venues such as homes.”

The director of the Msunduzi-Voortrekker Museum, Bongani Ndlovu, said the Department of Public Works is busy with processes to finalise the purchase of the church buildings. The hall will be used for educational programmes, particularly for schools, which is one of the museum’s major thrusts. “The Dutch Reformed Church expressed a strong desire for the church to remain a place of worship, so we considered a number of interested Christian bodies. The Jesus Celebration Centre was chosen as the tenant because it is involved not only in worship, but also in inner-city community-empowerment projects that complement the museum’s outreach activities. The Dutch Reformed Church also asked to be able to use the space once or twice a year, which we will respect.”

On the future of the complex, Nel said: “I believe that the Church of the Vow should be a space for reconciliation because the congregations who worshipped there were born out of conflict between the Voortrekkers and the Zulus. Conflict has marked the history of the Afrikaner people and of this country. It is my dream that we should erect a new monument on the site as a sign of our commitment to reconciliation, and then hold regular events to foster it, including an annual reconciliation service on December 16, the commemoration of the Battle of Blood River. Reconciliation is a biblical imperative and there is no better place than this to do these things.”

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