Sexuality meets spirituality

2018-10-09 11:49
The case highlights the complex process when constitutional rights protecting the freedom of religion, on the one hand, are brought into conversation with rights protecting personal liberty pertaining to issues such as race, class, gender and in this particular case, sexual orientation.

The case highlights the complex process when constitutional rights protecting the freedom of religion, on the one hand, are brought into conversation with rights protecting personal liberty pertaining to issues such as race, class, gender and in this particular case, sexual orientation.

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In October 2015, the General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) made the decision fully to affirm the human dignity of all people, also those previously deemed less than human, as they self-identified within the spectrum known by the abbreviation LGBTIQA+.

Beyond the significance of becoming the first institutionalised faith community on the African continent to affirm openly the dignity and full inclusion of queer people within the community of faith, the decision was also highly meaningful considering the role that the DRC played in sanctioning the apartheid regime.

The DRC, sometimes referred to as “the National Party in prayer”, biblically and theologically found ways to sanction and support the ideology of racism and dehumanisation that marked apartheid. Considering this problematic legacy and the resulting loss of integrity and legitimacy, the DRC has been grappling with this history. High on the collective agenda over the past couple of decades has been much internal theological reflection and critique aimed at interrogating the complicity of the DRC in informing the apartheid ideology. To a certain extent, an entire generation of theologians, clergy, and members of the DRC has had to sit with the discomforting reality that they actively participated or contributed to the theological justification of apartheid.

Besides dubious race politics, the DRC has also been grappling with homosexuality or same-sex relationships since the eighties. The official journey with the issue started in 1986 when the church adopted a position from which homosexuality was described as a deviated form of sexuality, and homosexual practices and relationships were disapproved of because they were in opposition to the will of God. This position, however, became problematic because of the embodied reality of queer people of faith within the DRC. During synods to follow, much progress was made in terms of enriching the conversation and the construction of consultative processes which included the voices of lesbian and gay believers in study groups.

The inclusion of a diversity of voices and lived realities brought a different texture to the DRC decision-making process regarding the issue. In 2004, the General Assembly took an official position of uncertainty on the subject and local congregations and presbyteries were encouraged to discuss the matter in smaller groups. The Civil Union law, adopted in 2006 enabling same-sex unions, contributed to the mounting pressure on the church to formulate its own stance pertaining to same-sex unions. In the lead up to the General Assembly in 2007 and in light of the treatment of Laurie Gaum after his partner outed him in the tabloids before committing suicide, an open letter to the DRC bearing more than 500 signatories was published pleading for a more tolerant stance on homosexuality.

The 2007 decision by the DRC on homosexuality was the result of a long and complex process within the DRC’s General Assembly and regional meetings, and signified something of a compromise between two diverse positions. The compromise between the pro and against camps led to internal inconsistencies in the position statement and created a situation of double communication.

On the one hand, it was affirmed that gay members and ministers were completely accepted into the community of faith and included in the all-encompassing love of Christ. On the other hand, a number of prerequisites were insisted on for queer believers and clergy. In 2013, on the back of the public media debate sparked by a lesbian theological student at Stellenbosch University, Lulani Vermeulen, who was denied legitimisation for ministry because she publicly identified as a lesbian, the 2007 principles were reaffirmed with one addition stating that both homosexual and heterosexual students preparing themselves for the ministry in the DRC should comply with the same Christian-ethical standards for the purposes of legitimisation.

At the same time, and important to note, the DRC launched the so-called season of human dignity in 2013 that determined that any discussion on the issue of homosexuality would henceforth take place according to the values of the season and be framed within the discourse of human dignity.

Pressure mounted in the run-up to the October 2015 general synod as urgent calls for progress, action, and discussion came from prominent leaders within the faith community, socially engaged biblical scholars and theologians, the media and queer voices.

In order to make visible something of the lived realities of those often discussed and yet seldom invited to the conversation, the #liefdeisliefde was developed and a number of queer believers from the DRC staged a sit-in during the General Synod meeting. In circumstances described by some as a perfect storm, the DRC made a remarkably progressive, yet inclusionary decision.

The decision created space for queer ministers to be ordained within the DRC and for ministers feeling compelled to do so to sanction same-sex marriage. Rather than insisting on one uniform course for action, the position statement created space for those who wanted to affirm and include to do so and for those not convinced or not quite ready to keep on exploring the issue collectively. Joy regarding the decision was short-lived as numerous objections flooded the leadership of the DRC under the moderatorship of Ds Nelis Janse van Rensburg. In 2016, buckling under the pressure of these objections, the DRC leadership called for a special meeting of its general assembly. Amid a climate of fear and punitive law enforcement, the DRC retracted its 2015 position statement of inclusion and regressed to a legalistic and conservative position pertaining to sexual diversity within the faith community.

The devastating effect of this reversal on those who had found their way back to the faith community after decades of exclusion, led a group of 11 DRC believers to call on the wisdom of the South African judicial system. On August 21, the case was heard in the Pretoria high court. Essentially the two main issues for consideration are, on the one hand, a technical issue of alleged procedural misconduct as it is argued that the 2015 progressive decision was compromised and ultimately overturned when the meeting procedures were inappropriately led by those responsible for procedural oversight. On the other hand, and maybe more important for a broader conversation on the negotiation of sexual diversity within South African faith communities, is the complex process of the balancing of rights within the South African constitutional dispensation when rights protecting the freedom of religion, on the one hand, are brought into conversation with rights protecting personal liberty pertaining to issues such as race, class, gender and in this particular case, sexual orientation. The 11 members argued that the church committed a Section 9 infringement by privatising discrimination in the process of determining rules for inclusion and affirmation that discriminated against believers on the base of sexual orientation. On this point, the church leadership accepted the validity of the infringement that they were accused of. The church admitted to discrimination against their queer members but argued for “fair discrimination” in that they maintained that their decisions were informed by the quest to protect their beliefs and freedom of expression as a faith community.

Arguments have been heard in the case and judgment will probably be handed down before the end of the year.

Although the DRC is a small marginal faith community plagued by issues of legitimacy and integrity especially considering its history of complicity in the apartheid regime, the current court case and subsequent conversation warrant further collective consideration.

Firstly, the case clearly illustrates the need for the development and maturation of complex interpretation skills that will enable us collectively to navigate conflicting rights protected within the South African constitutional dispensation. The case highlights the importance of robust constitutional engagement in a space that is respectful and affirming of the dignity of all people as it is indeed these values that drive our Constitution.

Secondly, and following from the above, the complexity of the life stories of those within faith communities pertaining to the intersection of gender, race, class and sexual orientation calls for more nuanced reflections on issues of diversity within faith communities. The development of complex collective vocabulary, more nuanced understandings of gender and sexuality and critical reflections on how we appropriate the Bible when ethically negotiating issues of gender and sexuality seems imperative for faith communities who will inevitably have to deal with these issues as people of faith insist on finding ways of integrating sexuality and spirituality.

Finally, a pertinent question that we need to reflect on as faith communities embedded within the constitutional dispensation is do we really want to leave the final word on what is considered just in service of love and affirming of human dignity to the judicial system? Maybe at the heart of this test case lives the question of who we are as faith communities in South African society and how free our religion truly is if those most vulnerable in our society find no shelter or affirmation of dignity in our midst.

• Professor Charlene van der Walt is the head of gender and religion, School or Religion, Philosophy and Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Read more on:    sexuality  |  opinion and analysis

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