South African white church suffers crisis of conscience on race

International pressure, coming on top of critical mutterings at home, is causing a crisis of conscience for South Africa's biggest white Afrikaans church.

Traditionally the church has supported the government's controversial race policies through thick and thin.

Indeed, so close is the relationship between the church -- the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, usually known as the Ned. Geref. Kerk -- and the ruling National Party that it is sometimes referred to by its critics as "the National Party at prayer."

Its membership is exclusively white, and almost entirely Afrikaans. Most of the members of the government and most top officials in branches of government administration belong to it. And some of its ministers are out and out racists.

One, for example, recently refused to allow blacks to attend a funeral service for their dead employer at his church.

However, the church has slowly been obliged to question its stand on racial matters, not least by its own "daughter" churches, which have evolved as a result of the white church's missionary work among the country's black people.

But new, extreme pressure has been put on the white church by the international community of reformed churches, which has just completed a meeting in Nimes, France, at which 32 different churches were represented.

Of particular relevance to the white South African church is a statement accepted by the synod the reformed churches are obliged to denounce all social injustice and oppression caused by racial discrimination.

It says that churches have "an inescapable duty" to speak out when "the authorities or society as a whole permit, perpetrate, or create situations of grave injustice" and calls on all reformed churches to expose all social structures that cause, condone, or support racial discrimination, and work toward removing them.

This is the first definitive statement by the international synod on the role of the church in society and politics.

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