South African church deeply split over whether to drop racial barriers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Bitter dissension has broken out inside and outside South Africa's biggest Afrikaans-language church, the all-white Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (usually known as the Ned Geref Kerk) does not adopt more liberal racial attitudes -- as some have already. These members worship in churches in black areas of town that have predominantly black congregations.

But conservative church leaders and members of the congregation warn that there could be large-scale resignations from the white church if, for example, all church services were compulsorily opened to all races.

A typical attitude was expressed in a letter that was prominently displayed this past week in the Afrikaans Cape Town daily newspaper Die Burger, which is an official mouthpiece of the ruling National Party.

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The writer said many members of the white church were tired of Colored (mixed race) people "hammering" on the white church's doors.

"Under the cloak of religion and sport, the white Afrikaner [South African of European ancestry] is being conditioned to accept integration. . . . Luckily most Afrikaners do not wish to swallow this. . . and I do not doubt that the day will come when Afrikaners will realize once again that racially mixed sport and racially mixed churches are just the beginning of fully integrated societies."

There is significant support for this sort of stand, even from high church ministers. Dr. E. P. J. Kleynhans, head of the church has recently supported race laws that forbid any love match across the color line: the Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act.

And, in the face of mounting, sometimes furious criticism, especially from the Dutch Reformed black "daughter" churches, which are demanding immediate changes in the white church's racial attitudes, the white church formally stated last week that it would certainly not be quick to abandon its traditional attitudes toward segregation.

It could not even consider changes to its policy on race matters, says a editorial in the church's official magazine, Die Kerkbode, until a major synod in 1982. Proposals for change then must go to a "commission of experts," which not make a report until 1986.

Critics of the church, many of them church members, believe this sort of timetable is utterly unrealistic and that the church will be completely overtaken by events.

At the same time, they regret bitterly that the Ned Geref Kerk, with its large Afrikaans membership and its close ties with the government, appears to be passing up an important opportunity to help bring about peaceful evolutionary change, and that, consequently, it will become increasingly "irrelevant."

The territory of Namibia (South-West Africa) just the other day provided an example of how the Ned Geref Kerk in South Africa itself could be left behind by events.

Two black girls who wanted to attend a concert in a white Dutch Reformed Church hall in Windhoek were shown the door because only whites are allowed inside.

The irony is that every other kind of gathering place in the territory, including hotels, restaurants, and resorts recently have been opened to all races by antidiscriminatory law.

Critics of the Ned Geref Kerk say that, as a Christian church, it should provide a good example of brotherly love across the color bar, and not end up the last shrine of apartheid.

This is especially so since the government is moving away from the hard-line policy.

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