The Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA)

The CYM’s (Christian Youth Ministry) CEC (central executive committee)
takeover meeting with the General Synod’s office in 2019

The Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA) is today indeed a multicultural and multilingual church with congregations situated all over South Africa, Namibia and Lesotho. In terms of membership, it is the largest of all the churches with historical ties with the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC). The present URCSA was formed in 1994 when the much older Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC), already established in 1881, and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (DRCA) merged. As a continuation of the older DRMC, it is therefore also the second oldest church in the wider (Dutch) Reformed church family. URCSA is characterised by the deliberate embodiment of the Confession of Belhar of 1986.

A diverse heritage

The DRMC account focuses mainly on the christening of the so-called “coloured people” whose history is marked by the blending of the indigenous Khoisan, European colonists, imported slaves from the East, black tribes that migrated from the African interior towards the south and other race groups. Today, the white and brown population groups respectively represent about 8% and 9% of the country’s population of around 53 million, and 86% of both groups call themselves Christians.[1]

Since the confrontation between the first European colonists and the indigenous Khoisan, throughout the era of slavery at the Cape in the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, during the colonialist expansion of European settlers into the interior, and during the political system of apartheid until the struggle for a liberated democracy in the latter part of the twentieth century, the history of the “coloured” people is not only characterised by injustice and displacement, but also by remarkable resilience. The tragic life story of the first convert from the indigenous population, Krotoa who was later baptised as Eva, and her descendants symbolises something of this struggle.

A brief history of the DRMC’s origin

During the early phase of the Dutch settlement at the Cape, ziekentroosters (comforters of the sick), spiritual workers that were not ordained as ministers, and later on some of the first ordained ministers, like Rev. P. Kalden (1695-1707) of the Cape Town congregation of the DRC, spontaneously reached out to the indigenous population and the slaves. Those who converted were baptised and became full members of the existing DRC congregations. This practice was followed for at least a century.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, different mission societies from Europe and America began with deliberate mission work among the indigenous population in Southern Africa. The Moravian Mission Society was the first to come here, when
Georg Schmidt started his work at Genadendal in 1737. In 1799 the London Missionary Society sent Dr J. T. van der Kemp and others to work in the eastern parts of the Cape Colony. They were followed by the Wesleyan, the Glasgow and the Church Missionary Society and other mission societies from Britain, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions from the USA, the Rhenish and Berlin Mission Societies from Germany and the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society from France and Switzerland. These organisations were supported by mission-minded DRC ministers like Rev. H. R. van Lier and Rev. M. C. Vos.

Under their initiative, they founded the South African Missionary Society as a DRC initiative in 1799 and erected a church building in Long Street in Cape Town in 1804. The building is called Het Zuid-Afrikaansche Gesticht (the South African Established Communion) and is one of the oldest church buildings still in existence. In the late 1960s to early 1970s, when the inhabitants of District Six, a suburb close to the inner city of Cape Town, were forcefully removed and resettled at Belhar in the Cape Flats, the Gesticht congregation lost most of its members and, since then, the building is used as a museum. Since this first communion (faith community), many ministries among indigenous people, alongside the existing DRC congregations, but not independent from them, took root. But members of these ministries were full members of the DRC. Until the first independent synod meeting in 1824, the local DRC congregations were governed and the ministers paid for by the Dutch East India Company’s authorities and colonial government. The DRC Synod meeting of 1826 decided to send out its first missionary, Rev. L. Marquard. In the next decades, many more missionaries followed, especially after the spiritual revivals of the 1860s and the establishment of the Mission Institute in Wellington in 1877 by Dr Andrew Murray.

In 1857, the DRC Synod took a very important, albeit controversial decision regarding separate celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. Some complaints were received from white DRC members about joint celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. Although the Synod acknowledged that, in principle, the Lord’s Supper should be a celebration of the oneness in the body of Christ confirming the equality of believers, it was decided that ‘for the sake of the weak ones’, that is, the white members who complained, separate celebrations could be arranged. This decision had far-reaching implications. It gave impetus to the notion of racially divided churches and led to the establishment of a separate church in 1881: the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC). This church was not yet independent in that the DRC could veto decisions taken by the DRMC. In those pioneering days of the church, Rev. J. C. Pauw who served four times as moderator played a vital role.

The DRMC grew steadily over the years, also when some congregations planted by other missionary organisations were transferred to the DRMC. The church eventually spread to all parts of South Africa and even into Namibia. It formed a separate identity; it was Reformed, but also with distinct piety of which the Sionsgesange hymn book, prayer meetings and compassionate work in the communities were markers.

A training school for evangelists and one for ministers were established in Wellington in 1917 and 1929 respectively. The first two ordained ministers from inside the DRMC were Rev. A. D. Andries and Rev. P. Solomon in 1932. Rev. J. M. N. Breedt (five times moderator) and Rev. C. J. Kriel, played important roles in the training of ministers and evangelists in Wellington. In 1965 the training of ministers was moved from Wellington to the campus of the University of Western Cape in Bellville. Several other institutions for education, a church magazine (Die Ligdraer), charitable services like homes for children, homes for the handicapped, rehabilitation centres for substance addicts and so on were established. Dr H. M. Beets was the first full-time secretary coordinating all the diaconal projects.

The church also took the calling of evangelisation very seriously. The first full-time secretary for the Witness Ministry was Rev. J. J. F. Mettler. The church founded its own synod offices in Bellville South, that is, in Belhar, from where all projects of the synod were coordinated. Rev. D. P. Botha also played a vital role as the moderator during the 1970s and 80s, a challenging period of transformation.

The struggle for a unified church

In 1978 the DRCM followed in the DRCA’s footsteps in declaring the ideal of racially divided churches to be without any Biblical foundation – it was thus regarded as a theological fallacy. However, with young ministers graduating from the University of Western Cape, some of whom also studied overseas, a new approach dawned on the DRMC. The approach was characterised by an urgent struggle against apartheid as imposed by both the state and the church. The DRC family had to be reunited! Thus, in 1982, the World Reformed Alliance, an international ecumenical body of which Dr Allen Boesak was the moderator at the time, decided to declare a status confessionis regarding apartheid. Apartheid was seen as a heresy threatening the very core of the gospel. Later that year, in the context of the turmoil of the struggle against apartheid in the 1980s and 1990s, the DRMC Synod drafted a concept confession that was officially accepted in 1986 as the Confession of Belhar. It confesses that the church belongs to the Triune God; that the church of God is and should be one, but that there must be space for diversity within this unity; that God has called the church to be a reconciled community compelled to bring reconciliation amongst division and hatred; that the church should imitate God in seeking compassionate justice and standing with the poor as well as with those in need and those who are wronged; and, finally, that the church should obey God rather than human authorities.

The Confession of Belhar, ‘a cry from the heart’, became very precious to the DRMC. It became the basis for the unification of the DRCA and DRMC from which the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA) was formed in 1995. The DRC and RCA, however, then decided not to accept the invitation for unification and some of the DRCA congregations did not follow through with the process.

Current focus

URCSA is a confessional church, marked by the Confession of Belhar. URCSA is also actively involved in ecumenical bodies such as the South African Council of Churches, the United Evangelical Mission, the International World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Council of Churches. The late Prof. Mary-Ann Plaatjies van Huffel, the first woman to be elected moderator of URCSA, also served as one of the 8 presidents in the executive committee of the World Council of Churches as a representative of Africa.

Over the years URCSA established various institutions such as the Minnie Hofmeyr College for social workers, the New Hope Centre for people with hearing disabilities in Worcester, the Nannie Home for young mothers, the Toevlug Centre for Alcohol & Drug Dependence, and many more. All these institutions merged into Badisa, a non-government organisation jointly administered by URCSA and the DRC Western and Eastern Cape synods.

The ministers of URCSA are trained at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Stellenbosch, the Faculty of Theology of the University of Free State in Bloemfontein and the Northern Theological Seminary in Pretoria. Social and youth workers are trained at the Huguenot College in Wellington.

The Church has approximately 1, 2 million members and there are 783 congregations, 90 presbyteries and seven regional synods distributed all over South Africa, Namibia and Lesotho.

In a recent strategic plan of URCSA, eight focus areas have been identified:

  1. Unity, reconciliation and justice

URCSA congregations, presbyteries and synods must deliberately work towards greater unity, while simultaneously making space for and celebrating the diversity of its members. A programme to assist congregations in this has been launched. Ministries and institutions must deliberately strive to embody the Confession of Belhar.

  1. Leadership and the building of capacity

Present ministers should be equipped through workshops for the challenges they are currently facing. URCSA would like to join hands with other Reformed churches to engage with the challenges to ministry in Southern Africa.

  1. Integrated ministry model

The different ministries, movements or guilds often operate in isolation from one another. Greater cooperation is necessary on all levels of
church life.

  1. Congregations without ministers

Due to financial restraints, many URCSA congregations are operating without ministers. Many ministers are also serving part-time as tent-makers. Elders and church council members should therefore be equipped to take responsibility for most facets of the ministry. Congregations are encouraged to jointly call ministers and the more affluent congregations are also encouraged to support the ministry in the poorer ones.

  1. Stewardship

Because of the financial challenges faced by the church, stewardship, sustainable projects, better planning and greater accountability are encouraged.

  1. Service and witness

Congregations should be equipped for evangelisation and charitable service. Sustainable socio-economic projects aimed at community development are becoming more urgent. Members of poor communities should be helped to discover their human dignity as they are created in the image of God. Here URCSA took hands with the DRC, the DRCA and the RCA in a programme called ‘Season
of Human Dignity’.

  1. Worship and discipleship

The service is the centre of the faithful’s community life. Well-prepared sermons and a Reformed liturgy are of great importance to the relevance of a church in this world. Members should be equipped for their calling to be disciples in the world. The development of youth and transformation towards gender equity in leadership is also important.

  1. Infrastructure and communication for the church

Due to the legacy of apartheid, many congregations could not own property in the past. Many church buildings urgently need upgrading. A better infrastructure needs to be created for congregations and some of the regional synods. An efficient system for internal and external communication is also an urgent priority.

URCSA is also happy to be part of the Reformed Family Forum where general secretaries of churches with historical links to the (Dutch) Reformed Church annually meet; URCSA is eager to foster ties with other sister churches in the region.

Contact:

Ms Desiree Brown (General Secretary: URCSA General Synod)
[email protected]

 

[1]  The editors regret the need for using racially distinctive concepts like white, black, brown or coloured, but it is a historical fact that churches have been divided along racial/colour lines.