Walking and talking – A women’s alliance for survival and justice in the Dutch Reformed Church

Presented by Elize Morkel and Michelle Boonzaaier


The context

When we speak about our participation in the Dutch Reformed Church we speak about a very specific context. The ideology of apartheid has its roots within the DRC: it grew into a widespread religious way of life after the synod decision in 1857 to allow separate services of the Lord’s Supper ‘because of the weakness of some[1]’ (Cloete & Smit 1984: vii). The DRC developed along racial lines into a ‘family of churches’[2] (Cloete & Smit 1984: vii) justified by – and justifying – the ideology of apartheid:

When the pseudoreligious ideology of apartheid was implemented as an economic and political policy during the forties, theologians and ministers from the ranks of the DRC developed and popularized a theological, scriptural, and moral justification.

(Cloete & Smit 1984: vii)

By the 1970s members of the “coloured” Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) started playing a leading role in the opposition to apartheid. An important turning-point came in August 1982 when the World Alliance of Reformed Churches declared a status confessionis concerning apartheid by declaring it a heresy. The membership of the DRC was suspended and Dr Allan Boesak of the DRMC was elected president. At the DRMC synod meeting in Belhar in October 1982 a confession was drafted that addressed three main issues: the unity of the church; reconciliation in Christ; and the justice of God (Cloete & Smit 1984: viii). The confession of Belhar was formally adopted as the fourth confession of the DRMC in October 1986 (Naudé 2010: xvi).

The DRC has confessed its sin for the theological support of apartheid many times in the past and has expressed its desire for the unification of the DRC family (Naudé 2010; 139). This long and painful process has not yet been completed. The DRC has recognized Belhar as ‘confessing the same faith handed down in Scripture and tradition’, but it has not accepted it yet as a full common confession. (Naudé 2010: 138). In May 2011 the Synod of the Western and Southern Cape accepted the Belhar Confession as a confession and at the General Synod later that year a decision was taken to start the legal process towards the adoption of Belhar as part of the official confessionals of the DRC.

Authority, leadership and ordination within the DRC have been and are still dominated by men. Female subordination and the general theology of headship have been the basis of arguments for women’s exclusion from ordained ministry (Pillay 2003: 151). The office of deacon has been open to women since 1982 and that of elder and ordained minister since 1990. Women make up 4.6 % of the total number of ordained DRC ministers in full-time service of congregations (Algemene Bevoegdheidsraad van NGK, 2013). Of the total number of women who have completed their theological studies only 29.7 % are full-time ministers (Alg Bevoegdheidsraad van NGK, 2013). Women are often employed in contract or part-time posts.  In the leadership structures on synod-level additional membership positions are reserved for women. The Synod of the Western Transvaal elected the first women moderator in the history of the DRC earlier this year. Women are far outnumbered by men in most of the meetings on presbytery and synod levels.


Our relationship: differences and sameness

Michelle is a forty year old English speaking coloured woman who grew up in the URCSA – the former DRMC. Her father worked for a NGO in a poor community and her family was very active in the struggle against apartheid so that she was aware of social injustices from a very young age. Michelle studied youth work at the Huguenot College in Wellington as part of the second group of black students at this formerly all-white DRC institution. She later completed her theological studies at Stellenbosch University as a member of the DRC.

Elize is a fifty-six year old Afrikaans speaking white woman who grew up in the DRC. She comes from a privileged family where she was mostly unaware of social injustices. When she finished school in the 1970’s she experienced a call to ordained ministry, but women were still excluded from ordained ministry in the DRC. She became a psychologist, later completed an MTh and DTh in pastoral therapy.

We met in 2006 when Michelle was appointed by Helderberg DRC Congregation in a part-time contract post to develop an ‘alternative ministry’ to people on the margins of the church. At the time Elize was serving as elder on the Church Council – her first experience in a church office. In the past five years she had been elected onto the executive of the regional synod and is serving as representative of the Cape Synod at the General Synod.

Elize: I remember vividly my delight the evening that I first met Michelle. She was teaching from Acts 10 – the powerful message of God’s inclusion of everybody. Here was a young woman in the DRC who was speaking my language!

Michelle: The first time that I heard Elize speak was in a northern suburbs DRC congregation at Verantwoordelike Vernuwing. Even though Elize was introduced as a psychologist, it was one of the first times in the DRC that I heard a theology that resonated with me. In re-imagining the story of the Good Samaritan (Acts 10) she spoke about justice, restitution, and inclusion.

We both experienced ourselves as outsiders serving in the heart of a congregation dominated by white male leadership. We immediately recognised in each other shared values and we started meeting regularly for early morning walks on the beach. A very strong friendship developed despite a sixteen year age difference. The walking and talking revealed surprising over-laps in our stories. Elize worked in the deaf community earlier in her career and discovered that Michelle’s sister and brother-in-law are very active deaf politicians and leaders. Both of us have stories of community work and a passion for people on the margins of society. We have similar views on gender justice and the harmful influence of patriarchy. Michelle was brought up in a house of five sisters with a father who challenged patriarchy, but she married into a patriarchal family. Elize has a story of oppression as a woman. Michelle has a part-time position at IAM an organization that works to promote the inclusion of LGBTI-members in the church. For the last four years we, together with our husbands, have been part of a gay-friendly cell group. We both juggle various professional “roles” – Michelle as minister, activist and community developer and Elize as psychologist, teacher, community worker and leader in the DRC.


Theoretical and theological positioning

We have found the critical lenses of Contextual theology, especially Feminist theology and also the post-structuralist theory offered by Narrative therapy and feminist theory useful in positioning ourselves when reflecting on our experiences within the church and society. A key insight within the women’s movement is that ‘the personal is political’ (Hanisch, 2006).  Pastoral theologian Pattison (1994:256) explains the double significance of this phrase:

On the one hand it is a statement that the domestication of women and their exclusion from public life dominated by men has political, structural significance and cause; it does not just happen by magic, because nature decreed it, or by luck.  On the other, it is an affirmation that women’s experience of their own personal lives has political significance; women can find and examine in their own lives the roots of oppression and in so doing can prepare themselves to enter into and shape human society more directly.

Story and meaning

The countless conversations that we shared over the years have assisted us to make sense of our experiences as women in the patriarchal culture and church. According to Narrative therapists the stories that we tell of our lives have a meaning-making function and these meanings shape and constitute our lives (White 1995:13). Ackermann (2003: xvi) explains how we, as women doing theology, allow our experiences and stories to engage critically with our biblical and theological traditions. She concludes: ‘Out of experience and critical questioning the search for clues for transformation emerge that can translate into actions on behalf of healing and freedom.’  Our friendship became a life-line while we each negotiate our participation in the DRC – a participation where our own awareness about injustices is continuously being raised. We are challenged to find empowered ways of responding that will transform and shape the church. We believe that our embodied participation as gender-aware women in communities like the male-dominated and patriarchal DRC acts to raise awareness to alternative ways of relating with women. This requires enormous courage and commitment. We will reflect on the ways in which our relationship has strengthened this commitment and adds to courage in our lives. Our relationship is church to us and empowers us to be church with others.     (Holliman 1996: 182).

Meeting on the bridge


While Michelle and I both consider ourselves to be bridge-builders who are constantly attempting to cross bridges to ‘the other’, our relationship seems to fit with the way in which Boyd and Bohler (1999: 196) describe their womanist-feminist alliance – a meeting on the bridge. We are not naïve about the effect of racism on our lives, as Kritzinger (2001:237) points out:

[Racism is]…an ideology, a system of social, economic and political power structures that perpetuates and justifies itself by creating racist stereotypes and fostering attitudes of racial prejudice. These two dimensions of racism (power structures and personal prejudice) constantly reinforce each other, which makes racism an extremely difficult ideology to eradicate, once it has become entrenched in a society.

I experience in our relationship a rare and honest dialogue about race. We practise truth telling that is in stark contrast to the “avoidance, hiding, and hearsay’ (Boyd & Bohler 1999: 197) that is so prevalent in our society when it comes to issues of race. I discovered that: ‘Dialogue does not require a miracle; it requires effort, genuine and persistent intent’ (Boyd & Bohler 1999: 197). Our dialogues often involved pain, shame and discomfort. It requires true commitment to fit meetings, telephone calls and email conversations into our busy schedules. In recent years geographical distance has added more challenges.

Michelle: When Elize and I consider ourselves bridge builders, we are both painfully aware of the isolation that this has brought to both of us. As a bridge builder I have found that I don’t belong in my old context fully anymore and I will never belong in any strange new context. This ‘meeting on the bridge’ with Elize helped to ease this isolation. Our conversations lead to what Narrative practitioners would call a re-engagement with our respective histories (White 2004:105). It is through our honest conversations and sharing stories that I have been able to re-appreciate my own context and to appreciate Elize and her family as white Afrikaners who are different to my preconceived ideas. It is true that our dialogues involve pain, shame and discomfort, but it also involves a celebration of each other and an appreciation of the gift of the ‘meeting on the bridge’.

Coming to voice

Elize: I resonate with Bons-Storm (1998: 10) who writes that although she has not been violently oppressed, she has ‘a lifetime’s experience of discrimination, of knowing that a woman has less authority to speak and to be heard than has a man.’ She points out how, in this process, the voices of many women, together with their valuable contributions to the formation of thought and practice are ignored or silenced. Theology is deeply influenced by the social-cultural climate which marginalizes and silences people according to their lack of the power-rendering qualities of society. As a woman who has no formal theological training and who is not part of the clergy, I often doubt myself: I have internalized the oppression that denied me the authority to speak out in the contexts of the church and theology. This has a profound silencing effect on me when I attempt to participate in the church. According to Bons-Storm (1998:22) it is essential for women ‘to dialogue about faith amongst themselves, to strengthen their voices.’ In Michelle’s presence I experienced the practising of speaking out and raising my voice in a safe context (Bons-Storm 1998: 23). By hearing the sound of my own voice in conversation with Michelle, who has the authority of a trained theologian and minister, I started believing that I have something valuable to contribute.

Michelle: This idea of internalized oppression in the field of theology resonates with me even though I am a trained theologian. Even as a minister I have often been spoken into silence by the authoritative voices to be found within patriarchal church and theology contexts. Elize listened with such appreciation and in an honouring way when I shared with her where I came from and what influences informed my theological choices. It is always difficult to be a Contextual or Feminist theologian within the Reformed context. We offer each other the “hearing to speech” which enables each of us to find our voices in theology, voices which often sound dissonant from the dominant voices (Morton in Bons-Storm 1996:12).

Solidarity in resisting gender stereotypes and cultural limits

Elize: Neuger (1999: 124) emphasizes that women need the support of other women in generating new strategic options for living in contexts which are hostile and diminishing. Our relationship has become one of solidarity as we both resist the oppressive patriarchal culture of our church and society. This involves the ‘power of naming’ (Holliman 1996: 183). Michelle and I would often share stories of experiences in the church that left us feeling ‘dumb and crazy.’ Normally such experiences would deprive me of speech as I would lack the language to put my suffering and confusion in its social context, mistaking it for a personal fault or essential to the ordering of the universe (Eiesland 1998:104). In talking about it we are able to assist one another to notice and name oppressive practices.

Michelle. I can only participate in these oppressive structures knowing that there are witnesses, like Elize, who share my experiences of pain and isolation. Herman (2010:1) emphasises the healing power in speaking about traumatic experiences to compassionate witnesses. She also says that the voicing of injustices to compassionate witnesses breaks the isolating effect of trauma and reconnect one with a community of concern (Herman 2010: 63). Our speaking together enables the opportunities to address the cultural practices and ideologies that support the injustices or violations.

Mutual mentoring

Elize: Holliman (1996: 183) says that mentoring is hospitality, sharing one’s wisdom and experience and investing in another’s development or journey. Michelle acted as mentor to me in terms of her support of my studies in theology at the University of Stellenbosch. She expressed hospitality and support by joining me at talks, conferences and in researching at a time when the building and the people at the faculty of theology were still tainted by my previous experience of oppression and exclusion. I experienced it as a place where I did not belong and had no legitimacy. Michelle connected me with people and opened the space for me.

Michelle: Elize became my cultural guide (when I was ordained as a minister in the DRC, Helderberg. I had just completed my theological training and, having grown up in the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (now the Uniting Reformed Church); I entered the DRC as a stranger, navigating an unfamiliar map. Elize became one of the few refuges in a sometimes hostile terrain. When Elize offered me the gift of Narrative Therapy I was not aware of the profound effect it would have on my life. The narrative approach gave me the language that I needed which helped me to better understand and voice my own understanding of a theology of embodiment. In co-authoring a chapter in a book (Morkel & Boonzaaier 2008) with Elize the narrative approach helped us to further develop this idea of being embodied leaders.

Embodiment: Walking the talk

Elize: Feminists believe that we are not just on earth for some future goal that we might reach in our relationship with God, but that we are here to relate, to weave and spin creative webs in our relationships and interactions and find God in our present situations and experiences (Waldron 1996: 67). We do this by attending to interconnections as part of life for all embodied beings, by resisting oppression and by seeking to redress the imbalances of sexism, racism, culture and class (Waldron 1996: 68).  Through our embodied participation Michelle and I were literally walking the talk. Experiencing one another’s physical presence, becoming comfortable about having meals together with our respective groups of friends and our extended families and sharing warmth and friendship publicly has transformative value for us and for those who cross our path. Moreover the challenge remains to participate with our bodies in the, often hostile and oppressive context of the church.

Michelle: In participating in each other’s lives, Elize has become my embodied witness. It is only through my relationships with Elize and Jaco and other people like them that I realize that the church is more than its oppressive patriarchal structures. I have found spaces in and alongside the DRC where I can participate with my body while maintaining a critical voice. One of the ways in which I choose to participate is as an activist for LGBTI individuals in the Reformed tradition through my work for IAM. Through this work I have found a number of partners in the DRC and URCSA who are able to join me in this often difficult journey.



‘Discerning with each other where God is in our questioning, our visions, our call, our doubts is a prophetic activity…[We experience that] telling our stories to one another is to bear witness to the presence of God who is continually holding the promise of transformation and renewal’ (Holliman 1996: 182). In relation to the church our connection is prophetic as it enables Michelle and I to ‘claim more of who God wants us to be.’

We agree with Holliman (1996:183):

Women can have a vision of community that includes both support and risk, nurture and confrontation, tradition and prophecy, solidarity and diversity. The church remains an institution as well as a community.  Women’s wisdom as women is a crucial and needed resource to break open with each other.  Mentoring is both a call and a challenge to establish relationships with other women where that resource can be revealed.


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[1] ‘The weakness of some’ referred to the racism of some of the white settlers.

[2] The white Dutch Reformed Church (established in 1652); the coloured Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) established in 1881; the African/black Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (DRCA) established in 1963; and the Indian Reformed Church in Africa (RCA) established in 1968. Three further churches represent the white Reformed community: the Gereformeerde Kerk (1859), the Hervormed Kerk (1853) (these two churches formed in reaction to events in the Netherlands) and the Afrikaanse Protestanse Kerk (APK, 1986) which split off from the DRC when the DRC opened its membership and accepted church reunification with the black churches.