At the heart of South Africa’s democratic liberty, lies freedom of thought, belief and practice. This, to those of us in the religious or faith sector, is of paramount importance. Citizens must enjoy the freedom to express their deepest convictions in however way they feel appropriate. This should also apply to religious leaders, who feel compelled to lead their communities in line with the core tenants of their faith. However, with this freedom comes great responsibility. Faith leaders should not take advantage of the freedoms of SA’s democratic dispensation to manipulate, misuse or prey on innocent and unsuspecting followers – as has too often been the case in recent years in our country.
When the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural‚ Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL), initially instituted action to investigate the behaviour of rogue faith leaders, it raised some consternation among many. What were the boundaries of the CRL’s mandate? Were the lines between the state and religion being crossed? Was the law, an important but often blunt instrument in matters of beliefs and faith, going to be used to subjugate the faithful and curtail the freedoms we hold so dear? These were important questions and caused the conscientious among the faith communities to push back against a potential overreach by the Chapter 9 institution.
This past week the CRL commission, invited church leaders and religious leaders, where the faith community, through a participative process, will be able to develop the instruments required to ensure appropriate self-regulation within the confines of the law, has taken the correct action. Together with other Church and Religious leaders I will be leading that process. This, we feel, should take the form of a code of practice, a shared and co-created benchmark for self regulation across the array of communities that make up the religious landscape. More on the code of practice later.
The CRL Commission took the vital step of recognising the autonomy and independence of the faith community. Yes, the faith community must participate in the national context within the confines of the constitution, and within the confines of the various laws of the land, but it must be afforded the room to express itself in the unique manner to its diverse and peculiar nature. Religious freedom must be tempered with lawfulness and faithfulness to the core values of the constitution, such as the dignity of the human person, respect for the rights of others and peaceful cohabitation across the lines of our social and cultural diversity.
At the heart of this process must be a voluntary reflective process of articulation the moral and ethical fibre that underpins the faith community. Though we are diverse, and do not share a single or homogenous set of beliefs, we do share core values such as integrity, respect, dignity and fairness. South Africa’s faith leaders, and the faithful individually, should all agree that we should do no harm to one another or others, as we live out our beliefs. Though we are diverse, we can be united in the mission of protecting the most vulnerable in our communities from exploitation or manipulation. This will be the aim of a sectoral code of good conduct, ethics and governance – facilitating a means by which the sector can have recourse, from within its own midst, to hold one another to account and to call out those who would use their liberty as a license to harm or manipulate others.
In such an arrangement, the faith community will have recourse to the law, the police and the courts at any time that the rights of anyone is impinged upon. However, it will provide a means by which the appropriate norms peculiar to the faith community, can be respected, without the state becoming overbearing or arbitrary in its dealing with the faithful. It is in this spirit that I thank the CRL Commission for reminding the faithful to reflect honestly about our conduct and to hold one another to account. After all, if the faith community is to provide moral leadership to our broader society, it is imperative that we keep our own house in order, and support each other along the high road of morality, as in becoming of our shared humanity irrespective of our faith.
But in calling for self-regulation within the sector one is by no means implying that this should replace the application of the law. We have had instances were men of the cloth have been accused of breaking the law. These include allegations of rape, child abuse and fraud, among others. In such cases the law must simply take its course. Self-regulation should not be a cover for impunity.
Developing a code of practice for the religious sector is not going to be easy. Indeed, it will be a contested process but the challenges should not deter us from starting the process. A few areas that come to mind and which the code will need to address are legitimacy (registration with the authorities i.e SARS), governance and accountability.
Currently, any one can start a church or religious organization in South Africa and argue freedom of religion. Over the past few years South Africa has seen the mushrooming of a particular bent of Pentecostal and charismatic churches with very little, if any, oversight. Some receive money from the public without any form of registration with the authorities. This is a recipe for chaos.
I would like to suggest that no church or religious organization should be allowed to operate in the country without registering with the tax authorities (for their tax exempt certificate) and the relevant government department for a non-profit organization (NPO) status. And these should be valid for a period, renewable based on the organization’s compliance with tax requirements and NPO provisions. In this regard, the relevant departments in government must work with the religious sector in developing new or amending existing regulations.
The issue of governance and accountability is proving to be one where serious work needs to be done. Whereas traditional ecumenical churches are used to have governance structures where there are checks and balances, stand-alone Pentecostal and charismatic churches without any accountability and governance structures whatsoever .
In this day and age where people in authority (CEOs, Presidents, university principals, etc) have their power kept in check and account to a variety of bodies, churches or those who lead them cannot be left untouched. A meaningful code of good practice will need to address this governance and accountability to curb the abuse of power in the church world.
I, for one, welcome the work that has so far been done by the CRL Commission. But the real work begins now. I am encouraging fellow religious leaders to embrace this process and enrich it through their views and perspectives.
Pastor Ray McCauley is the President of Rhema Family Churches and Co-chair of National Religious Leaders Council (NRLC)