School of Religion, Philosophy & Classics

Research explores lived experiences of queer clergy in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa

Mr Ntobeko Dlamini
Photos: Rogan Ward
Mr Ntobeko Dlamini
Mr Ntobeko Dlamini

‘I chose this topic because the question of whether the Church should or should not solemnise same-sex unions is a burning issue in the churches in South Africa. The MCSA has been in conversation over same-sex unions since 2001,’ said Dlamini. ‘The conversation began with great hope of inclusion and affirmation when the 2001 conference adopted the principle that the Methodist Church seeks to be a community of love rather than rejection. My study evaluates whether the community of love has been in praxis or is only reflected on paper.’

Dlamini noted that heterosexual people, especially men, have been at the forefront of the same-sex conversation in the Methodist Church and that LGBTIQ+ persons have been left behind.

His study contributes to the growing literature on the same-sex debate in Christian communities.

Research themes uncovered included stigma and shame, fear and rejection, trauma, and spirituality in the ministry. ‘Queer ministers are treated as outcasts, not only in the church but in the extended community. It is for this reason that queer ministers prefer to live in a closet, because they fear rejection. Congregants can only tolerate queer ministers if they are in a closet,’ Dlamini observed.

All of those that he interviewed recounted traumatic events in their lives related to their sexuality. However, such events and rejection made queer ministers stronger.

‘They seek to serve God despite the challenges in the journey. They never quit. When I heard of all the experiences and challenges faced by queer clergy, I asked a very critical question of all the participants about the theological and personal motivations that keep them in ministry despite the alienation,’ said Dlamini. ‘One of the participants said that early Christians were persecuted and sometimes killed. The reason we have church today is that they stood firm in the midst of persecution. He believes that this is the right time to be called to ministry as a queer cleric in a context where the church doesn’t know what to do with queer persons.’

Dlamini believes that the church is prolonging the process because it is scared to say ‘yes’, and also scared to say ‘no’. ‘There is fear that the people who are against same-sex unions could leave the church if the MCSA could recognise them. It is also scared to say yes, because it is hard to stand for something you do not fully embrace.’

Due to the nature of his research topic and as a probationer minister in the MCSA, Dlamini was placed in a vulnerable position. The people he interviewed are his seniors in the ministry. He believes that some queer clergy who are in the closet did not participate because he is an insider. He was also confronted by many heterosexual colleagues who felt that he was taking this conversation too far.

‘I was made to feel bad about conducting such a study in the church. I was stigmatised to the extent that some had been calling me isitabane, which is a term used to refer to a homosexual person. Through this study, I  not only did research and interviewed queer clergy, but also felt the stigma directed at queer ministers in the MCSA,’ said Dlamini.

As a result of his study, he attended a conference at Justo Mwale University in Lusaka, Zambia. He was also awarded a scholarship to participate in the Bridging Gaps program in the Netherlands, spending three months at the Free University of Amsterdam. He then travelled to Oslo, Norway to attend a class on Gender Studies at Oslo University.

Dlamini thanked his family, friends and supervisors Professors Philippe Denis and Charlene Van Der Walt for their support.

He is currently a PhD student in History of Christianity at UKZN and will attend the international conference of the Memory Studies Association in Madrid, Spain in June.