Divine unfreedom

POSTED: 03/19/15 6:53 PM

Je suis encore Charlie, but the opinions about freedom of expression are not shared by everyone. Take for instance the Peace Church in Nijkerk – a city comparable with Sint Maarten in population (40,618 in May of last year) – located in the Dutch Bible Belt on the Veluwe. The church had a vicar, Edward van der Kaaij and this man had an opinion the church did not like, to put it mildly. Because of increasing tensions between the church and its vicar, the latter drew the short straw: he is facing dismissal.

What was this all about? Van der Kaaij had the gall to write in his book The Inconvenient Truth of Christianity that Jesus never existed. Van der Kaaij wrote that all elements from the Jesus-story originate in the old Egypt. The myth about a God who becomes human, about dying and resurrection and about birth from a virgin allegedly where given a Jewish makeover 2,000 years ago.

The book caused quite some consternation in the Protestant Church of the Netherlands (PKN), of which Van der Kaaij is a member. The orthodox wing of the PKN called the vicar’s ideas a doctrine gone astray and it called for a disciplinary procedure. That procedure has not even started yet, but in the meantime the Church Council has had to establish ‘with great regret’ that there is now an untenable working relationship. The regional church board, the classis, has to decide whether it wants to put Van der Kaaij on non-active duty.

If a PKN community has had it with its vicar, it cannot sack him just like that. The community has to get in touch with the classis when there are disputes about content, the community can ask for a temporary or a definitive measure.

In Van der Kaaij’s case, the community has opted for a temporary measure. Technically, the breach is not definitive, though the church council seems to indicate with its choice of words (an untenable working relationship) that the chances of repair are slim to non-existent.

If a church council wants to break with its vicar, it asks the classis for a so-called dispensation of employment. A general board then examines the case by hearing the vicar, the church council and if necessary a visitation committee. If this board agrees, the vicar will be released after some sort of notice. He is then still a vicar, but no longer within his community. A vicar who really goes too far can be expelled from his profession and if such a situation occurs, he is no longer authorized to call himself a vicar of the PKN.

Trouw wonders whether Van der Kaaij’s career as a man of the cloth is now over, The answer: on paper, definitely not. Because a measure against him would be temporarily, he could return to work after the period wherein he has been exempt from employment is over.

Whether that will really happen remains the question. Van der Kaaij could opt to find another church community – one that supports his ideas though his age – 63 – is not in his favor.

Van der Kaaij is not alone in his predicament. In 2009, Fennie Kruize, a female vicar from the northern province of Groningen, called in her book  Divine Freedom on the protestant church to look for salvation for once outside Jesus. She pleaded for more esotericism in the church and said that she supports wicca (a modern pagan witchcraft religion) and reincarnation. Starting in 2011 she was no longer welcome in her church.

In 2007, the preacher Klaas Hendrikse caused a lot of commotion in the southern province of Zeeland with his book believing in a God that does not exist. He wrote that God does not exist, but that God happens in the contact between people. The church started a procedure to kick him out of office.

Hendrikse was however allowed to stay put. Why? He had the support of his church council and for this reason the procedure against him could not be entertained. In 2012, he retired and the procedure disappeared into the garbage bin.

These examples show the authoritarian regime in these churches. You are either with them, or against them. Dissent is not encouraged; even better: dissent meets with the worst kind of punishment – expulsion from the profession.

The Hendrikse-case shows how dependent the outcome of such controversies is on people. One church council will do this, the other council will do that. One may well wonder how these practices hold up against labor laws. After all, vicars must have some sort of contract with the church they are working form.

It is an interesting field for labor relationships – one of those places where unions apparently never thought of going. The bottom line of all this is the right to freedom of expression. Based on that freedom alone, churches should never be allowed to kick out vicars who develop opinions their superiors consider inconvenient.

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