The committee’s organizational meeting was held June 21-23 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Adopted by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in 1986, the Belhar Confession was a response to apartheid in that country and particularly focuses on race, reconciliation, justice, and poverty.
The 15-member special committee was formed after the PC(USA)’s 218th General Assembly (2008) voted to consider including the confession as the church’s theological response to ongoing racial issues in this country. It will make recommendations to the 2010 Assembly.
“Amending the Book of Confessions is serious business,” said Joseph Small, director of Theology Worship and Education. Approving a new confession is a three-stage process: it requires two-thirds affirmative votes by two consecutive General Assemblies and ratification by two-thirds of the 173 presbyteries between those assemblies.
“It’s a very high bar, but appropriately so, I think,” Small said.
Barriers to Belhar
Small presented the committee with what he saw as difficulties to a speedy adoption of Belhar, the chief reason being many Presbyterians are not familiar with the confession and would be asked to vote on including a relatively unknown document in the Book of Confessions.
Providing time for a period of study of Belhar and its history and implications might be helpful, he said.
Adopting the Belhar also means more than presenting a simple statement against racism, Small added.
“It does speak to the contemporary reality of racial discrimination in our church and the world,” he said. The church can’t ignore the situation of apartheid that led to the Belhar, Small told the committee, but also can’t limit it to that. “Belhar is something that speaks about the diversity of the church but doesn’t restrict it to one dimension.”
That openness to a wide range of social conflicts could also be a barrier to adoption for Belhar, which some could argue opens the door to gay and lesbian ordination. That issue was raised recently when the national governing bodies of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) also considered Belhar.
But the confession mentions only membership in the church — not ordination — and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people have long been welcomed as members in the PC(USA), Small said.
Other criticisms of Belhar are that the confession does not pay enough attention to Scripture and is theologically thin and clichéd, Small said.
Some people might also question the PC(USA)’s reason for adopting the Belhar instead of writing a new confession that speaks directly to racial discrimination in the United States, said committee member George Stroup.
That the confession is written by those who were themselves oppressed under the apartheid system is key to its significance, said committee member Jane Dempsey Douglass, a former president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. The writers are calling for a united church, including even those who hurt them, she said, adding that the confession has no sense of vengeance but is instead open and generous, which is what God intends.
Listening and learning
During the meeting, the committee spoke with representatives of the CRC and RCA and learned of experiences, hurdles, and processes they’ve experienced in considering the confession.
Peter Borgdorff, former executive director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, discussed why the church saw Belhar as important.
It is a voice from the Global South and declares apartheid theological heresy, but while these two factors are important, they’re not enough to adopt a confession, Borgdorff said. “What really makes Belhar stand out is that it includes the experiences of those who suffered because of racism,” he said.
In North America, discussions of race are often on the surface, but the experiences of those in South Africa help to alert us to our own experiences, he said, adding that Belhar is relevant for the current time and place. The search for purity and the pointing out of heresy in our own church and lives are important parts of Belhar, he said.
Via conference call, the committee also spoke with Harold Delhagen, executive of the Albany Synod of the Reformed Church in America. That church spoke with representatives of churches in the Middle East and Latin America to get other perspectives of Belhar and found that it did appeal to the wider church community, he said.
The RCA has been discussing the Belhar for quite some time, having made a study guide for congregations and bringing in speakers to synods for the last eight years.
Delhagen offered some advice to the committee based on the RCA’s experiences, particularly the fear of some that it would be used as a “Trojan horse” to push a more liberal agenda, including gay ordination. He said gay ordination advocates in the RCA have publicly stated that they respect the importance of Belhar and agreed that if the confession was adopted, it would not be used as leverage to push the gay ordination agenda.
The biggest obstacle to the adoption of Belhar in the RCA is indifference, Delhagen said. Many people are uninformed about the confession and therefore have no real passion for it.
That concern was also echoed by special committee members.
Eugene Turner of Fayetteville, N.Y., a former synod executive and former associate stated clerk and ecumenical officer of the General Assembly, said that although he is confident the Belhar confession would be adopted if put to a vote before the presbyteries, he wants more than that. The Belhar should be embraced and introduced into the conversation of the church, not merely adopted and forgotten, he said.
John C. Austin, associate pastor of Madison Avenue Church in New York City agreed. “The church needs to be transformed by Belhar,” he said. “The church will not be transformed by sticking it on a piece of paper in the Book of Confessions.”
Writing the Belhar took four years, and both the RCA and CRC spent significant time studying it, said Aurelio Garcia-Archilla of Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico. He suggested that the committee could recommend to the 219th General Assembly that a period of intense study begin within the PC(USA).
The Office of Theology and Worship has already developed a Belhar Confession study guide.
The committee will meet again in September. Among the items it plans to discuss then: resources from the CRC and RCA; an accompanying letter from the confession’s authors; the church’s history with apartheid; preaching resources; a video series; options for conversation about Belhar through social media and information for youth and young adults.