And now it’s trying to prepare the PC(USA) for that discussion – including assessing possible objections to adding the Belhar Confession and finding ways to communicate to the church what Belhar is all about.
The Belhar Confession, written in the 1980s by a multi-racial group in response to what it saw as the sins of apartheid, tells a compelling story, said committee member Jane Dempsey Douglass during the committee’s final meeting, in Louisville Jan. 17-19. She is a retired professor of the history of Christianity and historical theology, and a former president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.
Some of the people most deeply affected by apartheid, “who bore on their bodies the scars inflicted by the police,” were those who invited white Christians to form a single, multi-racial church, Douglass said. They “took this ideal of unity so seriously that they were able to invite their oppressors,” creating fellowship with those who had denied them fellowship. “This is one of the miracles of the work of the Holy Spirit.”
The committee voted unanimously last September to recommend that the 2010 General Assembly, which will meet in Minneapolis in July, approve adding the Belhar Confession. If the assembly does that, the confession then would need to be affirmed by two-thirds of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries and also approved by the General Assembly again in 2012 in order to formally become part of the PC(USA)’s The Book of Confessions.
There is, however, likely to be some resistance to doing that – including some criticisms of the Belhar Confession with which committee members disagree.
Already, the 2010 General Assembly has received an overture asking that efforts to add Belhar to The Book of Confessions be discontinued.
Sacramento presbytery has submitted an overture stating, “the Belhar Confession is a complex and somewhat confusing document” some have used to “press issues other than racial equality. This overly broad application of the Belhar Confession to champion liberation theology in general or same-sex causes in particular produces a conflicted response to its anti-racism message.”
The Presbyterian Coalition, an evangelical group, has on its Web site a draft overture for presbyteries to consider adopting with language similar to the Sacramento overture.
And committee members suggested there may be criticism from progressive Presbyterians who think Belhar doesn’t go far enough in pushing for equality.
Just before the assembly convenes, on the morning of July 3, commissioners will have a chance to consider the church’s confessional heritage in a joint presentation with another special General Assembly committee. It is considering translation problems with the Heidelberg Catechism, which already is part of The Book of Confessions. The session on confessions will be one of six “Riverside Conversations” commissioners will be given the option of attending a few hours before the assembly opens for business.
Members of the Belhar committee said part of their task will be to try to show more Presbyterians the significance of that confession for a divided PC(USA) today.
The real challenge for the committee is “the vast number of people who have no idea what this is — none,” said Joe Small, of the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship.
But churches in Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe have adopted the Belhar Confession, and some North American denominations are considering doing so as well, including the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
“The PC(USA) needs to be learning from the witness of faithful Christians in the global South,” said committee member J. C. Austin, director of the Center for Church Life at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York.
A draft of a letter the committee has written to accompany its report states that “we are indebted to this confession for its reassurances and its challenges to shake us out of our comfort and strengthen us to make a bolder and more faithful witness to the Gospel.”