Not having the conversation

This time, we were invited by South African brothers and sisters, who had experienced race-based brutality founded on theological heresies developed to maintain separation of believers on the basis of skin color and background, including at the Lord’s table.

And this time, like other times, we decided not to.

When Presbyterian Women came into being, I attended the Triennial Gathering as a young pastor. A professional drama was presented, depicting the 1861 church split; in it, slavery was not mentioned. We adjourned to lunch, at which you sat next to the people with whom you were in line. I was behind a group of African-Americans. Women were striking up conversations around us, perfect strangers introducing themselves … but this group was silent. At table I tried to start conversation; my tablemates were polite but not inclined to talk. Finally, I said, “Do you think it was odd that slavery wasn’t included in the play?”

They looked at each other … and at me … then one said, “Yes, we do.” And conversation began.

The history of PW on the Web site today (as on the whole of our church Web site) doesn’t include the reason for the 122-year-long split. In the PC(USA), outside of certain circles, the split is not discussed. We’d rather not talk about this part of our past.

Consideration of the Belhar Confession for adoption came after a task force, appointed by the 2001 GA, considered reparations for those who had endured slavery. The panel’s 2004 report recommended a new confession on race. Cost estimates were presented, and the recommendation approved was to study the Belhar instead.

The study guide was slow in coming (it was published in 2008), which didn’t encourage study. Meanwhile, the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns recommended formation of a committee to consider whether the Belhar should be adopted. Two other denominations, the RCA and the CRC, were both considering it, so a groundswell was happening in national and international ecumenical meetings. The study committee recommended adoption in 2010. International ecumenical guests, understood as black and coloured in their home country, were present. Many have prayed daily for us that we might receive their invitation with joy and find in it a new way to think about our life together and our walk with Christ.

And now the measure has failed, due to a combination of circumstances — lack of discussion, no one “leading the charge,” the need for a supermajority, much energy going elsewhere, and the lingering sense for some that we really need our own confession.

Today, we want to “grow the church deep and wide.” Part of this requires becoming more diverse. Two GA special committees, on “racial ethnic and new immigrant church growth” and “the nature of the church in the 21st century,” are delving deeply into what the disconnects between the PC(USA) and the national demographic profiles mean for our collective future, witness and ministry.

But becoming truly diverse requires honesty about our past, in order to build a good present and a faithful future. Issues include:

» ideological support for slavery developed and taught at Presbyterian seminaries;

» racial issues raised in the Plan for Reunion;

» the history of post-reunion realignment;

» the recent elimination of all positions held by Presbyterian Latino teaching faculty at our seminaries;

» ongoing discrimination that moves some toward race or culture-specific presbyteries.

We won’t discuss these now.

So — when will we, and how much more damage will the body sustain before then?

Cynthia Holder Rich, is a minister member of Lake Michigan Presbytery, directs ecclesio.com and serves on the executive committee of the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns of the General Assembly.

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