The Theological Issues and Institutions Committee voted 46 – 6 Tuesday in favor of adding the Confession of the Belhar to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Confessions.
The morning was spent listening to presentations that explained the confession’s origins and stories of ecumenical partners who have adopted the confession into their churches.
Clifton Kirkpatrick of the PC(USA) tried to answer the questions, “Why Belhar? Why now?” by stating that the confession provides:
- A voice from the Global South for the Book of Confessions;
- A witness to the church universal;
- Unique, biblical witness to unity, justice and reconciliation – all much needed at this time in the denomination; and
- Theological commitment to overcome racism and work for the beloved church community.
Lisa Vander Wal, former president of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), spoke of the transformative power the confession had in the RCA’s dialogues about race. She said the RCA received the confession as a gift and found it to be an expression of calling to live as part of God’s reforming grace.
Mary-Ann Plaatijies, current moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, and Jerry Pillay, president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches and representing the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa, also addressed the committee. Plaatijies and Pillay shared the sociological and theological context in South Africa from which the confession originated and how its use has affected the churches in Southern Africa since its adoption into their denominations. Pillay said that the confession helped him to leave all of “prejudices at the altar” and served as a reminder that “we cannot go and transform the world without first transforming ourselves.”
As the committee discussion started, many commissioners questioned the confession’s previous dismissal and requested a summary of why it was not affirmed by the 220th General Assembly (2012). In response, Charles Wiley of the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship stated that commissioners had believed the content to be good but “not our confession,” and they had not had adequate familiarity with it. To address this, the Belhar committee wrote an accompanying letter to make connections between the context of South Africa and the current PC(USA).
Today, many commissioners expressed similar sentiments, with one saying, “It’s a wonderful confession, but it is not our confession.” Ellen Newbold, commissioner from Coastal Carolina Presbytery, responded by saying she had a hard time saying it was “not our confession” because “we didn’t write all of the confessions in the book” and cited the Scots Confession. Debbie Blane, a missionary advisory delegate from Cascades Presbytery, agreed, stating that most of the accepted confessions, such as the Nicene Creed, “don’t belong to our country.”
Adoption of the Belhar Confession was put to a paper ballot and approved by a supermajority.