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GA 2010: Committee recommends adoption of Belhar Confession

MINNEAPOLIS – Members of the Committee on Theological Issues and Institutions have voted to recommend churchwide adoption of the Belhar Confession to be added to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Confessions.

Prior to adopting the recommendation the commissioners amended the proposal by directing that Biblical references for its statements be added as footnotes. They also directed that the “accompanying letter” traditionally included with the confession be added to it in The Book of Confession for introductory purposes; that letter will not be given confessional status.

The commissioners also considered as a substitute motion an overture from the Presbytery of Sacramento that called upon the Assembly to commend existing confessions that uphold the oneness of all believers and to discontinue efforts to add Belhar to the Book of Confessions. After a series of amendments it commanded just 13 affirmative votes against 41.

The Belhar Confession was written in 1982 in South Africa to be a theological statement that called for racial equality and reconciliation and, at the same time, church unity. Two other U.S. denominations, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in America, are finalizing their own adoption of this confession to be added to their constitutionally authoritative affirmations of faith.

Prior to adopting the confession, the committee discussed concerns regarding gender-exclusive language, acknowledging its gender-neutrality regarding humans, but retaining two male references to God. The committee did not try to change that language but did propose that the Office of Theology and Worship prepare a more fully inclusive language confession on the denomination’s Web site for alternate use.

Jane Dempsey Douglas, theology professor emeriti of Princeton Theological Seminary and a member of the special committee that studied and offered the proposal to the General Assembly, urged the confession’s adoption. “Adoption of the Belhar Confession will give witness to the new reality of our unity with churches in the global south,” she declared.

Viola Larson, overture advocate opposing the adoption of Belhar countered, “As we speak against racism and for ethnic diversity, we already have confessions that speak in clear and practical ways on racism in the church.” Larson added, “Many are using it to further gay and lesbian ordination.”

Douglas disagreed. “It is clear that our issue with the ordination of gays and lesbians was not in the mind of the authors of the original Belhar confession.”

Larson’s primary criticism was that the Confession offers a “sparse Christology. Belhar’s focus is on unity, not Christology.”

Douglas did assure that the declaration of Christ’s Lordship is clear and that “the confession is suffused with Biblical allusions.”

After lengthy discussion, the committee approved the proposal by a vote of 43 yes, 11 no and 1 abstention. It next goes to the whole General Assembly for their action later in the week.