The quest for a new confession

The 2022 General Assembly commissioned a committee to consider a new confession. What has the group been up to? Erin Dunigan reports.

Photo by Skyler Gerald on Unsplash

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has always been a denomination that values theological reflection and the development of confessional statements that guide its members in matters of faith and ethics. The 225th General Assembly initiated a process asking that a new confession be considered based on a confession generated by the Synod of the Northeast. Jack Haberer, a former Presbyterian Outlook editor and member of the committee, shared some insights on the process surrounding the potential for a new confession within the PC(USA).

The slow start of the special committee

“The title of the committee, ‘The Special Committee to Consider a New Confession,’ is strikingly ambiguous,” Haberer said. It reflects their desire for the assembly to examine and refine the confession’s language, intending to create a confession that reflects their intention and spirit after what will likely be a seven- to eight-year process.

Even the process of forming the committee has been a slow one. It’s taken 15 months after the 2022 General Assembly (GA) for the committee to even come together. Currently, they have had one in-person gathering, and they are meeting online for their regular discussions. For 2024, the committee will meet monthly.

Haberer praises the confession generated by the Synod of the Northeast, which has been offered to the GA as a comprehensive package. He describes the language as brilliant, emphasizing its focus on justice and its call to address and repent for issues such as racism, White supremacy, sexism and ableism. He admires the careful choice of words that make the confession well-worded and compelling. “I see it as a very strong statement about the ethics and life of the church,” he said.

However, Haberer notes that the confession does lean more toward being a statement of Christian ethics and justice rather than a core statement of Christian theology or soteriology. Unlike many of the PC(USA)’s existing confessions, which delve deeply into theological matters, this one seems to emphasize ethical considerations.

Is this a confessional moment?

“The task for the committee is really to ask, ‘Is this a confessional moment in the life of the church?'” said Haberer. “We establish confessions and declarations when it just has to be said, when we have to go on the record about something that is so monumental either in the development of our theology, like the Nicene Creed, or in the life of the church as it was in Barman for Nazi Germany and Belhar for Apartheid,” he continued. These were moments when the church deemed it necessary to express its convictions in a confessional form.

However, he also points out that there have been instances in the denomination’s history when declarations were made without resulting in a formal confession. One such moment was in declaring slavery to be heresy in the 1850s, which split the church North and South but did not actually lead to a new confession being written. The key question, according to Haberer, is whether this current situation merits a full-fledged confession or a declaration to guide the church’s stance on pressing issues.

“This is an important question for the committee to consider and I don’t know what the right answer is, but I am all ears to my colleagues,” he said.

The challenge of evolving language

Haberer acknowledges the challenge posed by the rapid evolution of language, particularly in the era of the internet and artificial intelligence. He cites the difficulty of determining which pronouns to use in inclusive language and warns against painting the church into a corner with a confession that may become outdated due to linguistic shifts.

He commends the Synod of the Northeast statement for handling this matter effectively, not restricting future discussions and adaptations. It highlights the importance of carefully selecting words in an era of language evolution.

Regardless of the committee’s decision about the new confession, the GA’s willingness to contemplate its adoption reflects a commitment to addressing contemporary social and ethical issues amidst the challenges and important questions raised as the church moves forward in its journey of faith and social justice.