GA special committee unanimously recommends adoption of Belhar Confession

Anti-apartheid creed can lead way to multicultural church, Austin says

September 24, 2009

Louisville

A special committee authorized by the 218th General Assembly (2008) has announced that it will recommend to next summer’s 219th Assembly that the Belhar Confession be added to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’ Book of Confessions.

Amending the Book of Confessions requires a two-thirds vote by two successive General Assemblies plus a two-thirds ratification vote  by the denomination’s 173 presbyteries between Assembly ballots.

The confession was written in 1982 and adopted in 1986 by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in response to the apartheid system of racial separation in South Africa.  It declared apartheid a sin and the church’s theological justification of it as heresy.

But Belhar’s greater value to the PC(USA), special committee member the Rev. J.C. Austin told the General Assembly Mission Council’s executive committee here Sept. 23, lies in its “fundamental themes that go beyond the apartheid struggle.”

Austin, a Presbyterian minister who works at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said those themes are the unity of the church, reconciliation and a commitment to justice.

“Belhar is consonant with other witnesses in the Book of Confessions,” Austin said. “It’s not redundant, however, but brings longstanding conversations out in important ways.”

Chief among them, he said, Belhar provides “a theological resource and rationale for being a multicultural church … this is a confession from the global south — the only one — and accepting it in and of itself says something about what being a global church means, that we are being witnessed to by others and not just being witnesses to by them.”

Austin said conversations in the special committee, which voted unanimously to recommended Belhar for inclusion in the Book of Confessions, “opened up some astonishing avenues … for how to be more faithful in the present context.”

He said the special committee is preparing resources “for authentic conversations in the church” around issues raised by Belhar. “I believe we have many possibilities for real transformation of the church in the 21st century,” Austin said, “to help each other do church better.”

Two other Reformed communions — the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America — are also considering Belhar for inclusion in their doctrinal books.

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