As the season of voting on constitutional amendments nears an end, it appears that all but one of the 17 amendments under consideration have been approved by a majority of presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The only amendment that cannot garner enough votes for approval by the cutoff date of July 10 – one year after the adjournment of the 219th General Assembly (2010) – is the addition of the Belhar Confession to The Book of Confessions of the PC(USA).
In its report to the General Assembly last year, the Special Committee on the Belhar Confession, created by the 218th General Assembly (2008), recommended the addition of the confession to The Book of Confessions. Last year’s assembly approved the recommendation by a more than three-to-one margin.
While amendments to the Book of Order need approval by 87 of the 173 presbyteries of the PC(USA) to become part of the church’s Constitution, confessional documents require a two-thirds majority vote, or 116 presbyteries, as well as approval by the next General Assembly.
The Belhar Confession, drafted in 1982 by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa with a theme of reconciliation, has received approval by more than half, but not the required two-thirds, of presbyteries.
In reflecting on the failure of the confession to receive enough votes for adoption, General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons said, “The Belhar Confession is rooted in the issue of racism, which we still struggle with nearly thirty years after it was written. I think our engagement with this confession will continue to bear fruit as the church seeks to witness to God’s call for justice and reconciliation.”
The Reverend John Wilkinson, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, N.Y., and the moderator of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, noted that Belhar might not have received sufficient attention in a year when presbyteries were engaged in several substantive discussions around constitutional amendments. But he thinks presbyters still took the matter seriously.
Wilkinson said, “I read account after account of discussions that highlighted several consistent themes, including our nature as a confessional church and the need to explore that identity more deeply, and the connection between a creed from another Reformed body in another era and our contemporary moment.”
The Reverend Carroll Jenkins, interim pastor of Cedar Park Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, expressed concern that the confession did not pass. A former chairperson of the General Assembly Advocacy Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns, Jenkins said, “The vote is an indication to me of how much more education is needed and how far we have yet to go in understanding and dealing with the international impact of racism and racial differences.”
Jenkins continued, “The world today in which the PC(USA) finds itself has much different dynamics – politically, socially, economically, and more – from our last 300 years of Presbyterian history. The church needs to help people look at not only how the world is wrestling with this issue, but at who we are and our role in the world. Hopefully, the Belhar Confession will still be an important educational and developmental tool for us.”
“Belhar points to the unity of the church in the midst of true injustice, a message that we in the PC(USA) need to hear,” remarked the Reverend Charles Wiley, coordinator of the Office of Theology and Worship of the General Assembly Mission Council. “Even though Belhar will not become part of The Book of Confessions, we can and should continue to engage with its central affirmations as a confirmation of and challenge to our faith.”
Wiley pointed to a new resource that will help congregations continue their engagement of the confession. The Belhar Confession, a small-group study written by Cynthia Holder Rich, is the latest in the Being Reformed series published by Congregational Ministries Publishing.
Parsons concluded, “There are times when our faith is deepened and the church’s witness is strengthened by our discussions and debates, regardless of the outcome of the voting. This is one of those times.”