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‘A present reality’

Born in apartheid, Belhar Confession speaks to racism in church today, special committee says in recommending its adoption by PC(USA)

February 10, 2014

LOUISVILLE

“We believe deeply that [the Confession of] Belhar is a word from God to our church at this time,” the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick told the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board in twin presentations here Feb. 6.

Kirkpatrick, former General Assembly stated clerk and renowned global ecumenical leader, is serving as co-chair of the General Assembly’s Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar, which was appointed by the 2012 General Assembly.

The committee has just released its unanimous recommendation that the upcoming 221st General Assembly in Detroit this June approve the Confession of Belhar for inclusion in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Confessions and send it to the church’s 172 presbyteries for their affirmative or negative votes.

A two-thirds affirmative vote is required to amend the Book of Confessions.

The Confession of Belhar was adopted by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in 1986 as that church’s response to the system of apartheid in South Africa. Its major themes are unity, justice and reconciliation in the face of forced racial separation.

Belhar, in turn, was inspired by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches declaration in 1982 at its General Synod in Ottawa that theological justification of apartheid was “heresy.” At that synod, WARC (now the World Communion of Reformed Churches) suspended the membership of the Dutch Reformed Church, South Africa’s dominant white church.

Twenty-two years later—while in South Africa as president of WARC to see if South Africa’s post-apartheid churches could reconcile around Belhar—Kirkpatrick witnessed the Dutch Reformed Church affirm Belhar “at the same time the PC(USA) turned it down. It was incredibly embarrassing,” he said, “and I vowed I would not step away from Belhar if another opportunity [for the PC(USA)] to pass it came along.”

The 2008 General Assembly approved the inclusion of Belhar in the Book of Confessions, but only 60 percent of the presbyteries ratified it, short of the two-thirds majority required to amend the confessions.

COGA member Dennis Hughes of Port Townsend, Wash., said, “Belhar got caught up in variety of other issues last time, particularly gay and lesbian ordination, and so inadequate attention was paid to it.”

Citing a variety of study and liturgical resources on Belhar that have been developed by the special committee, Kirkpatrick vowed that “if it ever gets voted down again it’s not going to be because people don’t know about Belhar.”

In his parallel presentation to the mission agency board, Kirkpatrick invited board members and staff to advise the committee as it prepares to bring its recommendation to the assembly.

Small group discussions focused primarily on how to empower an effective study process across the church toward countering the prior “no action” votes—equivalent to a “no” vote—by those presbyteries who said that they did not know and had not studied Belhar following the 2008 General Assembly.

The Rev. Marci Auld Glass, pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho—who attended the mission agency board meeting to make a presentation on behalf of the Special Offerings Task Force—said that her congregation had used Belhar in worship with powerful results and recommended its liturgical use.

“Using Belhar in our worship was healing and transformational for our members,” she said.

Others have said that racism has already been addressed in the Confession of 1967 and so Belhar is not needed, said COGA member John Wilkinson of Rochester, N.Y., adding that he disagrees with that position.

Kirkpatrick responded “that C-67 spoke to the world, while Belhar speaks to the church.” The church “doesn’t have a leg to stand on if we don’t witness to reconciliation within the church as well as outside,” he said, citing Martin Luther King Jr.’s frequent comment that “the most segregated hour of the week is Sunday morning at 11:00.”

The Rev. Kerri Allen, a corresponding member of the board and Ph.D. student in theology and ethics at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, said, “In my 30 something years of life, I feel that since [President Barack] Obama was elected the country is much more expressive in its racism. 

“This is demonstrated in an increase in the number of racially motivated hate crimes in the U.S.,” she said, “and doesn't begin to deal with the more covert ways that racism operates.”

Belhar—in its ringing call to unity, justice and reconciliation—lists a number of core messages, Kirkpatrick said, including:

  • Affirmation of  the Trinity—it ends with affirmation that Jesus is Lord
  • Unity is a gift and obligation for the church of Jesus Christ
  • That this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered
  • This unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways
  • That this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint
  • Rejection of any doctrine that sanctions in the name of the gospel the forced separation of people, specifically on racial grounds.

As with the Confession of Belhar in 1986, the special committee’s recommendation includes an “accompanying letter.” It states, in part:

“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is again facing a critical time in its history. We are rent apart by division and schism, we have yet to confront directly and confess the racism that has been a significant force in our own history, and we have shown a failure of resolve to make courageous stands for justice.”

Noted General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons: “Belhar is not a memorial to apartheid, but a response to present reality.”

  1. It is not that I do not deeply respect the Belhar Confession and it's impact on the South African Church during apartheid. I do not think it is a contextual proxy for our own work on racism against more than just the African American community in the PC (USA). Maybe we should allow the groups we believe have been harmed by ecclessial, theological and biblical prejudices to form their own statement on reconciliation and repentance required within our denomination. This could be the beginning of a confession that might not take something from another's context and fits it to our own.

    by Brian Merritt

    February 10, 2014

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