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Belhar Committee turns to a variety of voices to make its case for new confession

June 15, 2014

Cliff Kirkpatrick and Matilfe Moros give their report on the recommendations of the Commission on the Confession of Belhar at the 221st General Assembly (2014) in Detroit, MI on Sunday, June 15, 2014.

Cliff Kirkpatrick and Matilfe Moros give their report on the recommendations of the Commission on the Confession of Belhar at the 221st General Assembly (2014) in Detroit, MI on Sunday, June 15, 2014. —Michael Whitman

Rather than use their 15 minutes on stage to detail the conclusions of their report, the co-moderators of the Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar chose instead to briefly state their recommendations and allow other voices to speak on behalf of the confession.

“We unanimously recommend that the 221st General Assembly approve the inclusion of the Belhar Confession in the Book of Confessions and that it also approve an accompanying letter and commend it to congregations and presbyteries for consideration as they discern adding the confession,” said ruling elder Matilde Moros of the Presbytery of Hudson River, co-moderator of the special committee along with teaching elder Clifton Kirkpatrick of Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky.

“We believe this action will be viewed in years to come as one of the most significant action of the 221st General Assembly," Kirkpatrick said.

The two then introduced a 10-minute video produced by the special committee, in which a diverse group of Presbyterians take turns reciting the confession, which focuses on themes of unity, reconciliation and justice.

Following the video, Kirkpatrick introduced Dr. Mary-Ann Plaatjies van Huffel, moderator of United Reform Church of Southern Africa. The URCSA first introduced the confession, born in the midst of apartheid and adopted in 1986. The confession is named after the South African town in which it was written.

“Africa is not the only place where racism exists…. It is lurking in all of our hearts,” Plaatjies van Huffel said.

“Maybe you need at this point in time, not merely a legal statement on racism, or even a theological declaration on the racial identity,” she said. “Maybe you need only a repetition of a confession that has already been embedded. Maybe your church has arrived at a point in its own history to sense the rare and radical act of confession to reclaim the gospel.”

This is the second opportunity for the Belhar Confession to be considered for inclusion by the PC(USA), having narrowly failed to receive the two-thirds majority vote needed by presbyteries following the 219th General Assembly (2010). The 220th General Assembly (2012) voted to begin the process of amending the Book of Confessions to include the Confession of Belhar and appointed the special committee to study it and provide education about the confession throughout the church.

The Committee on Theological Issues and Institutions and CE is scheduled to take up the report and recommendations of the Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar during its business on Tuesday. The full Assembly will then consider the Assembly committee's recommendation later in the week.

The Advisory Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the Advisory Committee for Women's Concerns and the General Assembly Committee on Representation all recommend that the report be approved.

If the Assembly approves the recommendation, it will have to be approved by two-thirds of the denomination's 172 presbyteries within the next year and then approved again by the 222nd General Assembly (2016) before it can be added to the Book of Confessions.

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