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Committee sends Belhar Confession to Assembly for approval

June 17, 2014

For a second time, the Confession of Belhar is being sent to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to determine if it should be added to denomination’s Book of Confessions.

After three hours of discussing, debating and dissecting, the Committee on Theological Issues and Institutions and CE on Tuesday recommended the 221st General Assembly (2014) approve inclusion of the Belhar Confession.

By a vote of 46-6, the committee voted to approve with amendments Overture 13-01, the report of the General Assembly Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar. The committee voted 45-9, however, to recommend not including the special committee’s accompanying letter in the amendment package sent to presbyteries. 

If approved by the 221st Assembly, the confession will be sent to presbyteries for approval. Two-thirds, or 116, of the presbyteries must approve the recommendation. It then goes to the 222nd General Assembly (2016) for final approval and enactment.

The 219th General Assembly (2010) approved inclusion of Belhar, but by a vote of 108-63 it failed to get the required two-thirds approval from the presbyteries.  At the 220th General Assembly (2012), a special committee was created to study Belhar and create educational material to be distributed both in print and online.

Based on the sub-themes of unity, justice and reconciliation, the Belhar Confession was written during the period of South African Apartheid in 1982 and was adopted as a confession of faith by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in 1986. It has since been adopted by numerous denominations around the world, including the Reformed Church of America.

Without an open hearing, lengthy discussion and numerous questions arose on Wednesday prior to voting by the committee.

Charles Wiley, coordinator of the PC (USA)'s Office of Theology and Worship, spoke to the committee and cited four reasons he and his office believe the confession did not gain approval from the necessary number of presbyteries two years ago. He said people thought the confession was good, “but it wasn’t ours.”  People were not aware of its history or meaning. Some, he said, made a connection between the confession and the approval/disapproval of sexual orientation; and some saw it as calling for “unity to trump truth.”

After listening to dozens of statements from commissioners and observers, both in favor and opposed to inclusion of the confession, the committee chose to break the recommendation into its four parts and vote on each separately.

With numerous people citing concern about the wording of the of the special committee’s letter, the committee chose not recommend it for inclusion with information on the confessions to presbyteries.

Wiley explained to the committee that the Office of the General Assembly could still post the letter on its web site.

After the committee voted to approve the overall recommendation with amendments, Wiley applauded the committee’s efforts.

“I have watched committees at four general assemblies make decisions on the Belhar,” he said. “You have looked at it more closely and asked more questions than any of the others. I commend you for that.”

In other business, the committee voted 49-5 not to recommend the PC(USA) join with the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Southeast Florida Diocese of the Episcopal Church and the Southwestern Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in endorsing the Clergy Letter Project and designating the second Sunday in February as Evolution Sunday to recognize the influence that the theory of evolution has had in changing the world view of our natural environment.

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