The Confession of Belhar has particular relevance to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which continues to struggle with its history of race and racism, and should be included in the denomination’s Book of Confessions.
That’s one of the key messages coming forth from the General Assembly Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar, which this week is releasing its report and recommendations going to the 221st General Assembly (2014).
“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,” the special committee said in an accompanying letter to its recommendations.
“We believe that the Confession of Belhar, a profound statement on unity, reconciliation, and justice in the church, comes to us as a word from God for this particular time and place for the PC(USA).”
The special committee’s unanimous call for the assembly to approve the inclusion of the Confession of Belhar (English, Spanish, Korean) in the Book of Confessions comes with a request that the amendment be sent to the presbyteries for their affirmative or negative votes by June 2015.
The Belhar Confession, grounded in the struggle against apartheid, was adopted by the synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in 1986. In 1994, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa united to form the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA). The major themes of the Belhar Confession are unity, reconciliation, and justice.
“Our hope is that the PC(USA) will support and live Belhar as a faithful witness to the unity, justice, and reconciliation that God intends for the denomination,” said Clifton Kirkpatrick, co-moderator of the Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar.
Councils of the PC(USA) should “take leadership in promoting a churchwide study of the Confession of Belhar, and claim the ‘Accompanying Letter from the PC(USA)’ as our own,” he said.
The 220th General Assembly (2012) voted to begin the process of amending the Book of Confessions to include the Confession of Belhar, and Moderator Neal Presa appointed the special committee to study it and provide education about the confession throughout the church. The special committee has been engaged in that work since its inception, and has provided a number of key resources in print and online.
This is the second round for Belhar to be considered by the PC(USA), having narrowly failed to receive the two-thirds majority vote needed by presbyteries following the 219th General Assembly (2010).
The special committee’s report and recommendations, which the assembly will consider when it meets June 14–21, in Detroit, also ask that the assembly approve “The Accompanying Letter to the Confession of Belhar from the 221st General Assembly (2014)” and commend it to congregations and presbyteries for consideration as they discern adding the confession.
The accompanying letter should be approved “as a statement reflecting the confession, conviction, and rationale of the PC(USA) based on the implications of this confession for our life and ministry as a Reformed and Presbyterian community in 21st century North America,” the special committee’s recommendations say. The original Confession of Belhar also had an accompanying letter.
From its inception the United States of America “has had a problem with race,” and the church has, by and large, “been held captive by the culture of racism,” special committee member Jerry Tankersley said. “I would hope congregations and pastors would be willing to take a new look and engage these issues through the lens of Belhar.”
Additionally, “our church is going through nationally a time of division,” he said. “I think Belhar and its focus on unity and the reconciling power of the gospel addresses the great need we have to live into the unity that we have in Christ in the midst of our differences.”