By an overwhelming vote, the 221st General Assembly (2014) sent a proposed amendment to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Book of Confessions that would add the Belhar Confession, which has its roots in the struggle against apartheid.
Before it can be added to the denomination's confessions, the Belhar would have to be ratified by 115, or two-thirds, of the denomination's 171 presbyteries within the next year. Then the 221nd General Assembly (2016) must again approve inclusion in the Book of Confessions. Belhar would join the 11 Eurocentric creeds and confessions in the second part of the PC(USA) Constitution. It would also be the first addition to the Book of Confessions in nearly 30 years.
The report and recommendations from the General Assembly Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar was approved 551-87, or 86 percent.
Based on the sub-themes of unity, justice and reconciliation, the Belhar Confession was written in 1982 during the period of South African apartheid. It was adopted as a confession of faith by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in 1986 and has since been adopted by numerous denominations around the world, including the Reformed Church of America.
The 219th General Assembly (2010) approved inclusion of Belhar by a vote 525-150-3, but it failed to gain approval by the presbyteries, falling eight votes short (108-63) of the required super majority.
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. It was this report that commissioners approved on Wednesday.
Committee on Theological Issues and Institutions and CE Moderator Quinn Fox, a teaching elder commissioner from the Presbytery of National Capital, chose to introduce the committee’s recommendation to approve the Confession of Belhar by reading the opening paragraph of a letter written by the special committee to accompany the confession. The Committee had amended its recommendation to not have the letter accompany the confession in the amendment package sent to the presbyteries.
"The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is again facing a critical time in its history," Fox read. "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. 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)."
Responding to a question from a commissioner, Fox explained that after much deliberation, the committee felt “the letter might get in the way of the confession and give presbyteries reason to not be in favor of the confession.” He said the letter would be available on the PC(USA) website and in education materials made available by the Office of the General Assembly.
Three people spoke in favor of approving including Belhar in the Book of Confessions.
Ruling Elder Commissioner Susie Krivenko, Presbytery of Elizabeth, said it is time “to use this confession to open conversations within our denomination about racism in our society.”
Teaching Elder Laurie Hartzell, Presbytery of Lake Michigan, said, “Belhar claims unity as a gift and obligation. This confession can help mentor us through the power of the Holy Spirit into a new day.”
Citing the theme of the 221st General Assembly, Teaching Elder Commissioner Chris Carassco, Presbytery of Charlotte, said Belhar was “the strongest reason we have to abound in hope. We need to hear it today as much as South African did in the 1980s.”
The Assembly also
- approved recognition of the 500th birthday of John Knox and the designation of October as the John Knox memorial month,
- approved M. Craig Barnes as president of Princeton Theological Seminary,
- heard a presentation by David Gambrell, associate for Theology with the Presbyterian Mission Agency, on an updated Directory for Worship in the Book of Order. Approved forwarding the draft of the proposed directory to the church for study and comment in consideration of submitting it to the 222nd General Assembly (2016) for approval,
- heard a presentation by Kathy Wolf Reed, chair of Committee on Theological Education, on the denomination’s 11 seminaries and the 100th anniversary of the Assembly Training School, and
- recognized Jack B. Rogers and Cynthia M. Campbell as recipients of the Award for Excellence in Theological Education.