LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A letter written to accompany the Confession of Belhar declares it to be a “word from God” in the first paragraph, thereby raising the confession to the level of canonical, instead of being what it is – the word of men.
Written by the Special Committee on the Belhar Confession, the 3,131-word accompanying letter, along with the 1,171-word confession, is being recommended for approval by the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
If the confession is approved by the assembly, ratified by two-thirds of the presbyteries, and approved by the 2016 General Assembly, the Belhar Confession will be included in the denomination’s Book of Confessions.
“The Accompanying Letter to the Confession of Belhar from the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (USA)” (see page 8 of the pdf file) has been recommended for adoption by the assembly as “a statement reflecting the confession, conviction and rationale of the PCUSA based on the implications of this confession for our life and ministry as a Reformed and Presbyterian community in 21st century North America.”
The General Assembly also is asked to commend the letter to PCUSA congregations and presbyteries as they consider adding the confession to the denomination’s Book of Confessions.
This is the second try to get the confession into the denomination’s Book of Confessions. The 220th General Assembly in 2012 voted to send the Belhar Confession to the presbyteries for ratification, and while it did get a majority of votes, it did not get the required two-thirds approval.
In his recent presentation to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, “Why Belhar? Why now,” Clifton Kirkpatrick, co-moderator of the Special Committee on the Belhar Confession and former stated clerk of the PCUSA, said that “the Belhar Confession is indeed God’s word to the PCUSA for such a time as this.”
Kirkpatrick said the committee has recommended that the 221st General Assembly do four things:
1. Approve the inclusion of the Belhar Confession in the Book of Confessions.
2. Adopt the accompanying letter. Kirkpatrick said that when the Belhar Confession was first adopted by the South African church, the accompanying letter was also adopted.
The letter spoke of “what the church failed to do and what it will do,” said Kirkpatrick. “Our committee has also written an accompanying letter, which really does talk about the context of our church and why it’s important.”
3. Call on the church to have a year-long study of the Belhar Confession and its two accompanying letters, said Kirkpatrick, “using the study guides we have produced. The reason it was voted down before was that people weren’t familiar with it.”
A web site — www.pcusa.org/belhar — has been launched with resources for the church-wide study process. It includes a design for workshops, videos, testimonials and a frequently asked questions section.
“There is no absence of material to study this,” said Kirkpatrick.
4. Dismiss the committee with thanks.
A message to the church
Kirkpatrick said that the Belhar Confession was adopted in South Africa by what he called “the colored church” in 1986. With riots in the streets, he said, “that church took a prophetic stand with a message — not so much to society — but to the church itself.”
The letter that accompanied the confession stated, among other things, that:
- The gospel was at risk
- An un-Christian ideology of racial separation infected the church and the nation.
- It was a cry from the heart based on the truth of Scripture.
Kirkpatrick declared that racism is still alive in the PCUSA:
- Sunday morning at 11 a.m. is still the most segregated hour of the week
- PCUSA and leadership at all levels is still an overwhelmingly white church in a multi-cultural society.
Kirkpatrick said that when the Belhar failed to get the support it needed from presbyteries to be included in the Book of Confessions following the last General Assembly, he was embarrassed and made a commitment to himself, that if Belhar ever came back up again, “I would be in the middle of it.”
Unity, reconciliation and justice
Kirkpatrick declared that there are three fundamental calls to the church — the call to unity, reconciliation and justice.
He compared the first paragraph of the accompanying letter to an executive summary of the entire document. It reads:
The Presbyterian Church (USA) 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. 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 PCUSA.
The last sentence of that paragraph elevates the Confession of Belhar to canonical status. The current confessional standard of the PCUSA regards the Bible alone as the Word of God. The accompanying letter in support of Belhar espouses a different theology, one that suggests that God’s Word is not fully revealed in the Bible, nor finally revealed in the person of Jesus, but continues in new revelations today.
That theology is necessary to undergird the arguments of those who want the church to progress in its thinking on moral issues. Kirkpatrick is a member of the board of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a group that advocates for the full inclusion of lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender and queer people into the life of the PCUSA and also supports same-sex marriage in the denomination.
While the Belhar Confession speaks to the issue of racial justice, the accompanying letter written by the Special Committee not surprisingly brings human sexuality into the mix.
In its section on unity, the letter states that “beyond the issues of race and class, Presbyterians in the United States of America have, from the beginning, been troubled by differing theological world views and practices. We have been willing to divide over and over again … For the last quarter of the 20th century, the Presbyterian church has argued and divided over human sexuality and how to read its Scriptures in these matters. Once again the reality of diversity has threatened to divide us so that the visible unity of the church now hangs by a slender thread. We believe that the PCUSA needs to be called to the unity taught and proclaimed in the Confession of Belhar.”
Speaking of reconciliation, the letter reads in part, “as God’s reconciled people we have promised not to break the covenant in which we are bound through the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. At reunion we attempted to create the PCUSA as a reunited church in the absence of confessing the sin that had created our original division. In the last several decades, we in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have become increasingly separated into different political, economic and theological camps. More than ever, we need to be claimed by the gospel of God’s reconciling love. This gospel allows believers to come together, knowing that we have more in common that unites us, than what divides us.”
In its third section – Justice – the letter states that, “While the Confession of Belhar arose from the struggle of South African Christians to give witness to the Gospel amidst the injustice of apartheid, we are also being called to give witness in the face of injustice here among us in the U.S.A. We see that injustice in the faces of thousands of First Nation peoples who still live in dire poverty on reservations; in young African American men who are incarcerated disproportionate to their percentage of the population; in the ‘legal limbo’ status of immigrants, and in both native born Latinos who are subject to question in virtually every quarter of the nation; in public policies such as ‘stop and frisk’ and ‘stand your ground’ that put poor, black and brown young men at risk in the public square.”
The PCUSA, the letter continues “confesses its commitment to God and to the Biblical principles of unity, justice and reconciliation because in times like these in which we live, we need to remind ourselves and others of our discipleship to Christ and follow God’s mission in the world.”
Ending his presentation, Kirkpatrick quoted Jim Wilson, a member of the Committee of the Office of the General Assembly, who said, “Belhar describes the church I would like to belong to.”
“Well, it does for me too,” said Kirkpatrick. “A church centered in unity, justice and reconciliation.”