Before the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) officially convened, commissioners participated in carefully orchestrated overviews of several key issues on Saturday morning. One of the early sessions presented information on the Confession of Belhar and the committee affirmation of its inclusion in the Book of Confession.
In his opening remarks, Clifton Kirkpatrick, former Stated Clerk of the PCUSA, noted that Presbyterian ecclesiology is deeply rooted in the nature of God in a way that directly connects to the Confession of Belhar that begins, “We believe in the one Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Kirkpatrick then stated that “we as believers are welcomed into the fellowship of the Holy Trinity – a fellowship of love and unity. God, through his grace, has proven his love for us … sending his Son so that in the life and resurrection of Jesus and by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we are welcomed into the very being of God. As a community that has been reconciled as one in Jesus Christ, we are called to manifest that love and unity in the body of the church.”
“We have a long history of struggle. There is a long history of racism in a country that is deeply divided. The church is deeply divided,” stressed Jerry Tankersley who is a member of the committee assigned to reflect on the Confession of Belhar. “That sort of division haunts our church. We are a nation and a church that is deeply divided along racial lines. Within the context of church dismissals, there is an effort to raise biblical and theological issues but it takes place in a vacuum … we are in need of serious and intense biblical and theological confession about who God is and how that impacts the unity of the church. There is a desperate need, and Belhar will allow us to address the need for reconciliation.”
The Confession of Belhar is facing its second round of voting after being narrowly defeated following the 2012 General Assembly. While passing at the Assembly level, it failed to achieve the necessary votes at the presbytery level. Supporters believe it failed because some people were not educated about its content and others felt it was a political move to provide confessional support to the ordination of homosexuals. One attendee asked if the Confession of Belhar was not simply a “Trojan horse” to change our attitudes about homosexuality. The committee responded by saying that the hermeneutic of suspicion comes from an attitude of fear and ideology that is dangerous.
While presenters on Saturday said the document was originally written with the sole focus on racism in South Africa during the years of apartheid, Clifton Kirkpatrick, moderator of the gathering, confirmed that if approved “it would be a logical step that it would apply to gays and homosexuals since the wording could be interpreted as including all persons.”
Committee member Mark Lomax, said the inclusivity of the Confession of Belhar begs one to ask, “Who would Jesus reject?” The answer for Lomax is that Jesus would exclude no one because God loves everyone. He then said, “Paul might reject it (the Belhar Confession), but Jesus would not.”
When the attendees were asked about their concerns, one participant remarked that the Confession of Belhar would find connections with the current Israeli-Palestinian issues at presbytery and could easily result in an accusation of racism against those who continue to support the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or a similar accusation being made against the Palestinians. Lomax seemed to agree as he responded, “Indeed, the call to justice, reconciliation and unity could have many implications.”
When asked why a new confession is needed when the issue of racism and reconciliation is already addressed in the Confession of 1967, committee members stated that there is only one paragraph on race and reconciliation, and it did little to address the reality of racism in the church itself. “The issue then was racism in society. The Confession of Belhar addresses racism within the church. It is the difference between a political or a spiritual issue,” said Matilde Moros, Co-Moderator of the General Assembly Special Committee on the Belhar Confession. “There are theological implications to the history of racism in this country. This confession addresses theologically something that we have not dealt with.”
As Moros spoke about getting “on the train of God’s justice,” a member of the South African delegation said, “We are not here to market the confession. We are giving it to you as a gift, and you may accept or disregard it. However, the sin of racism is lurking in our hearts. This is not something we address one time, but the acceptance of a lifestyle.”
“This confession comes from the two-thirds world where the Reformed church has made an impact and done mission, and now they are speaking back to us,” concluded Moros.
Included in the conversation was a reminder that study guides and resources are available online at http://oga.pcusa.org/section/committees/special-committee-belhar/
Committee #13, Theological Issues and Institutions, will consider the recommendations of the Special Committee on the Belhar as General Assembly business item 13-01.