After considerable discussion, the Committee on Theological Issues and Institutions and Christian Education voted to endorse The Confession of Belhar and the attachment of the South African letter of introduction but rejected a letter of explanation prepared by the Special Committee.
As the commissioners began their deliberations, Charles Wiley, coordinator for the Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Church (USA), made an opening statement about the purpose of confessional statements. “They are more than historical documents and have enduring authority for the church.”
Wiley reminded the commissioners that confessions are always written with specific contexts in mind and are set in a certain point of history. As a result, there will always be things that do not seem as applicable at a later date. Wiley gave the example of the 2nd Helvetic Confession that says “baptism should not be administered in the Church by women or midwives.” At first glance, this might seem to contradict the ordination of women. “However, that isn’t the point of the confession. The confession was written to address the idea of emergency baptism, a topic that still raises theological questions.”
When these discrepancies or contradictions arise, you have two options. According to Wiley, you can “roll your eyes or think this is something we need to pay attention to. The need is to discern whose voice comes with authority and is God’s word to us today.”
Wiley explained the process for making a substantive change to the Book of Confessions, citing there are five steps before the process is completed, with two of the necessary steps now completed. The full body of the General Assembly will now vote on whether the Confession of Belhar should be sent to the presbytery level where it will need a two-thirds approval in order to return to the General Assembly again in 2016 for inclusion in the Book of Confessions.
The overture has already failed at the presbytery level following the 2012 General Assembly. Wiley cited four primary reasons for its defeat: 1) people perceive that although the content is good, it is not a confession for our church at this time; 2) voters were unfamiliar with the Confession of Belhar and did not receive enough educational material to fully understand the content; 3) the language of “natural diversity” created concern that by welcoming the confession, they might lend support to the ordination of gays and lesbians, and 4) some of the specific content was alarming. For example, the expression that God “is in a special way the God of the destitute” or that the strength of the unity claim would impact a commitment to the truth and when compared to the Barmen Declaration might appear to have a lower view of Christology.
Former General Assembly moderator Clifton Kirkpatrick acted as moderator of the special committee, and he spoke briefly about the importance of adding the Confession of Belhar to the Book of Confessions. “This is a significant action of the assembly since it is a once in a generation experience to add a confession. We have had the Barmen, Confession of 67, and the Brief Statement of Faith in recent history. Now there is a confluence of forces that lead to a credible witness in a time of trouble in South Africa, but it also speaks to the church today.”
When asked about the differences in Belhar that makes it necessary to add it to the Book of Confessions, commissioners were told that the Confession of 67 focused primarily on racism in the world while the Confession of Belhar forces the church to look internally. They were also told that “with 65 percent of Christians in the world living in the Global South, it is ridiculous that they have no voice.”
Following a workshop exercise around the content and its supporting Scripture, commissioners expressed their support and appreciation for the content and language contained within the Belhar, even if not all of them supported its inclusion in the Book of Confessions.
Paul Roberts, commissioner from Pittsburgh Presbytery, is one that finds the language of the Belhar “amazingly beautiful.” However, in spite of that attraction, he voiced his concerns. “It’s beautiful, but will we deal with reparation or will we just continue to talk about racism? It is also concerning because we have already seen how other agendas are interjected into the conversation. Already gender has been addressed. As someone already struggling with the marriage issue on the agenda, I worry that any injustice will be seen as sin.” Roberts also commented on the implication that any separation within the body of the church might be considered a sin in light of the wording in the Confession.
With only minimal objections, the committee moved to accept the Confession of Belhar and the attached letter from South Africa that sets the historical context of the document. They were not as quick in considering the proposed attachment of the special committee’s letter, and in the end rejected the letter in its entirety.
Reasons for the rejection were varied; “it’s too long and in fact longer than the Confession itself,” “problematic language that can be misconstrued,” “concern that it will be elevated to constitutional status,” “unable to see the need for its inclusion,” “appears to be an apologetic,” and finally, “this letter will not be helpful in passing the Confession of Belhar. The stuff in this letter will drive anyone with concerns crazy, because the letter permits the springboard into a lot of other areas.”
In the end, commissioners voted 46 to 6 to send the Confession of Belhar with the original South African accompanying letter to the General Assembly for voting. However, commissioners may see the original overture surface during plenary sessions if six disgruntled committee members follow through on a minority report. “I am voting against the amended overture even though I am in support of the Belhar Confession,” said Robert Prim, a commissioner from the Northeast Georgia Presbytery. “I believe that the entire accompanying letter should be attached and included in the Book of Confessions.”