For the second time in recent years, a special committee of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly is recommending that the Belhar Confession ― written by South African Christians in 1986 as a response to apartheid in that country ― be included in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions.
This time, Belhar advocates say, they want the conversation in the church to be different. “We want the whole church to ask, ‘What’s the message?’ and ‘Can this be our message?’” says the Rev. Charles Wiley of the PC(USA)’s coordinator for theology and worship and staff to the special committee. “The goal is to have churchwide dialogue around the issues, he added, “to see how it could be a confession of our church.”
The 2008 General Assembly appointed the first special committee on the Belhar Confession. That committee recommended and the 2010 General Assembly approved its inclusion in the Book of Confessions, but it failed to reach the two-thirds supermajority needed in the presbyteries.
“I don’t sense there was great opposition to Belhar,” says Belhar special committee co-chair and former General Assembly Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick. “I think there was just a lack of serious attention to it ― it got lost in the shuffle of 10-A (a constitutional amendment that eased ordination standards to permit the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians, as well as unmarried heterosexuals) and other divisive issues.”
Consideration of Belhar was reintroduced by National Capital Presbytery at the 2012 General Assembly and was approved 395-264.
“The special committee came together to really study Belhar,” says co-chair Matilde Moros of Princeton, N.J. “We talked with two of the authors from South Africa via Skype and two members of the Reformed Church in America’s special committee, which used a similar process to ours.”
The RCA has adopted Belhar, as has the Christian Reformed Church.
“We are a very diverse committee and our discussions were rich,” Moros says. “We came into the process not knowing what we were going to do, but we came out of it very much in agreement.”
The special committee’s intent is to focus on the content of Belhar, not on the politics of voting on it, says Wiley. “There are three central issues in Belhar,” he says, “unity, reconciliation and justice. And it’s very interesting what’s going on in the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, which has resisted Belhar for 30 years. For them, Belhar is a very current issue because they are talking about the connections between the three, such as ‘What does it mean to talk about unity and justice.”
The issues Belhar addresses “are very similar in South Africa and the United States,” Moros says. “Whether its race, poverty, division, apartheid there and slavery here,” she says, “Belhar can bring us to discussion about issues we don’t like to talk about. Belhar is calling the church to be the church.”
Kirkpatrick says he was in South Africa when the votes that defeated Belhar in the PC(USA) came in. “I was there to witness the Dutch Reformed Church’s first votes to adopt Belhar. The irony, the disconnect, struck me deeply.”
Given the increasing embrace of Belhar by South Africa’s churches, Moros says she is even more convinced that “Belhar is where we need to be with our own history of racism and the demographic changes in the U.S. ― Belhar can bring that conversation along.”
She also says Belhar is particularly instructive for Presbyterians. “There is so much pain in our disunity right now,” she explains. “Belhar really addresses that.”
Belhar, says Kirkpatrick, “is a statement of Christian truth at a critical time ― unity, reconciliation and justice are three gifts we most need in the PC(USA).”
The special committee’s recommendation will be considered by the 221st General Assembly in Detroit, June 14-21, 2014. Between now and then the special committee hopes Presbyterians will study Belhar carefully. “This is not just a vote that happens, but a deeper conversation that Belhar opens up for everyone,” Moros says.
If the church engages in that conversation, adds Kirkpatrick, “I really believe that Belhar will speak for itself and will be approved.”