Are we in a "status confessionis?" That's what the General Assembly is asking the presbyteries.
According to theologian Karel Blei, that venerable Latin phrase means "a situation of confessing, a situation in which the confession of Jesus Christ is at stake." From time to time the church needs to confess its faith in fresh terms, to meet the world's urgent need to hear the good news. The General Assembly has just said to the church: "We believe we are in just such a time."
Specifically, the Assembly voted to continue the multi-year process - begun by the 2008 Assembly - of adding a new confession to the Book of Confessions. That sort of change hasn't happened since 1990, when the church adopted A Brief Statement of Faith - and, before that, not since the Confession of 1967.
The confession the Assembly would like to add doesn't come from our country, nor even our hemisphere. The Belhar Confession - written in South Africa in 1982 in the Afrikaans language, and in English in 1986 - would be the first confession in the book that arises out of the vibrant churches of the Southern Hemisphere.
Specifically, the Belhar Confession was written by leaders of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC), the former "coloured" (mixed-race) Reformed denomination in South Africa. It's named for a suburb of Capetown in which the General Synod of that church was meeting at the time.
Since 1994, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church is no more. Its congregations have since united with the black Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (DRCA) to become the multi-race Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa. That denomination is still working towards full unity with the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (DRCSA), the white Reformed denomination.
Back in 1982, though, under the brutal apartheid system, Christians of different races were not even permitted to sit together at the Lord's Table. I remember attending the General Council meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Ottawa, Canada in that year (Claire and I were leading the youth component of the Visitors' Program). At the opening communion service, delegates from the black and coloured South African churches stood in silent protest. They refused to partake of the sacrament with delegates from their country's white church. To do otherwise would be a sham, they were saying - for, if they were barred from sitting together at the Lord's Table back home, why should they do so overseas, at an ecumenical gathering?
Their protest electrified the General Council meeting - ordinarily a rather staid conclave of academic theologians and denominational officials. Before the meeting had ended, the World Alliance had suspended the membership of the white DRCSA, and declared apartheid to be a sin. (In theological terms, a sin is more serious than a heresy - a heresy is technically a disagreement among friends, while a sin is an affront to God). That church has since been re-admitted, after repudiating apartheid as a theology.
Decrying racism's insidious power to separate people one from another, the Belhar Confession proclaims “that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.” Thus, any racist statement that claims to base its authority on scripture isn't even worthy of consideration, because it has revealed itself to be false from the very outset.
"Separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups," the Belhar Confession makes clear, "is a sin which Christ has already conquered."
Does Belhar speak a message to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that we need to hear? Furthermore, if we make this confession our own, does it aid our witness to the wider world?
Personally, I think it does. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous remark that "Sunday morning at 11:00 is the most racist hour in American life" is still all too true.
The Reformed Church in America adopted the Belhar Confession as one of its official confessions this year. The more conservative denomination of Dutch Reformed heritage in our country, the Christian Reformed Church, provisionally adopted it in 2007, and is expected to finalize that decision in 2012.
These churches evidently believe they are in a status confessionis. Will the PC(USA) decide the same? The voting in our presbyteries in the coming year is an important part of that careful process of discernment.