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Holland, Mich. – For the first time in 390 years, the Reformed Church in America has a confession to make.
The Belhar Confession, a declaration of human unity, justice and reconciliation that was drafted in 1982 by Reformed churches in apartheid-era South Africa, will be up for approval at the RCA’s June 4-9 General Synod here.
Some in the 166,000-member RCA say the confession speaks to the church’s need to become more diverse as it pursues growth goals. But the Belhar’s text also might speak to an ongoing debate about homosexuality, which is back on the Synod’s agenda for the first time since 2006.
And that, church leaders say, might give some Synod delegates pause.
“I’ve had many conversations with people across the denomination who are worried about that,” said the Rev. Carol Bechtel, a seminary professor at Western Theological Seminary who is the current Synod president.
“One of the things I noticed in my travels (as president) is how the Belhar is not confined to the original context that gave it birth. They very deliberately left out the word `apartheid’ because they didn’t want it eternally moored in that specific situation.”
Bechtel said the church’s confessions “rise up out of our encounter with the Bible in history,” expressing faith at a moment in time in a way that bears witness to the future. She said the Belhar emphasizes unity, justice and reconciliation in ways that the RCA’s three current confessions, the last of which was adopted in 1619, do not.
So the Belhar might give the church a clearer voice on political conflict in Palestine, violence in Africa or, perhaps, homosexuality.
The confession was drafted under the leadership of Allan Boesak, who last year quit the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa after that Synod rejected his claim that the Belhar supports full church participation of gays.
Officially, an RCA report on a three-year dialogue on homosexuality suggests continued discussion.
“We talked. We’ve learned a lot about how to talk. And we need to keep talking,” Bechtel said. “That will frustrate some people at both ends of the spectrum, but this is where the Belhar is relevant.
“It counsels a kind of loving conversation that’s firm, but open, as opposed to just lobbing Bible verses at each other,” she said. “We’re being called to genuine engagement and a patience with each other that is borne of a concern for unity and reconciliation.”

Matt Vande Bunte
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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