Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Don Meeks and Jeff Krehbiel are curating “Can We Talk?”, a modest attempt at an uncommonly gracious conversation among colleagues who differ on matters of conscience. Can we bridge the theological differences that divide us? Can we even talk about them? Can we affirm the best in each other’s theological tradition while honestly confessing the weaknesses of our own? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!
by Quinn Fox
I had the blessing to have been in the room of all the G.A. committees that had anything to do with the Confession of Belhar’s journey into our Constitution (all four times committees voted as well as the final recommendation for inclusion in the Book of Confessions). Between 2008 and 2016, my role changed. I began as committee resource coordinator (2008 & 2010); I was asked by National Capital Presbytery to serve as overture advocate (2012) for a reconsideration of the narrowly defeated overture. In 2014, I moderated the Committee on Theological Issues that (again) recommended adding Belhar. Last June in Portland, as an observer, I witnessed the final GA committee vote to recommend the inclusion of this remarkable confession in our constitution. Remarkable primarily for the context out of which Belhar proclaimed the central gospel message of reconciliation.
To change our Book of Confessions requires the majority vote of three General Assemblies, the recommendation of a special committee appointed by a G.A. moderator, and a super-majority of presbyteries. It’s the most difficult constitutional change to make, because the Book of Confessions is our foundation.
The basement, or foundation, is sometimes forgotten about or taken for granted when there is lots of activity going on upstairs. In recent years we’ve been remodeling our PCUSA “house.”
Remodeling work is chaotic; it can be all-consuming. During those “remodeling” years most Presbyterians didn’t think much about the basement (we were squabbling about where there should and shouldn’t be walls in our Book of Order). A few went down to see what they could find to make a case for what they wanted to see happen upstairs, but that was the extent.
One is unwise to change a foundation hastily. It takes time and significant consensus, especially in the Presbyterian house.
After eight years of process, our denominational basement has an addition—a fortification and amplification of our core Reformed theology, articulated to engage issues we face in our 21st century context. After decades of divisive debates about the upstairs remodel, we have also voted to change our foundation. Now there’s a basement room dedicated to reconciliation and justice. Of course, we have a 50-year-old justice and reconciliation room that calls prophetically for the abolition of racial discrimination—a voice of reconciliation in the public square. Perhaps more circumspectly, no doubt less ambitiously, our “Belhar room” calls for reconciliation within the church … at a time when our culture is deeply divided (and lacking in justice). And not only our culture. Hundreds of congregations are seeking to depart. Our ecclesial strife is inseparable from the larger cultural divides.
Belhar attests: the gospel is fundamentally about reconciliation. Our world, our nation, our local communities desperately need reconciliation and justice. Christians know something about this… the reconciliation God has given us in Jesus Christ (as individuals, as God’s people and as God’s covenant community). This message of reconciliation is desperately needed in a world of over 65 million refugees and displaced persons, in a country polarized by vitriolic political campaigns. Belhar tells us that the church’s message is reconciliation; Belhar also tells us that we need to hear the message ourselves! Will we?
We have rich reconciliation resources—not only in Belhar but in our larger Book of Confessions. I invite you down to the basement for a look around. It’s a very cool place once you leave all the hustle and bustle going on upstairs. It’s my favorite room in our Presbyterian house.
Quinn Fox, associate pastor for Discipleship at National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., attended Fuller and Princeton Theological Seminaries before earning his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in the history of Christian thought. Prior to this, he served as Associate for Theology and Director of the Company of New Pastors in the Office of Theology & Worship.