Thursday, February 18, 2010

Surveys, Belhar and the Confession of the Church

A friend sent me the Presbyterian Panel’s survey of opinions about the Belhar Confession. I have placed it just below and I want to make some comments on his thoughts and mine:

“✓ One in six ministers (pastors, 17%; specialized clergy, 18%) are very familiar or familiar with the Belhar Confession, a 1986 theological statement about church unity that Reformed churches in South Africa developed during the debate over that country’s policies of racial hierarchy and segregation.

✓ About a quarter of ministers (pastors, 30%; specialized clergy, 23%) are familiar with the proposal to incorporate the Belhar Confession into The Book of Confessions.

✓ Almost no laypeople are very familiar or familiar with the Belhar Confession (members, 1%; elders, 2%) or the proposal to incorporate it into The Book of Confessions (2%; 1%).

✓ During the past 12 months only a few panelists in each group (members, 2%; elders, 0.4%; pastors, 8%; specialized clergy, 5%) have consulted a study guide about the Belhar Confession that the PC(USA) Theology and Worship staff published and posted on the Web. Most of those who have consulted the study guide found it to be very helpful or helpful.

✓ Majorities of panelists in each group are not sure if they would support incorporating the Belhar Confession into The Book of Confessions. More members (14%), pastors (25%), and specialized clergy (34%) would definitely or probably support than oppose (5%; 18%; 10%) incorporation. Elders are evenly split (8% each).”

To be absolutely truthful surveys always bore me. Truth is truth no matter what anyone thinks. And at first I disagreed with my friend that a majority of Presbyterians need to understand and approve before a confession is adopted. (To be clear, anyone who has read my blog for long knows that I do not think we should adopt Belhar.) But after thinking about it for awhile I began to find some truth in my friend’s thoughts.

So here are my thoughts on the lack of awareness or care for the Belhar Confession exhibited by Presbyterians.

Last night I began a book by Alister McGrath entitled, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth. One of his thoughts started me thinking about the Presbyterian awareness of Belhar. McGrath wrote”

“It [the early Church] faced new intellectual challenges that demanded that it prove itself capable of engaging with religious and intellectual alternatives to Christianity, especially Platonism and Gnosticism. This process of the conceptual expansion of the Christian faith was extended in time and cautious in execution. The final crystallization of the process of exploration can be seen in the formation of creeds—public, communal authorized statements of faith that represented the consenus fidelium, the ‘consensus of the faithful,’ rather than the private belief of individuals.” (28)

That statement started me thinking through the historical formation of creeds and confessions and the public awareness of the process. My first thought was of the Nicene Creed. And I remembered an incident in a History of Christianity class at California State University, Sacramento. In the middle of the test a group of people outside started chanting something. Our professor said, tongue in cheek, they are chanting “There was a time when he was not.” One student quipped “and what council was that and what was the name of the heretic?” We laughed.

But the truth is Gregory of Nyssa tells his readers of that time in Constantinople:

“In this city if you ask a shopkeeper for change, he will argue with you about whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you inquire about the quality of bread, the baker will answer, ‘the Father is greater, the Son is less.’ And if you ask the bath attendant to draw your bath, he will tell you that the Son was created out of nothing.”[1]

The point here is that most of that part of Christendom was taken up with the subject “who is Jesus,” although from the statements they made they were in need of a good catechism.

Another and far more recent Confession is the Declaration of Barmen. The need for a new Confession in Germany was bandied about for many years. Barth rejected the idea feeling that it was not the right time But as the church situation in Germany grew worse church lay people as well as pastors and a few theologians, such as Barth, began writing declarations and confessions as well as simple statements. That many in the Church were both aware and concerned can be seen by part of the contents of a letter Barth wrote to Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer went to London needing space to think about the church situation in Germany. He was rightly afraid to tell Barth and wrote him a letter after arriving in England. Barth tried to be kind in his reply but his distress is clear. One thing he writes is about the need for a confession. He writes:

“Don’t you see that any biblical saying you like formally cries out to us that we, lost and dammed sinners, should now simply believe, believe, believe? With your splendid theological armoury and your upright German figure, should you not perhaps be almost a little ashamed that a man like Heinrich Vogel, who, wizened and worked up as he is, is just always there, waving his arms like a windmill and shouting ‘Confession! Confession!’, in his own way – in power or in weakness, that doesn’t matter so much – actually giving his testimony.”[2]

My point: the Church is not ready for this new confession because the church is crying out for something else, something more, and that needs to be confessed. The church, many lay people, many pastors, a few theologians, are crying out for the church to more boldly confess Jesus Christ. Belhar is being imposed from the top down while most of the church is seeking something more. Belhar does not meet their cry.

[1] The last two statements are what the Arians believed. That Jesus was a created being although higher and first of all creatures. That is a heresy of course.
[2] Edwin Robertson, The Shame and the Sacrifice: The life martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 102


Anonymous said...

But since when do we actually have to believe in something for it to be forced on us? I don't think they care a whit.

Fr. Chris Larimer said...

The trade-off with adding this is the same as adopting the entire BoC - it only muddies the waters.

We live in an information-glutted society - a fact that is becoming more obvious with each passing year. The Paradox of Choice is that more in this regard leaves us with less about which we can be certain - less to tie us to one another rather than isolate us in our particular concerns.

In essence, to make us less catholic - less "according to the whole" and more lost in the concerns of this passing life.

The kind thing to do in our day and age is to give the people of the church the basics - something to which they can tenaciously cling for dear life when the world is falling down around them.

That's why I'm now an Anglican (as much as I loved & agreed with the WCF). Give me the frame of the catholic creeds (with some extra finish-carpentry in the 39 Articles) and I will be sheltered in the storms of this life.