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Becoming a “Confessing Church”


A Letter from Doug Tilton, serving as regional liaison in Southern Africa

Summer 2022

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Dear friends,

God continues to do new things in all of our lives! After more than two years without attending in-person meetings, I was grateful to be able to accept Rev. Prof. Thias Kgatla’s invitation to bring greetings to the inaugural Annual Belhar Confession Lecture at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) at the end of April. UWC is situated in Belhar, near the site where the 1982 Synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church first proposed the confession, and several UWC professors contributed to the drafting of the document. The lectures are one way in which the University and Prof. Kgatla, recently appointed Extraordinary Professor for the endowment of the Belhar Chair, are lifting up the Confession of Belhar and its clarion call to unity, reconciliation and justice.

In his lecture, entitled “Reading the Belhar Confession in a Wounded World,” Prof. Kgatla explored the ways that Belhar invites us to respond to a range of contemporary challenges: racism, gender-based violence, corruption, unrestrained consumption, “fake news,” and climate change. Prof. Allan Boesak offered an impassioned response, citing the need to move from being “a church with a confession”—a church with something on paper—to being a confessing church that has something in its heart which it lives out in the world, joining struggles for justice, peace, and dignity. A member of the original Belhar drafting committee, Prof. Boesak recalled a central dilemma for the church as it confronted apartheid, a system of oppression ostensibly grounded in biblical interpretation. “How shall we witness in the name of the gospel,” he asked, “when the gospel itself was both the instrument and the justification of the oppression, the exploitation and the misery of our people at the hands of other people who also claimed to call Jesus ‘Christ’?”

(l-r) Rev. Prof. Leepo Modise, Moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa; Rev. Prof. Allan Boesak, and Rev. Prof. Thias Kgatla, Extraordinary Professor for the endowment of the Belhar Chair at the University of the Western Cape, following Prof. Kgatla’s presentation of the inaugural Annual Belhar Confession Lecture at the University of the Western Cape. PHOTO: Doug Tilton

He argued that by testifying to God’s radical justice, solidarity, inclusivity and love, the Belhar Confession transcends a response to apartheid and speaks to the current crises that Prof. Kgatla enumerated. But he added, “I would have loved to add one more area of concern to those that you raised, and that is the area where [the church] has most failed Belhar: … the struggle of LGBTQI people and trans people for justice, dignity, and worthiness in the sight of God, under the law and in the community of the church.” It was a powerful and moving evening and a privilege to be able to experience it in “real life!”

As I am still serving as half of the Africa Office Co-coordinator team on an acting basis, I recently travelled to Louisville for the in-person committee portion of the 225th General Assembly. The committee sessions were staggered to minimize the number of people who needed to be present at any particular time, and they were organized into four sessions spread over two weeks. The Africa Office hosted three Ecumenical Advisory Delegates from African partner churches, as well as two mission co-workers from Africa who are serving as Mission Advisory Delegates. I was also a resource person for a handful of overtures related to Cameroon, the DR Congo, Ethiopia and Ghana. This was my first work-related trip since February 2020, so it has been a bit daunting, but it is also exciting to interact with people again outside of a Zoom environment! Please pray that General Assembly will be listening intently for God’s still, small voice and will provide thoughtful and sensitive leadership for the coming years. Please pray also for the health and well-being of all the participants and the effectiveness of the many measures that have been put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Presbyterian Mission Agency continues to discern how God is calling us into ministry and partnership in the coming years. Like moving house, this process of discernment and revisioning is one that holds great excitement and opportunity, but also comes with the stresses of change and transition! Please pray for PMA and World Mission staff as we lean into God’s call; may God bless us with sensitivity and understanding to recognize where change is needed and where historical harms demand redress, with creativity and insight to develop new models and patterns that more closely reflect God’s plan for humanity, and with compassion, pastoral skills and interpretive gifts to care for staff and constituents who find the thought of more transitions and upheaval in this seemingly intensely chaotic era difficult to bear. Give thanks, too, that our God is always doing a new thing, leading us onward, even when that takes us out of our comfort zones!

Many of our ecumenical partners in Africa and around the world are also encountering challenges. Ongoing political and ethnic conflicts in South Sudan have produced tensions in both church and society. The PC(USA) was to have taken part in an international ecumenical delegation to South Sudan, led by Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Church of Scotland to promote peace and reconciliation. Unfortunately, the Pope’s uncertain health recently prompted a postponement of this visit. We hope that it can be rescheduled later this year. In any case, please pray for peace and justice for all of South Sudan’s people, for faith communities that minister to traumatized and displaced communities, and, in particular, for a spirit of reconciliation and unity within the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan.

Cameroon has also suffered greatly in the past two years as official discrimination against the minority Anglophone population in the southwest of the country has contributed to the emergence of an armed separatist movement and prompted attacks on schools, towns and even churches. Please pray for our partners, the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon and the Eglise Presbyterian du Cameroon, as they minister to traumatized families and communities; for wisdom and insight for Cameroon’s global partners who have come together as an Ecumenical Forum for Justice and Peace in Cameroon to encourage and accompany Cameroon’s faith communities in a quest for reconciliation and durable peace; and for the families who are mourning the loss or injury of loved ones.

Southern African nations — particularly Madagascar, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa — have endured a series of powerful storms this cyclone season, resulting in significant loss of life, widespread flooding, destruction of homes and displacement of families. Please pray for safety and hope for families who are trying to pick up the pieces, for partner churches and for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance as they work to respond to these crises quickly and effectively, and for greater global understanding of the impact of climate change and redoubled commitment to changing behavior to slow the progress of climate change. We give thanks, too, for partner ministries that lift up and seek to protect the integrity of God’s creation. The Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar recently decided that all of its congregations nationwide should become “green congregations” and they have begun to train people in each of the church’s 37 Synods to promote sustainable agricultural practices and respect for Madagascar’s biodiversity.

Thank you for accompanying me as I join with our partners in seeking to bring Christ’s peace and justice to those impacted by these situations. I am grateful, as ever, for your prayers, your partnership and your support.

Grace and peace,

Douglas J. Tilton (he/him/his)
Regional Liaison for Southern Africa
Acting Africa Area Co-coordinator
Presbyterian World Mission
SA Cell: +27 82 079 0520

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