The Passing of the Heidelberg: Just Short of Singing Kumbaya

The new ecumenical English translation of the Heidelberg Catechism was adopted by more than two-thirds of the PCUSA presbyteries and has one more hurdle to jump: a majority vote at the 221st General Assembly. Given the momentum, it’s getting easy to see that this will happen in Detroit next year.

The change to the Heidelberg Catechism is long in coming. The journey began when Professor Johanna Bos came to teach at Louisville Seminary. Having grown up in the Netherlands where the Heidelberg Catechism is central to Reformed faith the way the Westminster Confession is for the PCUSA, she noticed the flaw in our translation of the Heidelberg Catechism in the answer to Question 87.

She knew that there was no word there that could be translated as “homosexual perversion” and yet that was in our Book’s translation. She set about correcting this. However, to her chagrin, making this right got caught up in PCUSA divisions over LGBT inclusion at the time.

Concern languished until Jack Rogers outlined the scholarly problem in his book, Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality.

This is where I got involved. When I read Roger’s book in the spring of 2007, I got really excited about the possibility of making needed reform to our Book of Confessions. Removing this insertion—the only explicit reference to LGBT people in the Confessions—was badly needed, because the reference was inaccurate. Additionally, I was struck by the opportunity this could present for the factions of the church to work together since the heart of the problem was a violation of intellectual integrity. Surely, accurate scholarship is something all Presbyterians value, separate from our varied positions in the ongoing controversy around LGBT members in the church.

Armed with that insight, I teamed up with Professor Chris Elwood at Louisville Seminary in the summer of 2007. We began to craft an overture for the 218th General Assembly, scheduled to take place in San Jose in 2008. We shared it with our friends and invited them to take it to their presbyteries to send to the General Assembly. As a result of our work, five presbyteries passed that overture or developed their own.

One of these five was my presbytery—Pittsburgh. Passage by the Pittsburgh Presbytery was a shock to many. We have the probably well-deserved reputation as one of the most conservative presbyteries in the church. Two German natives, both seminary professors (Dr. Ulrich Mauser retired from Pittsburgh and Princeton Seminaries and Dr. Andreas Schuele, at the time at Union Seminary in Richmond) presented the situation to Pittsburgh Presbytery, supporting the overture on intellectual grounds.

Heidelberg Catechism
1563 edition of the Heidelberg Catechism

The 218th General Assembly in San Jose was amazingly fun. Overture advocates from the five presbyteries cooperated to make their case to the General Assembly Committee. The Overture advocate from my presbytery in Pittsburgh shared a slide presentation that highlighted several different flaws in the translation in addition to Answer 87.

The Assembly adopted the Committee’s positive recommendation. Moderator Bruce Reyes Chow appointed a Special Committee that included Presbyterians from all parts of our church spectrum on LGBT ordination as well as a number of respected scholars.

I was told that one of the committee members, a prominent conservative college professor of theology, arrived at their first meeting with a list of fifty flaws in the translation! This rigor set a collegial tone and the committee members got down to work. Meanwhile, the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) were approaching completion of a joint authoritative translation of the Heidelberg Catechism for their denominations.

Our Special Committee saw the wisdom of partnering with that work and the RCA/CRCNA Committee was happy to include them. Not only were we cooperating beyond factional lines in the PCUSA, we were also doing it across denominations. It is interesting to note that both the RCA and the CRCNA are more conservative than the PCUSA on LGBT inclusion, yet neither of them ever had “homosexual perversion” in their English texts of the Heidelberg Catechism.

While this development added two years to the process, it had the benefit of separating the presbytery vote on opening ordination to LGBT Presbyterians (passed in 2011 by the presbyteries) from the vote on a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. The Special Committee was unanimous in its recommendation of the ecumenical translation to the 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh. And the 2012 General Assembly recommended adoption to the presbyteries for the needed two-thirds vote.

While those in the PCUSA against LGBT ordination and marriage of same-sex couples did not speak up much about the Heidelberg Catechism, they did do two important things. Presbyterians for Renewal included the General Assembly recommendation to adopt the new translation in their report on the 220th General Assembly and declared the action good. They recognized the need to correct the scholarly missteps in the 1962 translation. And there is no evidence that they organized any action in the presbyteries against it.

As for my own presbytery in Pittsburgh, the recommendation passed by a voice vote with not one negative comment. Presbyteries across the spectrum of our church stepped away from our on-going differences and joined together to do a very Presbyterian thing: to correct an error when we see it.

I confess I harbored a secret wish that we might actually have held hands and, as the phrase goes, “sung Kumbaya” as we reformed the Heidelberg Catechism. But this is quibbling.

In the end, I am deeply grateful for everyone who has participated in this healing work. And I will continue to pray for the day we do hold hands and sing together. That will be a blessed day… perhaps next year in Detroit.

To learn more about the Rev. Dr. Janet Edwards, visit Time to Embrace.

See Also:

More Light on Restoring the Heidelberg Catechism (pdf)

4 thoughts on “The Passing of the Heidelberg: Just Short of Singing Kumbaya

  1. Good news and great post! Just one point, the Reformed Church in America (RCA) which is in full communion with the PCUSA through the formula of agreement and its “sister” denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) are descendents of the Dutch Reformed Church (not German)–thus we take our Heidelberg very seriously! More Light has sister movements in the RCA and CRC, Room for All (roomforall.com) and All One Body (a1bcrc.org) respectively, partnering in as you proclaim “building a church that reflects God’s heart.” Again, thank you!

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    1. Thank you so much, Thomas, for your kind words and your corrections. They are well-taken. And thanks also for sharing with us the inclusive church movements in the RCA and CRC. May God bless their witness to God’s expansive love.

      Peace, Janet

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  2. Rev. Janet,

    I am in the final stages of completing a book manuscript about the history of the movement for full LGBT inclusion in American Protestantism, which will be published by Pilgrim Press this fall. It’s a lengthy book that covers the five, principal mainline denominations, including the PC(USA). This post will be referenced to provide the latest information about revision of the Heidelberg. By the way, the MS also references your ecclesiastical trial for officiating at the Cole-McConn wedding.

    Thanks for your leadership.

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  3. Dear Obie,

    You are so very welcome and back at you for your making sure the history of this era of reformation is preserved for the whole church into the future.

    Thank you for referencing in your work this summary of the replacement of the Heidelberg Catechism translation in our PCUSA Book of Confessions. It is a truly good moment for our church family and definitely part of the history you are sharing.

    And I am deeply touched that you see historical importance in the presbytery trial for my presiding at the wedding of Nancy McConn and Brenda Cole and reference it in your book. One contribution we made, I think, was a full day of experts in the PCUSA laying before us the roots of marriage of same-sex couples in Scripture, Reformed theology and PCUSA polity.

    The other thing that began with that trial, I think, was the understanding of the PCUSA Directory for Worship as description where there is no prohibition against marriage between two men or two women. This has now become the standard interpretation of W-4.9001.

    Peace, Janet

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