Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Brethren meet for 223rd Annual Conference, begin denomination-wide conversation on sexuality.

A total of 2,077 people met for the 2009 Annual Conference in San Diego, Calif., on June 26-30, including 670 delegates from congregations and districts, and 1,407 nondelegates. The Conference was led by moderator David Shumate and was held at the Town and Country Resort and Convention Center.

Decisions made by the delegate body set in motion at least two years of intentional denomination-wide conversation on two documents related to human sexuality. In addition, the Conference approved a revision of the church's paper providing a process for conversation about strongly controversial issues, acted on a query regarding secret oath-bound societies, and received a number of reports. The body also elected new church leadership (see story below).

Denomination-wide conversation on sexuality

Annual Conference acted on two business items related to issues of human sexuality, after spending most of the afternoons of June 27 and 28 discussing the items "A Statement of Confession and Commitment" and "Query: Language on Same-Sex Covenantal Relationships."

The action has set in motion at least two years of intentional denomination-wide conversation on the two documents. The delegates voted to accept both as "special response" items to be dealt with using the newly revised process for strongly controversial issues. In doing so, the Conference turned down a recommendation from the Standing Committee of district delegates to postpone the query until a later time.

Standing Committee also has named a Special Response Resource Committee that is called for in the process for strongly controversial issues. The committee will develop resources on the issues, in order to aid the church in the conversation process.

Named to the committee are Karen Long Garrett, a recent Bethany Seminary graduate and manager editor for Brethren Life and Thought; James Myer, a minister at White Oak Church of the Brethren in Manheim, Pa., and a leader in the Brethren Revival Fellowship; Marie Rhoades, a staff member of On Earth Peace; John E. Wenger, a Church of the Brethren member and psychologist from Anderson, Ind.; and Carol Wise, executive director of the Brethren and Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Interests.

"A Statement of Confession and Commitment" came from last year's Standing Committee, addressing the issue of homosexuality as one that "continues to bring tension and division within our Body," confessing that, "we are not of one mind on this matter," and declaring that the church's 1983 paper Human Sexuality from a Christian Perspective "remains our official position." The statement acknowledges tension between different parts of the 1983 paper, confesses "meanness and fighting" over the issue, and calls the church to stop unchristian behavior.

"Query: Language on Same-Sex Covenantal Relationships" from Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Northern Indiana District asks "whether it is the will of the church that this language on same-sex covenantal relationships will continue to guide our journey together" referring to a sentence in the 1983 paper that same-sex covenantal relationships are "not acceptable."

Standing Committee representatives Larry Dentler and Janice Kulp Long presented the committee's recommendations. Long also is on the pastoral team at Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren, which sent the query.

"We are a diverse group, just as the delegates of our congregations are diverse," said Dentler, who reported that last year after Standing Committee adopted its statement he felt "amazed that we could be unanimous...because there were persons of all theological perspectives." After further discussion this year, he realized that "some of us were seeing things in different ways." Some on Standing Committee see the statement as saying that the 1983 paper is one "we need to stick to," he explained, while others see the 1983 paper as simply "what we have," and that the 1983 paper really opens up more opportunity for discussion.

"Others' perspectives help me understand myself and our (church) body better," said Long. "Our denomination can only find a way through present brokenness as we seek God's light together." She also clarified that the Beacon Heights Church intends with the query simply to ask, "What words regarding covenantal relationships could God lead us to today?"

Debate on the two items was lengthy and marked by lines at the microphones, with many people wanting to speak. A group of young adults read a statement calling for support and inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Other expressions ranged from affirmation for an intentional denomination-wide conversation, to commitment to biblical authority and the Bible's teachings on homosexuality, to weariness with the amount of time and energy already spent on the issue. Some expressed a desire to immediately reopen the 1983 statement. Several speakers said that it will be impossible for the whole church to come to agreement.

"There comes a time when you have to agree to lay things to rest," said Myer, who was a member of the committee that brought the 1983 paper. He spoke from the floor in support of the recommendation for denominational conversation, but "with some reluctance" he said, because the church already has worked on these issues for some 30 years. His support came out of observing the Standing Committee process in creating its statement, he said, "that it was possible in this day and time to come up with something that received unanimous approval."

Revision of paper to deal with strongly controversial issues

By an overwhelming vote, the Conference affirmed the motion of Standing Committee to adopt the revision of the paper, "A Structural Framework for Dealing with Strongly Controversial Issues." The document represents an update of a paper of the same name passed in 1988, but never utilized. The revision passed with one amendment to shorten to one minute the time speakers would have during floor discussion of topics using this process, instead of 1 1/2 minutes, to give more people a chance to speak and be heard.

The 1988 paper called for a committee to provide resources on an issue and facilitate denomination-wide conversation, but did not specify doing anything with the information gathered. This revision outlines a fuller process of conversation that may take two to three years, giving Standing Committee the responsibility of holding hearings across the denomination, and bringing the issue back to Annual Conference.

Moderator David Shumate commented that having a good process for controversial issues would provide a "surge protector" effect for the church, and added that the church needs special time to work with issues that "try us as a body."

Membership in secret oath-bound societies

The Conference respectfully returned the "Query: Secret Oath-Bound Societies" and reaffirmed the statement on membership in secret societies passed by the 1954 Annual Conference--with an amendment asking the Conference officers to appoint a three-member group to develop resources to educate and inform the church on this topic.

The officers named a three-person Resource Team to develop resources to educate and inform the church on the topic of secret oath-bound societies. Named to the team are former general secretary Judy Mills Reimer; Bethany Theological Seminary professor of New Testament studies Dan Ulrich; and Harold Martin, a leader in the Brethren Revival Fellowship.

Other business

Revised corporate by-laws for the Church of the Brethren were submitted for information, with the expectation that they will be brought for action at next year's Annual Conference. A revision of the by-laws is being submitted following the major reorganization of the Church of the Brethren, Inc., last year as the former Association of Brethren Caregivers and Annual Conference Council were combined with the then General Board under one corporate umbrella. The by-laws passed in 2008, which are now in force, included a lot of items from the church's polity manual and are very lengthy. The corporate attorney advised that a way be found to simplify them, reported general secretary Stan Noffsinger. Noffsinger invited additional comments and suggestions on the by-laws proposal to be sent to the Church of the Brethren's Leadership Team.

A report on child protection activity was given by Kim Ebersole, director of Family Life and Older Adult Ministries. The report affirmed the continuing relevance of the 1986 report of the Conditions of Childhood Task Force, and added three new recommendations for the denomination. The report was called for by a 2007 query, following which a survey process was conducted with congregations, districts, church programs, and agencies such as church camps, and the Caring Ministries staff also conducted a number of other activities to educate the church and to call for more attention to the protection of children across the denomination.

Three recommendations were given, that every Church of the Brethren congregation, district, agency, ministry area, program, and camp adopt and implement a child protection/child abuse prevention policy appropriate for its ministry setting; the Church of the Brethren maintain resources to assist congregations, districts, agencies, ministry areas, programs, and camps in developing child protection/child abuse prevention policies; and the church continue to help strengthen families and ensure that parents and caregivers have the knowledge, skill, support, and resources to care for their children.

The delegates approved a zero percent cost of living increase for the annual adjustment in the recommended ministerial cash salary table, at the recommendation of the Pastoral Compensation and Benefits Advisory Committee. The committee explained that usually the cost of living increase is based on the percentage of increase in the Consumer Price Index, however with the economic situation the Index fell this year rather than increased and the group did not want to recommend a decrease in the salaries of pastors.

Other reports received by the Conference included agency reports from the Church of the

Brethren, Bethany Theological Seminary, Brethren Benefit Trust, and On Earth Peace; Living Peace Church sharing from the microphones; a report from the Program and Arrangements Committee; and others.

The closing Conference business session also included appreciation for retiring Annual Conference executive director Lerry Fogle, and the consecration of Shawn Flory Replogle as moderator and Robert E. Alley as moderator-elect for 2010.

(Frances Townsend, pastor of Onekama (Mich.) Church of the Brethren, contributed to the reporting from the Annual Conference business sessions.)

Source: 7/1/2009 Newsline

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