The 2011 Annual Conference has acted on two business items related to issues of sexuality--"A Statement of Confession and Commitment" and "Query: Language on Same-Sex Covenantal Relationships"--which have been the subject of a two-year Special Response Process across the denomination.
The Conference approved the following recommendation from the Standing Committee of district delegates, and an amendment that added a sentence to that recommendation:
"In light of the Special Response process, as outlined by the 2009 paper 'A Structural Framework For Dealing with Strongly Controversial Issues,' the Standing Committee recommends to the 2011 Annual Conference that 'A Statement of Confession and Commitment' and 'Query: Language on Same-Sex Covenantal Relationships' be returned. It is further recommended that the 2011 Annual Conference reaffirm the entire 1983 'Statement on Human Sexuality from a Christian Perspective' and that we continue deeper conversations concerning human sexuality outside of the query process."
The final decision approved the recommendation to return both items of business to the sending bodies, and included the amendment made by James Myer, a leader in the Brethren Revival Fellowship.
The Standing Committee recommendation to return both items of business was put on the floor the morning of Tuesday, July 5, in Step 4 of the five Special Response steps with which the two business items have been processed. Myer was the first at the microphone with his amendment, the only one that was adopted by the delegate body.
Many more amendments and motions were made as the session extended into the afternoon business time, but all were rejected in a process in which the delegates were asked to vote whether or not to process each motion before discussion was allowed. Numerous points of order were called from the microphones, as well as questions of clarification, and challenges about how the Special Response business was conducted.
Special Response process
The five-step decision-making process for highly controversial business items is part of the Special Response Process set in motion by the decision of the 2009 Annual Conference to treat the two items of business using the "Structural Framework for Dealing with Strongly Controversial Issues." This is the first time that the five-step process has been used at an Annual Conference.Presentation by Forms Reception Committee
Steps 1 and 2 of the process during the evening business session on July 3 included an introduction by Annual Conference moderator Robert E. Alley, who presided. The Forms Reception Committee then presented its report summarizing findings of the hearings held across the 23 church districts over the past year. Members of Standing Committee presented their report and recommendation. Each report was followed by time for questions of clarification. (Find the Standing Committee report and recommendation and a link to the Forms Reception Committee report at www.brethren.org/news/2011/newsline-special-standing-committee-report-recommendations-special-response.html.)
Step 3 was held in the next day's afternoon business session, in a "sandwich approach" that began with a time for statements of affirmation, then statements of concern or changes needed, and then more statements of appreciation.
Step 4 took place today beginning in the morning business session. The moderator reviewed the process and the temporary suspension of Robert's Rules of Order. Speeches from the floor were limited to one minute. The recommendation of Standing Committee was followed by a time when amendments and motions were made. Although Step 4 does not specify time for discussion of the recommendation as a whole, the moderator gave that opportunity before taking the final vote.
In Step 5, which followed the vote, the moderator gave a statement of closure, expressed appreciation to those who contributed to the process, and led the body in prayer.
Prayer was held throughout the five steps of the process. The moderator also reminded the delegates of the many people in the wider church who share concern about the Special Response business. "As we pray, let us be aware of all the prayers of people here and in distant places that surround us in our Conference," he told the delegate body. "Let those prayers connect you to the eternal One, the Holy One, the Almighty, and the Christ."
The Forms Reception Committee, a subcommittee of Standing Committee, brought its 12-page report summarizing the Speical Response hearings that have been held across the denomination.Decision to 'return'
The committee made up of chair Jeff Carter, Ken Frantz, and Shirley Wampler, presented what they characterized as a qualitative as well as quantitative analysis of responses received during the process. "We wanted to model transparency" in providing the information, Carter said.
Responses were reported to the committee by means of standardized forms filled out by the note takers and facilitators of the hearings, which were organized by Standing Committee members in each district. Additional people responded via an online response option and the sending of letters, e-mail, and other communications. The committee said it gave greater weight to the responses received through hearings.
The committee handled over 1,200 pages of material, Carter reported, representing 6,638 people who took part in 121 hearings, which included 388 small group meetings.
"These hearings were characterized by respect," Frantz said as he reported the methodology of the committee in analyzing the responses in four areas: structural elements such as the way hearings were held, common themes and statements such as the tenor of conversation, contextual elements such as Brethren heritage and understandings, and statements of wisdom.
"We like numbers," Carter said, "but this is a qualitative study, meaning that it's very difficult to count votes when you're talking conversation."
He and the other committee members presented an analysis that about two-thirds of the Church of the Brethren supports the "Statement of Confession and Commitment," with about one-third rejecting it; and that about two-thirds want to return the "Query: Language on Same-Sex Covenantal Relationships," with about one-third wanting to accept it.
That finding was qualified by a number of others, including that the reasons for people's attitudes toward the two business items varied considerably; that "the majority of the denomination is in the middle," as Carter put it; that over half of the hearing groups were not of one mind; that many hearings focused instead on the 1983 statement on human sexuality; that there is general weariness with the conversation; and that great love for the church was expressed.
"The threat and fear of split is palpable," Frantz said. "Many of you cautioned against a vote that would create that split." Later during the time for questions he added, "There's a really strong steady desire to remain in unity with one another. It was very clear."
The Special Response Process itself was "a life-giving, thought-filled conversation," Carter said.
Following the reports, the Forms Reception Committee and Standing Committee received many affirmations for their work. Some questions of clarification asked particularly about the two-thirds, one-third analysis, and there were requests for additional data such as more information about the ages of people taking part in the hearings.
In response to a question asked about what it means to "return" a business item, Conference secretary Fred Swartz answered that to recommend return is one of seven possible responses for Standing Committee to make to an item of new business.At the start of the extra evening business session at 9 p.m. on July 5, which had been made necessary by the length of time taken for Special Response discussion earlier in the day, a serious situation was shared with the Conference.
To return an item may indicate several things, he said, among them that Standing Committee feels the concern has already been answered, or that the concern may not be appropriate, or that the concern has prompted another way of responding other than a simple yes or no. In this case, he told the delegates, Standing Committee feels the concern was answered in another way.
To return an item of business is not synonymous with rejection, he emphasized, adding that the Forms Reception Committee report indicates that both the query and statement served a valuable function.
Bob Kettering and Cathy Huffman were the Standing Committee members who presented the recommendation. Kettering explained that the committee is counseling congregations and districts to continue discussion and to refrain from forwarding queries about sexuality to Annual Conference. "At this moment there may be better and healthier ways...to seek the mind of Christ," he said.
Huffman responded to a question about whether the Standing Committee report, which advocates forbearance, means there should be no punitive response to congregations engaging in discussion of sexuality.
The Standing Committee report affirms relationship with one another, she responded. "As congregations we respect our differences," she said, giving examples of congregations that differ on women in pastoral leadership or participation of members in the military. She went on to add that congregations have freedom to follow the Spirit and to invite anyone to be part of them without fear of censure.
General secretary Noffsinger was called to the microphone to share the following statement:
"When we come to Annual Conference we're a family and we have a concern related to a member of our family. When one person is affected, the Bible assures us that we all are affected. A gay person here at Annual Conference has received a credible death threat. We have contacted security, and the Grand Rapids police are involved in the investigation. We in the Leadership Team are grieved by this, especially if it is someone within our gathering who is responsible for the violence of this threat. This is not behavior that is acceptable within the Church of the Brethren and we want to be very clear that it will not be tolerated."The moderator then led the body in prayer.