One of the more revealing moments at Annual Conference came just after we finished debate on how we might respond to pastors who officiate at same-sex weddings. The morning business session was finished and Conference director Chris Douglas was sharing the announcements, including the unusual piece of news that there was a cow in the exhibit hall helping promote the new Brethren Press book The Seagoing Cowboy.
According to Chris, when these plans were being discussed at a Program and Arrangements meeting, moderator Andy Murray didn’t think the convention center would approve of livestock in the building. If she could pull this off, he said, he would sing one of his Brethren folk songs to help celebrate the book. And so as Chris made her announcement about the cow, Andy quietly got up from his chair, picked up his guitar, and sang “Cowboy Dan,” a song honoring Heifer Project founder Dan West.
That’s when the moment happened: When the song was finished, we gave Andy a long standing ovation.
This might not seem like that big of a deal, but consider that of the several songs that Brother Andy sang during Annual Conference, this was the only time we gave him a standing ovation. Something about this was different.
My hunch is that “Cowboy Dan” gave us a chance to feel good again about being Brethren. We had just spent the better part of three business sessions debating if or how to discipline pastors who officiate at same-sex weddings. It was a painful conversation. The proposal from Standing Committee was opposed by some who feel it is time to welcome LGBT persons into full fellowship of the church, including marriage. It was supported by some who felt it maintained a New Testament understanding of marriage. It was opposed by others who may not be ready to bless same-sex weddings, but who were troubled by a recommendation that proposed a severe penalty for one particular violation of Brethren polity, while other parts of polity—such as the ordination of women and biblical peace witness—are openly opposed by some pastors and congregations. In the end we did what we often do and referred the matter to a committee.
At that moment, I don’t believe many were feeling good about our church. But then Andy sang “Cowboy Dan” and it helped us remember those parts of our tradition that we do feel good about: seagoing cowboys accompanying livestock to starving victims of war; disaster response teams rebuilding homes and caring for children; our significant financial support of the Nigeria Crisis Fund.
We Brethren can be a curious lot. For a denomination that puts such an emphasis on peace and reconciliation, we are stubbornly passive-aggressive and conflict-avoidant. We love referring difficult items of business to committees. There are many reasons why that is, but perhaps one is that we want Annual Conference to represent the best of our aspirations, not the worst of our fears. We want to come together each summer to celebrate what we are doing, not lament what we once were or argue over what we might become. And so we continue to refer controversial items to some other committee to wrestle with, even as we graciously yield the microphone to those with whom we disagree.
Knowing how to be in relationship with LGBT persons might yet prove to be unresolvable for the church. To pretend otherwise would be foolish. But in the midst of these times, we should remember the power that a cow in the exhibit hall and a Brethren folk song can have on our self-awareness. We may not be all that we can be. But we are certainly more than we might be. And in a world struggling with violence, the worth of persons, and even knowing how to talk with one another, we Brethren might be different in all the right ways. Let’s risk hope together and see where it gets us.
Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.