“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him….” — Ephesians 4:15a
DISTRICTS DEAL WITH DIVISIONS OVER SEXUALITY, AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE
Divisions over issues of sexuality, the authority of scripture, and other related issues have surfaced in recent months in at least three districts in the Church of the Brethren. The districts of Northern Plains, South/Central Indiana, and Illinois and Wisconsin are dealing with divisions in different ways.
Northern Plains District
In Northern Plains, “our board is trying to deal with this in a way that we actually talk with each other,” said former executive minister Connie Burkholder, in an interview conducted while she was still serving the district. Divisive issues for the district are not just about sexuality, but also the authority of scripture, Jesus Christ as the only savior, and disagreement over use of funds.
Another concern, Burkholder said, is whether new church projects will welcome homosexuals without expecting them to change. Open Circle Church of the Brethren in Burnsville, Minn., the newest congregation in the district, has become a focal point for the concerns.
A factor in the situation was a decision by the district board to give a loan–taken in part from money gained in the sale of Camp Mon-Dak–to Open Circle to pay off its mortgage. Brethren in the area of the camp had relinquished claim to the camp property, although some still felt connected with the camp, said Burkholder.
Six congregations have sent letters to the district on various concerns related to these issues. One was framed as queries for district conference. The district also has received communications from “people at the opposite end of the theological perspective,” Burkholder said, including a letter from Open Circle explaining its viewpoint.
The district board invited congregations to a day of prayer in mid-May, outlining in the invitation the main issues it perceived in the district. The district board also began planning for a district face-to-face conversation.
That gathering took place Oct. 7-8 at Camp Pine Lake. The main focus of discussion related to homosexuality and church leadership, said Tim Button-Harrison, who is currently serving as interim district executive. “The gathering really was giving members of the district an opportunity to be in respectful conversation with one another, and to both listen and share the range of views represented in our district,” he said. More than 150 people attended, representing most of the congregations.
The district has benefited from the gathering “to bring us together as the church and prayerfully listen and share with one another,” Button-Harrison said. Also, the district board has received a 15-page document of participant feedback to the gathering, including individual responses and some group responses from congregations. The feedback ranged from appreciation for the gathering, personal insights gained, and benefits gained for the district, to identification of frustrations and disappointments, hopes for a resolution to differences, and ideas for what the district board’s next steps should be.
Many in the district “desire to work at these issues in a different kind of way that is upbuilding of the church and honors the variety of ways of understanding that are in our churches,” Button-Harrison said. “We feel called to draw from the best of who we are to model another way.”
South/Central Indiana District
South/Central Indiana District also has attempted a process of dialogue in response to Manchester Church of the Brethren, an “open and affirming” congregation in North Manchester, Ind., according to executive minister Allen Kahler. However, district meetings for dialogue and discussion have not healed divisions.
Instead, on Oct. 21, a specially called district conference responded to Manchester’s holding of a same-sex covenant ceremony by deciding to sanction any church that holds a covenant service in the future. The decision was not retroactive, and Manchester is not under sanction at this time.
The action of the district conference, which was recommended by the district board, stated that a congregation “that allows a same-sex covenant service on church property or with the assistance of church ministerial leadership will have a three-year moratorium placed upon their participation in elected and appointed district offices, including seating delegates at district conference.”
It also includes follow-up activities a congregation under sanction will be required to “submit to,” possibly including work with the district board, the Ministry of Reconciliation of On Earth Peace, and the Annual Conference Council; and direction to suspend the holding of covenant services on church property or with the assistance of the church’s ministers.
The conflict in the district has been brewing for many years, beginning as early as 1996 when Manchester decided to become “open and affirming.” The congregation’s decision-making process included a lengthy study of sexuality from a biblical and scientific perspective. With 605 members, Manchester is by far the largest congregation in South/Central Indiana District–the next largest having 264 members (statistics from the 2006 “Church of the Brethren Yearbook.”)
In 2002 the district sent a query to Annual Conference, which was answered in 2004 by the paper “Congregational Disagreement with Annual Conference Decisions.” (For the full answer to the query go to www.brethren.org/ac/ac_statements/2004DisagreeAC.html.)
The district also created an advisory council that included members from Manchester. The advisory council functioned for a year or more, Kahler said, and it attempted to find a way to have conversation between differing groups, helped keep the district board apprised of the situation, and helped care for the situation of conflict while the district board continued to do the regular business of the district.
Then came news of the same-sex covenant ceremony at Manchester in October last year. District leaders met with leaders of the congregation. There followed a series of written communications between the congregation and the district board, and the board also received communications from other congregations about the issue.
A final letter from the district board to the Manchester congregation, sent earlier this year, reportedly was perceived by the district and the congregation in very different ways, according to Kahler: it was perceived by the district board as a statement of last steps in the process Annual Conference has outlined in the event of congregational disagreement, but may have been perceived by the congregation as a threat.
On June 11, Manchester reaffirmed its “open and affirming” position in a congregational business meeting. It communicated that commitment in a letter to the district board, which also requested that the district engage in a process of reconciliation.
The district board, however, responded instead by making its recommendation to sanction congregations, and scheduled the specially called district conference. At that Oct. 21 meeting, attempts to amend the recommendation failed and it passed by a two-thirds majority.
Illinois and Wisconsin District
In Illinois and Wisconsin District, leaders have been working in several ways to hold together congregations that are in very different places on issues of human sexuality. The variety of efforts have included visits to all congregations by the district moderator, an invitation for congregations to respond to a draft of a “District Covenant,” and a time for open prayer for concerns of the district at this year’s district conference.
The district has been in conversation about issues of sexuality for at least two years. The district includes three congregations that are “open and affirming” or have statements of welcome for people of all sexual orientations.
In June 2004, five congregations proposed a query titled “The Church of the Brethren Position on Homosexuality and Lesbianism.” The query was received during a year of transition in the district. The district’s transition team attempted a series of meetings with representatives or members of the five congregations, and then determined that the query was not made in proper form. The five congregations reframed and resubmitted the query, and five more congregations joined the original group.
After several months of study, a district study team determined that the query had already been answered by Annual Conference. The query was returned along with a detailed response providing information that supported the answers to the query, according to Kevin Kessler, who has been named district executive minister to begin in the new year.
In the meantime, Springfield (Ill.) Church of the Brethren announced its position as “open and affirming.”
District leaders are continuing conversation with the 10 congregations, which have not resubmitted the query and have not filed a formal grievance with the district, and with the Springfield congregation. Astoria (Ill.) Church of the Brethren, however, has sent a letter of grievance directly to the Annual Conference officers.
District leaders have tried to be very careful in responding to the query, to the 10 congregations that brought it, and to the Springfield congregation, said former district executive minister Jim Yaussy Albright, interviewed for this article while he was still serving the district. “The study team was balanced, (including) people who think homosexuality is a sin and those who do not,” he said. In its dealings with Springfield, the district has been equally careful, and has tried to follow the latest Annual Conference guidelines.
“Christ made us brothers and sisters,” Albright said. “We didn’t choose it. We are covenanted to deal with each other despite the differences.”
(For relevant Annual Conference statements referenced in this article, see www.brethren.org/ac/ac_statements/83HumanSexuality.htm for the 1983 “Human Sexuality from a Christian Perspective”; www.brethren.org/ac/ac_statements/79BiblicalInspiration%26Authority.htm for the 1979 “Biblical Inspiration and Authority”; www.brethren.org/ac/ac_statements/98NewTestament.htm for the 1998 “The New Testament as Our Rule of Faith and Practice”; and www.brethren.org/ac/ac_statements/2004DisagreeAC.html for the 2004 “Congregational Disagreement with Annual Conference Decisions.”)
–Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren General Board. She is a member of Illinois and Wisconsin District, at Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren.