Annual Conference Sets in Motion a Denomination-Wide Conversation About Issues of Human Sexuality

223rd Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren
San Diego, California — June 28, 2009

Annual Conference acted on two business items related to issues of human sexuality today, 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 Annual Conference 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, which was adopted yesterday (see the story, “Delegates pass revision of paper to deal with 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.

“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 on the two items. 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 at the microphones 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 James Myer, a minister at White Oak Church of the Brethren in Manheim, Pa., and a leader in the Brethren Revival Fellowship. He spoke in support of the recommendation for a denominational conversation, but “with some reluctance” he said, because the church already has worked on this for 30 years. He said his support came out of observing the Standing Committee process in creating its statement, “that it was possible in this day and time to come up with something that received unanimous approval.”

The delegate body also experienced some confusion as it addressed motions attempting to allow the two items to be dealt with together. The items came to the Conference as separate business, with the “Statement of Confession and Commitment” on the agenda just prior to the query, but the Standing Committee recommendations on the two were presented together. A motion that would have brought the query up for consideration during discussion of the first item failed to meet a two-thirds vote requirement.

A decision on the “Statement of Confession and Commitment” accepted it as a special response statement, using the process for dealing with strongly controversial issues. When the delegates turned to the query as the next item of business, after some further discussion, the Conference adopted a motion that the concern of the query be accepted and its intent be combined with the Statement of Confession in the strongly controversial issues process.

An amendment failed that proposed during the special response process for the Annual Conference exhibit hall guidelines to “be applied consistently to all requests for exhibit space from groups in the church who are led to disagree with certain denominational policies.”

–Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren.

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The News Team for the 2009 Annual Conference includes writers Karen Garrett, Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend, Melissa Troyer, Rich Troyer; photographers Glenn Riegel, Ken Wenger, Justin Hollenberg, Keith Hollenberg, Kay Guyer; staff Becky Ullom and Amy Heckert. Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, editor. Contact
cobnews@brethren.org.