223rd Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren
San Diego, California — June 25, 2009
The Standing Committee of district delegates made recommendations on new items of business coming to the Annual Conference, acted on a proposal for a new denominational visioning committee, received a report on the international church, held a consultation with leaders of the church’s agencies and district executives, elected members to its Nominating Committee and Appeals Committee, and heard an appeal (in closed sessions), in meetings that began June 23. An afternoon of sharing from districts started the Standing Committee meetings.
Recommendations on Items of New Business
New Business Item 1, “A Structural Framework for Dealing with Strongly Controversial Issues”:
Standing Committee passed the document on for approval by the 2009 Annual Conference.
The document is a revision of a 1988 paper outlining a process for dealing with strongly controversial issues. The revision follows up on a decision of the 2002 Conference, giving the former Annual Conference Council responsibility to update the paper. The council in turn appointed a committee to update the paper and present a revision.
The revision gives guidelines for how Standing Committee and Annual Conference will identify and deal with queries that may generate adversarial stances. The proposed three-year process includes appointment of a “Resource Committee” representing diverse perspectives on the issue to develop study materials; facilitated hearings at Annual Conference and in districts; and a special procedure for presenting such queries to the Conference.
In presenting the revision, Annual Conference secretary Fred Swartz noted that the process has never been used, and that the revision “hopefully will help us to use the paper.”
New Business Item 2, “Query: Language on Same-Sex Covenantal Relationships,” and Item 4, “Statement of Confession and Commitment”:
Standing Committee grouped together its response to these two items of business, recommended that Annual Conference approve the “Statement of Confession and Commitment” as a special response statement and use the procedure for dealing with strongly controversial issues, and recommended that the query be postponed until a future time.
“Query: Language on Same-Sex Covenantal Relationships”–initiated by Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren in Fort Wayne, Ind., and approved by Northern Indiana District–petitions the Conference “to consider 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 church’s 1983 Human Sexuality Paper stating that same-sex covenantal relationships are “not acceptable.” The “Statement of Confession and Commitment” was adopted by Standing Committee last year and addresses the issue of homosexuality as one that “continues to bring tension and division within our Body” and confesses that, “We are not of one mind on this matter.” The statement declares that the church’s 1983 paper on Human Sexuality “remains our official position,” but also acknowledges tension between different parts of the 1983 paper.
The Standing Committee’s final decision on the two items came at the end of a lengthy discussion that took up most of the day Thursday, June 25, and included a rescinding of earlier motions on the two items. The committee also set aside Roberts Rules of Order for a period of time following a close vote recommending that the query, and not the Standing Committee statement, be treated as needing special response. The moderator instructed each member of the committee to explain his or her vote, and the ensuing time of sharing included personal stories, theological and biblical convictions, concerns for the health of the church, concerns for justice for individuals who may be affected, and fears of a division in the Church of the Brethren over issues of sexuality.
New Business Item 3, “Query: Secret Oath-Bound Societies”:
Standing Committee recommended reaffirmation of the brief statement of the 1954 Annual Conference, “Membership in Secret Societies,” as an adequate answer to the questions raised by the query. (Find the 1954 paper at www.cobannualconference.org/ac_statements/1954__Secret_Oath-Bound_Societies.pdf .)
The query from Dry Run (Pa.) Church of the Brethren, approved by Southern Pennyslvania District, cites a number of scriptures such as 2 Timothy 3:16-17, John 8:31-32, Matthew 5:33-34, 2 Corinthians 6:14-17, and Ephesians 5:7-17, in requesting that Conference take action to give clarity to the issue. The query states in part that “it is clear that membership in these societies constitutes a dual allegiance” and that there is confusion among Brethren about secret oath-bound societies.
Standing Committee talked about whether the problem of secret oath-bound societies is widespread among Brethren, and discussed the 1954 paper, which is the church’s most recent guidance on membership in such societies. Southern Pennsylvania representative Larry Dentler identified the 1954 paper as one that “still seems contemporary” in its approach, while other Standing Committee members expressed a desire to update the church’s response given changes in culture over the decades. Some characterized the 1954 paper as helpful in its wider approach of also speaking to other organizations, such as sports clubs, that may detract from commitment to the church.
New Business Item 5, “Bylaws of the Church of the Brethren, Inc.”:
The bylaws document was presented as an item of information to Standing Committee, with an opportunity for a question and answer session with general secretary Stan Noffsinger. It will be presented to this year’s Annual Conference for information, with an invitation for delegates to provide suggestions for improvements to the denomination’s Leadership Team. The document will come back to the 2010 Annual Conference for action.
This revision of the church’s bylaws follows on a decision last year to unite the former Association of Brethren Caregivers with the former General Board in a new entity called the Church of the Brethren. The revision shortens down to 17 pages a document first presented last year at 45 pages. Noffsinger reported that at the recommendation of legal counsel, the revision removed church polity language from the bylaws while still including a requirement for the Church of the Brethren to abide by the decisions of Annual Conference–maintaining a relationship to denominational polity that is “binding on the corporation,” he said.
Denominational Envisioning Committee
In other business, the Standing Committee approved the formation of a new committee for the denomination, which will have the task of discerning a long-range vision for the Church of the Brethren for each upcoming decade. The committee was recommended by the Church of the Brethren’s Leadership Team, which includes the Annual Conference officers and the general secretary, and the Inter-Agency Forum.
In its decision, Standing Committee directed that the Vision Committee be implemented quickly enough to create a vision for the coming decade 2011-2020. It also amended the paper outlining a charter for the new committee to include the charge to be “immersed in prayer, seeking God’s purpose for our denomination.”
The new Vision Committee will be appointed in the fifth year of the previous decade, to create a vision for the next decade, to report in the eighth year of the previous decade. The eight-member committee will include a member from the Church of the Brethren staff or Mission and Ministry Board, a representative of each Annual Conference agency (Bethany Theological Seminary, Brethren Benefit Trust, and On Earth Peace), and four members appointed by Standing Committee from the membership of the denomination.
Moderator Shumate commented about the new committee, “I see it as a matter of leadership…for the time and place that we’re in.”
Given its creation of a new denominational Vision Committee, the Standing Committee also decided to discontinue is own envisioning committee.
Standing Committee meetings conclude tomorrow morning, June 26, with another closed session to continue hearing an appeal, decisions on presenters for its recommendations on business, and decisions on which Conference business will require a two-thirds vote. The meeting will close with a time of counsel with Annual Conference moderator David Shumate, who also serves as moderator of the Standing Committee.
–Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren.