Progressive Brethren Gathering Hears from Seminary President

Bethany Seminary president Ruthann Knechel Johansen called for a new sense of wonder in a time of “dis-ease,” as she gave the keynote address to the Progressive Brethren Gathering this past weekend in North Manchester, Ind.

Bethany Theological Seminary president Ruthann Knechel Johansen was the keynote speaker at the 2010 Progressive Brethren Gathering held in N. Manchester, Ind., this past weekend. Photo by Joel Brumbaugh-Cayford

The meeting brought more than 200 people from across the country to gather at Manchester Church of the Brethren and Manchester College. Sponsored by Womaen’s Caucus, Voices for an Open Spirit, and the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Interests (BMC), the gathering explored the theme “Forward Together: Conversations Towards an Enlivened Community.”

The timing of the meeting–while Special Response hearings related to issues of sexuality are being held in each district of the Church of the Brethren–made the denominational conversation a backdrop and context for discussion.

“Why or how is this moment in our history different than all other moments?” Johansen asked–one of several questions in which she juxtaposed a “holy order” or a “compassionate and just order” over against evidence of dis-ease and disorder in church and society.

Reviewing times of disorder in the biblical record and church history, and current social disorders, she asserted that, “We are entangled in the cultural value of unmindful domination.” This leads to abstracting people into issues, she said, and to attitudes like sexism, militarism, homophobia, racism, materialism.

“How shall we disenthrall ourselves” in the face of our own disorders? she asked. Her answer pointed to the order found in the created universe, a natural world she sees as having been given the power to shift and create anew. The example of the root system of the redwood forests offers a model of order for a time of disorder, she noted, as a network of trees that yet maintain individuality.

Another resource for dealing with disorder is the history of forebearance in the Church of the Brethren, Johansen said. She pointed to instances in which congregations have not been forced to comply with Annual Conference decisions, even over historically contentious issues such as the ordination of women and the peace witness.

Forebearance, however, requires discernment–and “discerning the role of boundaries or rules is particularly difficult in the church,” she said, especially when the secular world calls for sharp divides.

The ultimate solution is to become “incarnational people,” she concluded. Incarnational people, she said, are those who accept the invitation to incarnation with Jesus Christ, who embrace the gift of human embodiment–and sexuality, and who choose to be relational. Incarnation is made possible through the Spirit of God, and without a spiritual awakening, she warned, the church will not realize the Spirit in its midst and will not see the boundary walls already broken down.

“We must carry the incarnation out of the Bible, out of glib protestations of the faith, and into our own bodies,” she said. “There we may meet one another in all our holy diversity.”

In closing, before taking questions, Johansen pointed to a sense of wonder as the key to incarnational living, and to finding “holy order” in a difficult time. Wonder will aid the church in its task of discernment, she said. Wonder also may reduce our anxiety, and lead us back to the study of scripture with greater sensitivity, she added.

Wonder presents the possibility that “new dimensions of God’s reign may arise,” she said. “Wonder is, I think, the soil that nurtures love.”

The gathering also included an afternoon of workshops, and daily worship services. Messages were brought by Debbie Eisenbise, pastor of Skyridge Church of the Brethren in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Kreston Lipscomb, pastor of Springfield (Ill.) Church of the Brethren. The Sunday morning service was held with Manchester Church of the Brethren. Evening activities included a concert by Mutual Kumquat and a square dance.

The college hosted a banquet Saturday evening, followed by a playful exercise asking the gathering to rate how it felt about 15 word pairs under categories such as “Our church” and “What we want” and “What to do.” The exercise seemed aimed at revealing how progressive Brethren feel about the denomination, and how they want to respond to decisions of Annual Conference.

In a Sunday school session held after the closing worship service, participants in the gathering and members of the Manchester congregation shared experiences of attending Special Response hearings in different districts. Experiences ranged from very negative to quite positive, from one man’s statement that, “It (the process) was set up for failure,” to a woman’s testimony about a very “mindful” and well prepared process in her district.

However, a variety of concerns about the hearing process predominated in the ensuing discussion. As the session turned to the question of how to respond to eventualities at the 2011 Annual Conference, comments ranged widely from those who openly welcome a schism in the denomination, to those worried about the destructive nature of a church split, to those committed to staying in the denomination.

Carol Wise of BMC closed the gathering with a plea to provide care for people who during the Special Response hearings may be subjected to hurtful comments because of their sexual orientation or that of family members. “I’m very concerned about that as we move through this process,” she said, “the way we’ve put a particular community on display and on trial.”

(Information about the Church of the Brethren’s Special Response process is at .)

Go to to subscribe to the Church of the Brethren Newsline free e-mail news service and receive church news every other week.

[gt-link lang="en" label="English" widget_look="flags_name"]