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BMC at COB Annual Conference: Reflections

Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. - Nietzsche

The context in which the lgbtq and allied community gathered for the 2016 Church of the Brethren Annual Conference was fraught with challenges:

  • The deadliest mass shooting in modern US history just occurred at a gay nightclub during Gay Pride Month, leaving 49 lgbt or lgbt supportive people dead, and 53 more injured.

  • The conference was being held in Greensboro, North Carolina where legislators had recently called a special session in order to enact the most anti-lgbt piece of legislation in the country.

  • Three of the five queries that were coming to the COB Standing Committee as potential business items had at their root anti-lgbt sentiment.

  • Standing Committee was to hear an appeal related to actions taken by the Shenandoah District to remove the ordination of Bridgewater Church of the Brethren pastor, Chris Zepp, for officiating at a same-sex wedding.

  • The last time that the COB had openly addressed lgbt related issues was in Grand Rapids, a conference that included a death threat that was directed towards a lesbian woman because of her sexual orientation.

Social change theory suggests that genuine progress by marginalized groups often unleashes a fierce backlash, something that we have seen throughout history. Privileged groups that feel threatened frequently resort to acts of overt coercion that include personal intimidation or systemic bullying in order to reestablish the degree of conformity that was once tacitly assumed. The queries as well as the actions by Shenandoah District reflect this dynamic. It was also starkly articulated by the response of Standing Committee to the query regarding pastoral participation in same sex weddings. In a somewhat unprecedented fashion, Standing Committee offered a very concrete, punitive, and polity-altering answer to the query:

I suspect that the reason for the harsh response was an attempt by some Standing Committee members to deliver a sound anti-lgbtq victory to the evangelical fundamentalist wing of the church. This modern phenomenon has seen growth within the denomination over the decades. Empowered by leadership practices of accommodation, many of these congregations are now at a place where they are ready to make good on their continuous threats to leave.

As often happens when people are overly eager to be punitive and definitive, the Standing Committee over reached. Instead of derailing anticipated concerns about individual conscience, the response ignited a fierce push back of its own. Several very eloquent and compelling speeches about the role of conscience in Brethren thought and history were offered, and it soon became apparent that the recommendation would not receive the required 2/3 vote to pass (although it did receive a simple majority vote.) Interestingly, the section related to individual conscience turned out to be the Achilles heel of the recommendation.

Thus, it appears that while the COB remains disturbingly hostile to lgbtq people, a significant number are not yet willing to relinquish all of their deeply held values to enforce this sentiment. The query was eventually referred to the Annual Conference Leadership team (moderator, moderator elect and Annual Conference secretary) and the Council of District Executives. Although I would have preferred to see the query simply returned to the district, it is encouraging that at least some of those who are most directly impacted (i.e. district executives) are offered some input into the decision.

As for BMC, a major goal at Annual Conference was to help our constituencies be able to meet the challenges of the conference with a dignified strength, quiet confidence, and non-anxious presence. We sought ways to stand up for ourselves in ways that are consistent with our commitment to non-violence, our respect for the dignity of each person, and our desire to act as an aware and loving community. Towards this end, we did several things:

First, we enlisted the expertise of Matt Guynn, Program Director of Nonviolent Social Change at On Earth Peace, to provide some pragmatic and effective tools and strategies to help ground and empower us as we began Annual Conference. Matt was exquisite in his leadership as he led an overflowing room through a series of helpful exercises and practice. (Photo right)

Second, our worship service offered a time to remember the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, a tragedy whose remembrance was notably absent in formal Annual Conference proceedings. Bonnie Kline Smeltzer offered a rich and moving sermon that explored the power of hope in the midst of struggle. We were also grateful for the sensitive musical presence of Mutual Kumquat. To read Bonnie's sermon, click here.

Third, Sara Haldeman-Scarr led the organization of a witness against HB2, a harsh anti-lgbt measure that was passed by the North Carolina legislators in a special session. The measure also targeted low income workers and was particularly hostile towards transgender people. The witness wound its way through the hotel/convention setting, ending with a very moving singing of I See a New World Coming. (Photo left)

Fourth, thanks to the work of Kim McDowell, a list of supportive pastors was available throughout the conference to serve as chaplains for anyone feeling the burden of Annual Conference and needing support or a caring presence.

It has been painful to watch the Church of the Brethren, with its powerful tradition of non-violence, conscience, kindness and openness to new revelation from scripture; deteriorate into a punitive, fearful and rigid institution. At the same time, there is something beautiful happening around the margins – a resurrection of hope, of gentle strength and careful power. Regardless of what happens to the institution, it seems to me that the Brethren Movement remains in good stead.

The balloons for BMC's booth (first picture in this article) were provided by Womaen's Caucus.

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