June 2017: Annual Conference
A 'Review and Recommendation' of Review and Evaluation and Committee's recommendations regarding On Earth Peace and denominational relationships
At this year’s Annual Conference, there are four recommendations from the Review and Evaluation committee that impact the relationship of On Earth Peace to Church of the Brethren, Inc. While these recommendations are not directly connected to BMC/SCN advocacy work, they are primarily impacted by the 2011 On Earth Peace “Statement of Inclusion,” which calls for full participation by persons of LGBTQ identity in the life and ministry of the church. This is a strong statement, but refrains from specific calls for what ‘full participation’ means, even though Review and Evaluation interprets it to the broadest extent.
Business Item #4
Review and Evaluation of Business Item #4: The Authority of Annual Conference and Districts regarding the Accountability of Ministers, Congregations and Districts
The Leadership Team had a difficult task assigned to it, and worked hard at being faithful to that task in a relatively short time.
We appreciated the team’s careful review of current Annual Conference Statements and Polity that address questions of authority and accountability. The genius and the frustration of Brethren thinking and being is evidenced in the report’s description of the delicate dance that occurs between forbearance, individual conscience, community authority, and accountability in the struggle to determine the mind of Christ for our times. These tensions require movements between majority perceptions and minority dissent, strict rules and prophetic openness, unwavering judgment and hopeful mercy. They demand tenacity, a commitment to relationship, a tolerance for ambiguity, and a willingness to trust in the best intentions of each other.
The descriptive nature of the report shifts on page 9 and raises the following concerns:
1. New Polity is Established
Polity reflects the procedures by which the church conducts its business. It is our agreed upon rules of conduct and practice. Because polity establishes this common ground, changes in polity are serious endeavors that usually require two distinct votes in two separate years, with the final change requiring a two-thirds majority.
Although not directed by Annual Conference to do so, the report moves to the matter of same sex weddings beginning on page 9. Several assertions are made:
At this time, ministers and congregations are not authorized by Annual Conference to perform same sex weddings. Interestingly, Annual Conference has never authorized any weddings and the language of the amendment to the 1983 Paper on Human Sexuality does not specify polity on this question. Instead, it is a position of the church. This might seem a trivial point, but there are important differences between polity and position.
A majority of the delegate body is clearly opposed to homosexual covenantal relationships. This assumes knowledge that the Leadership Team simply does not have. To our knowledge, no study has been commissioned to determine this information.
These unjustified assertions are used to move towards a “solution.” The report confusingly vacillates between ministerial conduct and misconduct and then names specific procedures that are to be followed if a pastor performs a same sex wedding. The District Ministry Commission is vested with the authority to determine what happens with the pastor. This is clearly polity; it lays out specific rules, procedures, and paths of authority that are to be followed when/if a pastor performs a same sex wedding. The Leadership Team and District Executives have overstepped their assignment.
In the follow up document Frequently Asked Questions, the Leadership Team indicated that the process used in responding to pastors who officiate at same sex weddings is “standard practice” used by District Executives. However, what is this “standard practice”? When was it implemented? Who had input? How was it communicated? In what situations has it been used in the past? It becomes immediately clear that this is something new, and that, despite Leadership Team claims to the contrary, this practice exists for nothing else besides marriage equality.
Given that pastors can lose their credentials and even their livelihood through this process, this is a very serious move. More specifically, it establishes procedures that will disproportionately punish progressive pastors and congregations.
2. The Report Implies that Polity Permits Expelling Congregations
As noted in their FAQ, denominational polity does not speak of expelling congregations, although this term was used in the report. The Leadership Team recommends replacing expel with “disorganizing,” yet offer no indication as to any real difference. Disorganizing congregations has only come at the request of the congregation itself because of dwindling numbers or an inability to maintain upkeep on a property. We know of no instance when it was forced upon a thriving congregation because of theological differences. Introducing “disorganizing” as a way to expel congregations for supporting same sex marriage establishes a chilling precedence that distorts the polity intent of ‘disorganizing’.
3. The Sole Recommendation, that the Leadership Team and CODE Develop "A Compelling Vision" for the Church, is Problematic.
The Council of District Executives is not recognized within Brethren polity. In addition, the tasks of the Leadership Team as outlined in the COB Polity Manual do not include the charge to discern a vision for the church. This appears to be overreach on the part of the Leadership Team and CODE.
However, there remains a larger problem beyond polity. The recommendation seems to indicate that discovering a “compelling vision” will somehow enable us to leave behind the tensions and division reflected in our current struggles. Not only is this unlikely, but it ignores the very real possibility that we are precisely where the Spirit is calling the church to be at this time. Vision does not magically appear via a committee meeting. Rather, vision is birthed on the margins. It is born out of the hard work of uncomfortable tension, tenacious struggle, intrepid imagination, and risk-taking hope for the sacred work of love and liberation. This is what we as welcoming congregations have learned in our four decades on this journey. Our decisions and actions have not been casually or carelessly enacted. Rather, they have reflected thoughtful discernment and honest wrestling with what it means to be a people of God who practice justice, love kindness, and desire to continue the bold and disrupting work of Jesus. As a result, we are living into a compelling vision of church that feels healthy, strong, compassionate and full.
Forming a committee to develop a “compelling vision” is more a distraction than a solution. As a welcoming community, our task is continue to creatively and lovingly support and care for one another, inviting others to join us as we continue to risk and act for the sake of our gospel vision.
For these reasons, the SCN Steering Committee recommends that delegates vote NO on Business Item #4.
Recommendation #6 – answering West Marva query
The Review and Evaluation Committee recommends to the 2017 Annual Conference that On Earth Peace no longer remain an agency of the Church of the Brethren.
Basis - “Do official agencies of the denomination have the authority to diverge from official Annual Conference positions and, if not, should those agencies retain their agency status? The answer to each of those questions, based on current polity and basic organizational understanding, is no.”
Problem – The Review and Evaluation committee never outlines what polity OEP is violating as an agency. It admits this contradiction in Recommendation #7, where it names that the committee ‘rejects the notion that there is a problem with an agency merely because some part of the agency’s program is controversial or uncomfortable to some within the denomination…. These particular concerns did not carry any weight in our recommendation concerning On Earth Peace’s agency status.’
SCN Recommendation – SCN delegates are encouraged to vote ‘no’ on this recommendation.
The Review and Evaluation Committee recommends to the 2017 Annual Conference that all congregations, districts, denominational, and agency staff find ways to involve the work of On Earth Peace in the ongoing mission and ministry of the Church of the Brethren.
Basis - “Our recommendation concerning On Earth Peace’s role as an agency is narrower than the queries themselves suggest. We find much to affirm in the ministry and perspective of On Earth Peace staff and board members, and we encourage all in the Church of the Brethren to find new ways to engage the work of On Earth Peace.”
Problem – There is no weight of polity or policy that would require congregations to support OEP or engage in its ministries. This recommendation seems to be intended as a ‘peace offering’ to OEP supporters, but is clearly inadequate. Moreover, Review and Evaluation, in the first sentence of the basis, appears to minimize the role of an agency in the COB, basically saying that removing OEP’s agency status is no big deal.
SCN Recommendation – SCN delegates are encouraged to vote ‘yes’ on this recommendation, and are equally encouraged to raise the lack of polity enforcement inherent in this recommendation, regardless of how the delegate body votes on Recommendation #6.
‘The Review and Evaluation Committee recommends to the 2017 Annual Conference that Query: Viability of On Earth Peace as an Agency of the Church of the Brethren be returned to the Southeastern District.’
Basis - ‘The Review and Evaluation committee seems to believe that the West Marva query is the stronger one; as such, they recommend returning this query to Southeastern and note that the primary questions of this query were answered in Recommendations #6 and #7.
Problem – The primary issue with this query was its premise, which Review and Evaluation also noted, in the assumption of overlapping duties between the Mission and Ministry Board and On Earth Peace.
SCN Recommendation – SCN delegates are encouraged to vote ‘yes’ on this recommendation.
The Review and Evaluation Committee recommends to the 2017 Annual Conference that Standing Committee rescind the 2014 rejection of On Earth Peace’s Statement of Inclusion.
Basis - ‘In rejecting the Statement of Inclusion, Standing Committee would seem to be approving the exclusion of persons based on “gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.” Yet, Annual Conference has long granted women and persons of differing ethnicities full participation in the life of the church…’
Problem – Review and Evaluation’s interpretation is accurate. The problem is this recommendation is ‘too little, too late,’ and is another way of seeking to ‘placate’ those who support On Earth Peace. It serves no real purpose, other than administrative congruency.
SCN Recommendation – SCN delegates are encouraged to vote ‘yes’ on this recommendation.