Brethren seek to clarify issues of authority

Jun 5, 2017 by and

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Like many denominations, the Church of the Brethren is weighing the degrees of uniformity and diversity it can accommodate.

One of the business items to be considered at the annual conference June 28-July 2 in Grand Rapids, Mich., suggests the body’s districts have considerable room to determine how each treats controversial matters such as same-sex relationships and women in ministry.

'Risk Hope' is the theme for the 2017 Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren.

‘Risk Hope’ is the theme for the 2017 Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren.

By confirming existing understandings while allowing districts the power to implement them, the proposal from leadership encourages Brethren on both the liberal and conservative wings to shift their focus to the many points they agree upon.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationally prompted West Marva District to submit a query to last year’s annual conference, where delegates tasked the Breth­ren Leadership Team to clarify uncertainty in some districts about where authority is lodged.

The team’s response, “The Authority of Annual Conference and Districts Regarding the Accountability of Ministers, Congregations and Districts,” doesn’t introduce any new polity or rules. Instead, it restates the Church of the Brethren’s traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman and clarifies that districts have the power to oversee matters of ordination.

“That’s the controversy about the paper — it doesn’t do anything new,” said moderator Carol Sheppard. “It simply clarifies where we’re at, so it’s unsatisfactory for many people.”

As the team worked on its response last fall, she observed “panic and lobbying” as factions assumed the process would develop new operational standards for the Brethren, who have a heritage of balancing theological uniformity with some diversity.

“But at a meeting with executives in January — it took four days to argue this through — everyone came to consensus that this is the best we can do,” Sheppard said. “And if we try to push it in one way or another, it will rip us apart, so we sit in the middle, not making everyone perfectly happy but attempting to live with one another and prioritizing that.

“. . . There are those that would certainly lobby for a big hammer for everyone to wield the same way. The caution that this paper gives them is, if you have a big hammer for same-sex marriage, the same big hammer is for women in ministry. The same big hammer is for church property matters.”

Varying perspectives

West Marva executive minister Kendal Elmore describes his district as theologically conservative. He said members of most of his congregations — located in West Virginia and Maryland — believe that Breth­ren congregations should welcome people regardless of their sexual orientation but that Scripture limits ministry roles for nonheterosexuals who are not celibate.

Elmore said that upon the Supreme Court’s ruling, a large and influential congregation in the neighboring Shenandoah District “almost immediately” authorized its pastors to perform any legal marriage.

“Those things caused a great deal of consternation,” he said.

Elmore said the leadership team’s response meets his concerns. He is a member of the Council of District Executives, which spent Jan. 24-26 working on the document. Like Sheppard, he described the paper as not changing anything but offering a more helpful way of understanding what the denomination agrees upon.

The document does not authorize ministers or congregations to perform same-sex weddings.

“There are some who are not happy with it but think they can live with it,” he said. “They perceive it doesn’t have any teeth in it. I don’t perceive it that way.”

Perspectives on the matter vary, and not just among conservatives.

Western Plains executive minister Sonja Griffith’s district leans toward congregational autonomy.

She sees the proposal returning the Brethren to more district autonomy by specifying each district can decide how it will respond in any cases of discipline that might arise with credentialed pastors. This is more in line with past actions that left decisions to districts.

“There was a time when annual conference would not countenance women in ministry,” she said. “Now they do. There are still churches that won’t accept that from women, but here in Western Plains we have 12 women in full- or part-time ministry out of 35 churches.

“So it’s almost always been left to districts to actually carry out the overall stance of the church, and in many cases the districts have begun to change, and gradually that begins to change the stance of the overall church.

“It’s not a one-way street in the Church of the Brethren, and I don’t think it is in Mennonite Church USA.”

Uncertain chances

Neither executive minister would speculate whether or not the item will be approved by delegates or how it might change on the floor through amendments. A committee won’t determine whether it needs a simple majority or two-thirds approval until a few days before annual conference.

“If it passes in the state it’s in, I can help our folks understand this is not a time to run away,” Elmore said of congregations potentially withdrawing. “If it fails — and it appears a drift is going toward something that would be more permissive — we’ll see a season of chaos.”

Griffith hopes the proposal gives the Brethren a chance to unite around their distinctive elements, such as peacemaking, baptism by immersion at the age of consent, love feast communion recreating the Last Supper and blessing by anointing.

“We can center around all these different things we have that are precious to us, and I hope that we do,” she said. “I wish we could center on things that bind us together.”

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