Thursday, November 23, 2006

More of the Spirit of Thanksgiving

A group effort this year, the dressed turkey is in the oven, the potatoes are cooking on the stove, the table set, and I'm taking a break to read/write!

On this national day set aside to giving thanks for the promise of freedom from religious persecution and the sharing of a meal with those who are culturally different, comes this news which I will share for those who--like me--may not be well connected with news from the news services of the Church of the Brethern denomination. (Now I am only because I recently joined the Voices of the Spirit listserve.)

Before I post the article, I give thanks in cyberspace for my "liberalchurch" and it's members and pastor. Open Circle is my home on my religious pilgrimmage and I am very thankful for its shelter--or should I say I'm thankful for it's openness. Not so much like a shelter, but more like a place where I/we can be more uncomfortable than comfortable. Both challenged and nurtured at the same time!

Now, here's the news--hang on, it's a long but important story for those who know just how important church polity can be for their church and their pastor friends!

Newsline Extra
Nov. 22, 2006
"But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way intohim...." Ephesians 4:15a


Divisions over issues of sexuality, the authority of scripture, and otherrelated issues have surfaced in recent months in at least three districts inthe Church of the Brethren. The districts of Northern Plains,South/Central Indiana, and Illinois and Wisconsin are dealing withdivisions in different ways.Northern Plains DistrictIn Northern Plains, "our board is trying to deal with this in a way that weactually talk with each other," said former executive minister ConnieBurkholder, in an interview conducted while she was still serving thedistrict. Divisive issues for the district are not just about sexuality, butalso the authority of scripture, Jesus Christ as the only savior, anddisagreement over use of funds.Another concern, Burkholder said, is whether new church projects willwelcome homosexuals without expecting them to change. Open CircleChurch of the Brethren in Burnsville, Minn., the newest congregation inthe district, has become a focal point for the concerns.A factor in the situation was a decision by the district board to give aloan--taken in part from money gained in the sale of Camp Mon-Dak--toOpen Circle to pay off its mortgage. Brethren in the area of the camp hadrelinquished claim to the camp property, although some still feltconnected with the camp, said Burkholder.Six congregations have sent letters to the district on various concernsrelated to these issues. One was framed as queries for district conference.The district also has received communications from "people at theopposite end of the theological perspective," Burkholder said, including aletter from Open Circle explaining its viewpoint.The district board invited congregations to a day of prayer in mid-May,outlining in the invitation the main issues it perceived in the district. Thedistrict board also began planning for a district face-to-face conversation.That gathering took place Oct. 7-8 at Camp Pine Lake. The main focus ofdiscussion related to homosexuality and church leadership, said TimButton-Harrison, who is currently serving as interim district executive."The gathering really was giving members of the district an opportunityto be in respectful conversation with one another, and to both listen andshare the range of views represented in our district," he said. More than150 people attended, representing most of the congregations.The district has benefited from the gathering "to bring us together as thechurch and prayerfully listen and share with one another," Button-Harrison said. Also, the district board has received a 15-page documentof participant feedback to the gathering, including individual responsesand some group responses from congregations. The feedback rangedfrom appreciation for the gathering, personal insights gained, andbenefits gained for the district, to identification of frustrations anddisappointments, hopes for a resolution to differences, and ideas for whatthe district board's next steps should be.Many in the district "desire to work at these issues in a different kind ofway that is upbuilding of the church and honors the variety of ways ofunderstanding that are in our churches," Button-Harrison said. "We feelcalled to draw from the best of who we are to model another way."South/Central Indiana DistrictSouth/Central Indiana District also has attempted a process of dialogue inresponse to Manchester Church of the Brethren, an "open and affirming"congregation in North Manchester, Ind., according to executive ministerAllen Kahler. However, district meetings for dialogue and discussionhave not healed divisions.Instead, on Oct. 21, a specially called district conference responded toManchester's holding of a same-sex covenant ceremony by deciding tosanction any church that holds a covenant service in the future. Thedecision was not retroactive, and Manchester is not under sanction at thistime.The action of the district conference, which was recommended by thedistrict board, stated that a congregation "that allows a same-sexcovenant service on church property or with the assistance of churchministerial leadership will have a three-year moratorium placed upontheir participation in elected and appointed district offices, includingseating delegates at district conference."It also includes follow-up activities a congregation under sanction will berequired to "submit to," possibly including work with the district board,the Ministry of Reconciliation of On Earth Peace, and the AnnualConference Council; and direction to suspend the holding of covenantservices on church property or with the assistance of the church'sministers.The conflict in the district has been brewing for many years, beginning asearly as 1996 when Manchester decided to become "open and affirming."The congregation's decision-making process included a lengthy study ofsexuality from a biblical and scientific perspective. With 605 members,Manchester is by far the largest congregation in South/Central IndianaDistrict--the next largest having 264 members (statistics from the 2006"Church of the Brethren Yearbook.")In 2002 the district sent a query to Annual Conference, which wasanswered in 2004 by the paper "Congregational Disagreement withAnnual Conference Decisions." (For the full answer to the query go district also created an advisory council that included members fromManchester. The advisory council functioned for a year or more, Kahlersaid, and it attempted to find a way to have conversation betweendiffering groups, helped keep the district board apprised of the situation,and helped care for the situation of conflict while the district boardcontinued to do the regular business of the district.Then came news of the same-sex covenant ceremony at Manchester inOctober last year. District leaders met with leaders of the congregation.There followed a series of written communications between thecongregation and the district board, and the board also receivedcommunications from other congregations about the issue.A final letter from the district board to the Manchester congregation, sentearlier this year, reportedly was perceived by the district and thecongregation in very different ways, according to Kahler: it wasperceived by the district board as a statement of last steps in the processAnnual Conference has outlined in the event of congregationaldisagreement, but may have been perceived by the congregation as athreat.On June 11, Manchester reaffirmed its "open and affirming" position in acongregational business meeting. It communicated that commitment in aletter to the district board, which also requested that the district engage ina process of reconciliation.The district board, however, responded instead by making itsrecommendation to sanction congregations, and scheduled the speciallycalled district conference. At that Oct. 21 meeting, attempts to amend therecommendation failed and it passed by a two-thirds majority.Illinois and Wisconsin DistrictIn Illinois and Wisconsin District, leaders have been working in severalways to hold together congregations that are in very different places onissues of human sexuality. The variety of efforts have included visits toall congregations by the district moderator, an invitation forcongregations to respond to a draft of a "District Covenant," and a timefor open prayer for concerns of the district at this year's districtconference.The district has been in conversation about issues of sexuality for at leasttwo years. The district includes three congregations that are "open andaffirming" or have statements of welcome for people of all sexualorientations.In June 2004, five congregations proposed a query titled "The Church ofthe Brethren Position on Homosexuality and Lesbianism." The query wasreceived during a year of transition in the district. The district's transitionteam attempted a series of meetings with representatives or members ofthe five congregations, and then determined that the query was not madein proper form. The five congregations reframed and resubmitted thequery, and five more congregations joined the original group.After several months of study, a district study team determined that thequery had already been answered by Annual Conference. The query wasreturned along with a detailed response providing information thatsupported the answers to the query, according to Kevin Kessler, who hasbeen named district executive minister to begin in the new year.In the meantime, Springfield (Ill.) Church of the Brethren announced itsposition as "open and affirming."District leaders are continuing conversation with the 10 congregations,which have not resubmitted the query and have not filed a formalgrievance with the district, and with the Springfield congregation.Astoria (Ill.) Church of the Brethren, however, has sent a letter ofgrievance directly to the Annual Conference officers.District leaders have tried to be very careful in responding to the query,to the 10 congregations that brought it, and to the Springfieldcongregation, said former district executive minister Jim YaussyAlbright, interviewed for this article while he was still serving thedistrict. "The study team was balanced, (including) people who thinkhomosexuality is a sin and those who do not," he said. In its dealingswith Springfield, the district has been equally careful, and has tried tofollow the latest Annual Conference guidelines."Christ made us brothers and sisters," Albright said. "We didn't chooseit. We are covenanted to deal with each other despite the differences."(For relevant Annual Conference statements referenced in this article, for the 1983"Human Sexuality from a Christian Perspective"; for the 1979 "Biblical Inspiration and Authority"; for the 1998"The New Testament as Our Rule of Faith and Practice"; for the 2004"Congregational Disagreement with Annual Conference Decisions.")--Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for theChurch of the Brethren General Board. She is a member of Illinois andWisconsin District, at Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren.

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