Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On the Letter of Deepest Concern

Folks at Open Circle are sometimes surprised to learn that a) we are out of step with our denomination on some of its official positions and b) that we are tolerated nonetheless. The good news here, at least from our perspective, is that we are not so hierarchically oriented that someone from the denomination can lower the boom on us in some way. And we have been through the wars in our Northern Plains District and the district has come around to at least tolerating the presence of congregations that are open and affirming on the "homosexual issue" as it is often referred to. In fact it is fair to say in our district that for the most part we are now fully welcomed.

But the denominational story is different. The denomination has taken a decidedly rightward turn over the last several decades. Many congregations and members have been heavily influenced by the evangelical backlash and by the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks that their members tune into on a daily basis.

Below is a copy of a letter sent by standing committee delegates of the Southern Pennsylvania District in response to the recent Annual Conference held at Pittsburgh, PA. The letter was approved by their District Board so it is fair to say it represent the sentiment of a majority of their district.

I have been advocating for some time among the progressive COB community that we stop attempting to win over the other side or even that elusive middle made up of congregations that are themselves divided over these issues. Instead of trying to change minds I think it would be more productive to make the case of freedom of conscience and a big tent denomination (admittedly something of an oxymoron in a denomination with membership rapidly declining to the size of some mega-churches)where congregation are free to follow their own consciences on matters that divide us while we work together on issue where we find agreement. The tone of this letter would seem to suggest that at least some of our conservative brothers and sisters don't see this as an option.

What I read in this letter is fear. In a healthy community having a child handed a rainbow scarf, which represent a different perspective, is a teaching moment not a cause for alarm. The same is true for listening to a sermon that you don't agree with. Over the years I have listened to lots of them at Annual Conference. It is what I would expect in a denomination that has a diversity of opinion.

I must say that I laughed out loud when I read the sentence that said "When I questioned Moderator Shawn about the message he said that Earle didn’t deliver the message that Shawn had asked him to." He didn't deliver the message that Shawn asked him to? What are we? North Korea? We are not, of course, or Earle who delivered the message would now be toiling away at a hard labor prison. But the idea that the moderator 'asks' a speaker to deliver a certain message or that a speaker is not free to preach what is on his or her heart and mind is completely antithetical to what the COB stands for. Or once stood for.

As the letter indicates we are now in the midst of listening sessions across our denomination on the issue of homosexuality. We will be hosting one of them in our district on October 23. I don't expect any minds to be changed by this exercise. Given the rapid decline of our denomination's membership I would like to think that we can agree to a truce and a big tent approach that makes room for diversity. So we can all focus on reaching out to our wider communities with what is the best of the COB. My prediction, though is that nothing will change. Conservatives will remain adamant that their truth is the only truth and liberals will continue to want to keep talking. And we will continue to lose glbt pastors and members who choose to be part of welcoming communities. (My dissatisfaction with fellow liberals in our denomination is much greater on this issue). And all the while our denominational decline will continue unabated.

A denominational split would be a much better option than the status quo. The letter mentioned above follows.

Southern Pennsylvania District Church of the Brethren

Standing Committee Delegates: Larry M. Dentler & John A. Shelly

(letter was approved & affirmed by the Southern Pennsylvania District of the Church of the Brethren District Board, meeting at Upton Church of the Brethren, July 24, 2010)

August 9, 2010

To: Annual Conference Office
2010 Annual Conference Officers
2010 Program & Arrangements Committee

Letter of Deepest Concern

Dear Sisters & Brothers,

As Standing Committee delegates for Southern Pennsylvania District we are writing this letter following 2010 Annual Conference. The decision to write this Letter of Deepest Concern comes after discussions with many of our constituents from Southern Pennsylvania District who attended Annual Conference in Pittsburgh. We write in humility for we know that Annual Conference involves a mind boggling myriad of details to care for. There is much about Annual Conference that we affirm and applaud as being inspirational, well planned, and exciting. But this year we come home with some very deep concern that was not just expressed by one or two but by many of those who attended Annual Conference from our District.

1) The 10 year old granddaughter of one of our families was in the exhibit hall. Persons at the Womaen’s Caucus booth gave her a rainbow scarf and told her, “You should wear this.” The little girl went back to her grandmother‘with a lot of confusion. This was very distressing for the family. Annual Conference should be a safe place for children, not a place where other persons’ controversial viewpoints are thrust upon them. Since this booth this year seemed to be singular in focus — handing out scarves to support homosexual acceptance – we believe that Womaen’s Caucus should either be denied further exhibit space or placed on a probationary status stating clearly that they were in violation of #2, #3, and #6 of “Expectations of Exhibitors” (2010 Annual Conference Booklet, pp.52,53) this year, and any future disregard for Program & Arrangements Policy will result in future denial of exhibit space.

2) The “rolling BMC booth” was present again this year. This seems to laugh in the face of the decisions of Program & Arrangements and Annual Conference policy. This seems to us to reflect a total disregard for the authority of church leadership. Persons find the in-­your-face nature of the “rolling booth” to be embarrassing. We understand that we stress “no-force,” but we have also stressed respect for leadership. Something must be done!

3) When new fellowships and churches were welcomed we were introduced to Common Spirit in Minnesota. In only slightly shrouded language it was made clear that this is a congregation with a main focus on acceptance of homosexuality, in direct violation of the 1983 policy. We understand that new fellowships and congregations are acknowledged as part of District responsibility, but many delegates from our District felt that they were manipulated at this moment in Annual Conference. There was no time given to ask questions, and only a vote on accepting all four at once. These procedures lead to a gnawing, growing, festering belief that Conference officers are not being forthright and honest with the delegate body, and that we are being “set up.” I can’t tell you how many times we as our District’s Standing Committee delegates heard this kind of discontent and skepticism. Trust is eroding.

4) The moment causing the greatest concern for us was the sermon of Brother Earle Fike in Monday evening worship. Perhaps you noticed as we did that many persons left the convention center with tears. Others with faces gripped in anger. Have no doubt, this message will be noted as a milestone in the record of the debate before us. Anyone with conservative viewpoint on the human sexuality issue left feeling beat up and bruised. We affirm Brother Earle’s right to his viewpoint, but this message came across more as a “lobbying speech” than a message from God’s Word. This is especially true since, as many have noted, Earle completely ignored the fact that what brought acceptance was Zacchaeus’ repentance. This message came after we had been told repeatedly by the Conference Officers that there would be no speeches on this issue this year!

When I questioned Moderator Shawn about the message he said that Earle didn’t deliver the message that Shawn had asked him to. He also said that Annual Conference Director Chris had informed him,
p. 3

upon receiving Earle’s manuscript, that “it was going to be controversial.” Why then was there not some intervention? This 30 minute “moment” did great harm to the unity of the Body, great harm to the spirit of the Annual Conference, caused further brokenness and division at a very moment when we are trying to encourage people to listen to each other!

Again, please hear us affirm that Brother Earle certainly has a right to his viewpoint. But to use the message time during worship for this one-sided “lobbying speech” with no chance for rebuttal or discourse, not only showed very poor taste by Earle, but extremely poor leadership by those who might have intervened, and was in reality ‘out of order’ in keeping with the Special Response Process before us, and as one District Executive noted, may well have been in violation of the Ministerial “Code Of Ethics” (Ethics in Ministry Relations – 1996, pp.AC80.5-7).

In our minds a very sincere public apology is in order from those in leadership to the Body of the Church. This did great damage, very likely even hindering the Special Response Hearing process which is just before us.

Let us conclude by saying once again that we celebrate and affirm all the hard work by many faithful servants to make Annual Conference the wonderful “family reunion” that it is. Our love for you as our leaders, and our love for our Church compels us to share these concerns at this tenuous moment in our history when the rumblings of division rattle around us. Please understand that we would be remiss in fulfilling our responsibility as our District’s Standing Committee delegates if we did not share our concern.

Your brothers & servants in Jesus’ love,

Larry M. Dentler
Bermudian Church of the Brethren, 279 Bermudian Church RD, East Berlin, PA 17316 / office ph: 717- 292-1861

John A. Shelly
7535 Talhe1m RD, Chambers g, PA 17202/ph: 717-375-2510


sam said...

As a relatively new member of Open Circle Church, and as someone who is quite unfamiliar with Church of the Brethren (COB), I am only beginning to absorb what I am learning are the philosophies of COB. I have to admit that I am quite confused as to how an all-accepting and all-loving community like Open Circle is part of COB. I understand that Open Circle was borne out of COB and that there are some financial dependencies. However, with those 2 exceptions I can find no connection between us. Is it true that without COB’s financial support Open Circle could not exist? If that is true I guess we should feel fortunate that COB “tolerates” us to the extent we can continue to practice our own form of Christianity.

liberal pastor said...

Hi Sam,

Open Circle receives no financial support from the COB. The district helped us out for the first couple years of our existence. Our tightest financial connection is via our mortgage which is held by the district, and their financial terms are very generous.

From my perspective our core values of peace, service, community are congruent with COB values. We are clearly out in front of them on being inclusive and we welcome a lot more theological diversity than most COB congregations.

I think it is fair to say that we are mostly welcomed now within the district and tolerated at a denominational level.

Anonymous said...

In some ways it seems that maybe Open Circle is more congruent with the Unity church or Unitarian church in their ideals as a whole than COB. But they still retain some of the COB values as well.

Anonymous said...

Open Circle appears similar to a Unity church that believes that Jesus was a good man, in fact, an example for us all to emulate. That god is a part of him, but in us all as well. We just have to recognize it and follow (Jesus)his path. Your church also seems open -minded enough to spiritual enlightenment of the individual(like many Eastern thought. Being all accepting/loving, maybe breaking off would not be an end, but a beginning...

liberal pastor said...

To anonymous: all of this is true. But what about it isn't compatible with the COB?

sam said...

I have to clarify that what prompted my original comment to the post from liberal pastor was the issue of inclusiveness. This is a significant value for Open Circle Church and a required value for my spiritual home. The fact that, as a denomination, COB is struggling with the unqualified acceptance of homosexuality, is a challenge for me. I assume there are many values that are consistent between OCC and the COB.

Anonymous said...

Ditto, my thoughts exactly Sam...I am part of a lesbian couple, with an 18 mo old. We feel equal to others, and that following Jesus is right. If COB is just tolerating Open Circle then there is not a true acceptance is there? This is a must for my family, and probably many others that are seeking a spiritual home..It is a challange to attend a specific church when the home base is in conflict over something that should not be...

liberal pastor said...

Hi anonymous, thanks for your post. While Open Circle is in disagreement with the official position of our denomination on homosexuality, we fully accepted as a congregation as are the some 18% of congregations in our denomination that are openly welcoming (and there are more that are but haven't officially joined the welcoming organization.) In our district a newer open and affirming congregation was recently welcomed by majority vote at a district meeting with little dissent. It is a little tougher being glbt friendly in our denomination further east where this letter came from.

As I say frequently to my progressive friends in the denomination, the way to win on this issue is to grow our progressive churches and plant new ones. Changing the facts on the ground will bring change to our denomination. One way or another.

We have a number of gay and lesbian members at open circle who participate fully as leaders and members, by the way.