On Monday evening, June 27, 2016 at 7:00 pm (EST) the 2016 Standing Committee of the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, gathered in Greensboro, NC, heard the appeal of the Bridgewater Church of the Brethren and its pastors. At question was the legitimacy of the actions of the Shenandoah District Leadership Team on December 10, 2015 to terminate the ordination of Chris Zepp and to place a letter of exoneration and censure in the ministerial file of Jeff Carr as a response to our congregational position on LGBTQ marriage equality in May 2015.
Claire Martindale, Chair of the BWCOB Board of Administration, and Fred Swartz, BWCOB Moderator, pastors Chris Zepp and Jeff Carr represented the congregation. They presented the grievance to Standing Committee based upon the following three points of appeal.
The process for the evening following the Standing Committee Appeal Process which can be found here (http://www.brethren.org/ac/ppg/appeal-process.html). At the conclusion of the time for questions, both parties were dismissed and Standing Committee began their discernment. The committee worked for a while and then decided they needed to take a break for the night.
The committee later reconvened in closed session on Tuesday June 28, 2016.
The results of their discernment follow.
The members of the appeal committee of standing committee representatives verbally reported the disposition of the appeal to pastors Chris Zepp and Jeff Carr. In short-the Standing Committee upheld the actions of the Shenandoah District Leadership Team. A brief written response from the Standing Committee will be made available to BWCOB representatives prior to the official opening of the 2016 Annual Conference.
While the outcome is disappointing, the action comes as no big surprise.
“On Monday, June 27, 2016 the Standing Committee of district delegates to the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference voted on a response to Query: Same Sex Weddings…The response to Query: Same Sex Weddings includes a page of background referencing previous decisions and documents, and a paragraph of recommendations. Whether the query and response from Standing Committee come to the Annual Conference depends on a decision to re-open the business of the Conference to queries on matters related to sexuality because the 2011 Conference decided that further discussion of sexuality should happen outside of the query process.”
The recommendations state:
“Standing Committee recommends to the 2016 Annual Conference that the conduct expectations of the general membership, as stated in the 1983 Annual Conference Statement known as ‘Human Sexuality from a Christian Perspective,’ which was reaffirmed at the 2011 Annual Conference, and of licensed and ordained persons make it clear that for credentialed ministers to officiate or provide leadership at a same sex wedding is to go against the stance of the Church of the Brethren. It shall be considered a matter of pastoral/ministerial misconduct. The districts shall respond with discipline, not with allowances based on personal conscience. The consequence for officiating or providing leadership at a same sex wedding is the termination of the ministry credential of the one officiating or providing leadership at a same sex wedding. This shall be for a period of one year, pending review by the District Ministerial Leadership Team.”
In response to the standing committee recommendation from Monday June 27, 2016 the following response has been shared.
“A response from Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, the Supportive Communities Network Steering Committee, Open Table Cooperative, Women’s Caucus, and the Executive Committee of On Earth Peace to the Standing Committee Statement regarding Same Sex Weddings:
“To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.” – Bayard Rustin
On Monday, a narrow majority of the Standing Committee of the Church of the Brethren chose to act from a place of fear – fear of the unknown future, fear that the Holy Spirit may move counter to the ways it has in the past, a fear of losing their church. Fear brings a desire for clarity, for order, for casting aside anything and anyone deemed a threat to its existence. Fear is a powerful force, one that too often seeks to comfort the will of the majority by ignoring the minority and at the expense of the marginalized. Yet a lesson we learn from the biblical narrative and human history about fear is instructive: Fear always creates division.
The fear behind this statement ignores these realities: It proclaims that the amendment to the 1983 paper on human sexuality is our most important Annual Conference position paper, above the Brethren value of personal conscience found in the 1996 Paper on Congregational Ethics, the 2004 paper on Congregations that disagree with Annual Conference decisions, and the 2008 paper on Forbearance, among others. Indeed, an unwavering respect for personal conscience is one of the core convictions of the Brethren since our very beginning; it calls for a dangerous and unprecedented polity decision that will further divide the denomination; and it places numerous COB Districts and District Executives in an impossible position that may cause serious damage to their District’s viability.
But perhaps the most compelling reality is this one – it won’t be effective, as there are pastors and congregations who will continue to count the cost of discipleship by participating in or officiating marriage equality ceremonies, as well as districts that may refuse to enforce the policy, whether out of principle, a desire for unity, or mere self-survival.
We have great compassion for those who are fearful. We are not called to be fearful. We are called to follow the One whose message is ‘fear not.’ We choose to stand for the Gospel values of inclusion, justice, and love. We also choose to name this truth that others in the church may fear – we have to be true to our best understanding of God’s will as we follow our ministry convictions and proclaim a call to action for justice and inclusion of LGBTQ persons and all peoples, no matter what consequences are proposed by Standing Committee or adopted by Annual Conference. Like our Brethren ancestors who were persecuted for following their conscience, we count this as the cost of faithful discipleship. In naming this truth, we stand firmly in the footsteps of Jesus, who suffered for his convictions, even to the point of death on the cross.”
Witness – a response from BWCOB Sr. Pastor Jeff Carr
The actions of the Standing Committee are disappointing and painful. I lament the implications for so many who are marginalized, dismissed as less than children of God, and find themselves cut off from the body of Christ once again, and for the first time. My hope and prayer is to continue to live as a follower of Jesus, serving with courage in the face of fear, offering a non-anxious presence in lieu of angry reaction, to lead with integrity proclaiming the peace which Jesus modeled in his ministry rooted in love for the world and all of creation.
As a disciple of Jesus… I seek to live out my own convictions rooted in faith, with my desire for the church to represent the incredible and powerful loving Kingdom of God. It is not easy, and I do not always succeed. Yet I believe we are called to love as Jesus loves, and to value one another as the children of God we are created to be.
Therefore, in witness to the Good News of Jesus…
…as disciples of Jesus committed to the love and peace of Christ I hope that we will continue in bold witness and radical love as we in body, spirit, and voice rise and support those who are hurt and wounded by these actions.
… as disciples of Jesus may we confess when we participate in the violence – of thoughts, word, and deed that is counter to the message of the peace and love of the Kingdom of God we proclaim.
… as disciples of Jesus may we find strength and comfort in the peace and power of Christ who claims us and whom we claim.
… as disciples of Jesus may we offer our prayers and thoughts for denominational, district, and congregational leadership, and the ongoing work of the church, along with appreciation for the time and energy of Standing Committee as we seek to discern the mind of Christ and faithfully live into the calling to which we have been called such that we can with confidence, and in faithfulness, proclaim to all we meet:
‘The peace of Christ be with you’ as we continue to follow the one who commanded that we ‘Love our neighbor.’ And that ‘we love one another as Christ loves us.’
May the Peace and Love of Christ be with us all.