A conservative movement of congregations may depart the Church of the Brethren this year in what the recently named Covenant Brethren Church says is an effort to help churches prioritize biblical authority and maintain Brethren identity.
Though still in an exploratory stage, the Covenant group is looking at property in West Virginia for a national office and forming bylaws and a statement of faith.
Grover Duling, Covenant’s temporary Executive Board chair, said recent denominational actions, including recognition at the 2017 annual conference of a lesbian couple co-pastoring a congregation in Pacific Northwest District, caused concern, following years of controversy over LGBTQ inclusion.
“After that a lot of churches from across the country contacted me and said, ‘We are leaving, we’re done,’ ” Duling recalled of events in 2017. “I said, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t go. We don’t need a knee-jerk reaction.’ So I invited churches from 16 districts to Moorefield in West Virginia to work at how we can heal this up.”
The group met with the Brethren Mission and Ministry Board that fall to share concerns about churches performing same-sex weddings and having LGBTQ people in leadership positions.
Some conservatives proposed policy changes that didn’t pass at the 2018 annual conference. That was the same year the denomination introduced its Compelling Vision look to the future.
“I agree we should have a vision,” said Duling, who is also board chair of the West Marva District, which includes congregations in West Virginia and Maryland. “We encouraged those who were putting together the Compelling Vision that it should deal with the elephant in the room. You can’t do outreach and mission work when your foundation is crumbling with a major issue that’s sitting there.”
Duling said the July 1-5, 2019, annual conference avoided LGBTQ matters, which he believes was a mistake because it had become evident many congregations were set on leaving.
“I’m not one to break up the Church of the Brethren,” he said. “My purpose is that churches that feel compelled to leave for this homosexual issue can still go to a place that has other churches joining and being Brethren but not inclusive of this LGBTQ movement.”
Three weeks after last year’s annual conference ended, more than 50 pastors, district leaders and some Church of the Brethren Standing Committee members from 13 districts met in Chambersburg, Pa., to explore what a new Brethren denomination might entail.
The Covenant name was adopted Nov. 16 at a meeting in Woodstock, Va. A Facebook post identifies key principles: full affirmation of biblical authority, sanctity of marriage as expressed in Genesis 2 and Matthew 19, sanctity of human life from conception, and New Testament ideals and practices held by the Brethren since 1708.
The Church of the Brethren Leadership Team, chaired by general secretary David Steele, issued a response to the Nov. 16 meeting stating that organizing a separation movement and fostering division is not a path forward.
The Leadership Team encouraged continuing conversations and discerning together changes that may be needed. It urged that differences be addressed together through study and discernment of Scripture, prayer and putting trust in the Holy Spirit.
“Of particular concern to the Leadership Team is that some Church of the Brethren ministers, district leaders and Standing Committee delegates are leading, participating and recruiting in this separation movement while continuing to serve in current Church of the Brethren positions of leadership,” the team wrote.
“It is our conviction that any initiative or action by Church of the Brethren leaders planning and promoting division in the church calls into question the ministerial conduct of those credentialed leaders.”
Steele said in a Jan. 16 interview his goal is to continue in conversation with the group.
“Our end goal is unity,” he said. “We recognize there are differences and diversity, . . . but part of who we are is we work at studying Scripture together to really discern the voice of God in the midst of that diversity.”
Unity-building efforts include the Compelling Vision process, which spanned nearly three years, compiling more than 70 conversations in districts across the country in a vision statement released being released the last week of January.
Steele said the Compelling Vision was not intended to address sexuality but to “move the conversation above that to matters of faith and Scripture” and God’s call.
“We [differ] where we understand the Compelling Vision process fell short,” he said. “In my belief, it doesn’t fall short, because it does exactly what it set out to do.”
A proposed statement
Duling said Covenant Brethren Church has resisted aggressive recruiting, but he does answer people’s questions when they contact him, which isn’t the same as campaigning.
Covenant has scheduled a meeting Feb. 1 to review a proposed statement of faith and bylaws, followed by a meeting in May to share the documents with interested people.
Although he isn’t willing to estimate the number of Brethren churches and members interested in Covenant membership, Duling is looking for a venue for the May meeting that can accommodate 500 to 1,000 people.
“I have a lot of questions and a lot of interest from across the country, not just my district in the East,” he said. “We had people come [to meetings this fall] from Kansas and Pacific Northwest. It’s nationwide interest.”
The temporary Executive Board is considering the possibility of dual affiliation for churches that want to stay with the denomination.
There is also openness to the possibility the Holy Spirit might still bring a miracle.
“It was with a humble spirit and hurting hearts that people have spoken,” Duling said. “I love my church. I hope and pray that there’s a miraculous healing . . . that hasn’t been present in the 40 years we’ve been trying to find our way around this huge divisive issue. I hope and pray God will heal the Church of the Brethren, because I really don’t want to do this.”