It has been said on a number of occasions that if the Church of the Brethren cannot emerge from our discernment about the issues of human sexuality that our witness to the world is compromised. Even more striking is the implicit sentiment that if the Church of the Brethren suffers another schism somehow the tradition itself is lost as our result of our disunity.
To both of these observations all I can do is wonder: Really? Our witness to the wider world and Church is dependent on our human systems of conversation and discernment? Our theology and commitments are that rooted in us?
So what is really at stake in this conversation. My sense is that our tradition is not lost, nor is our witness. Rather, what we are losing is a particular way of understanding that witness in this corner of the Christian tradition.
In order to step back from the emotional and anxious energy wrapped up in our current times and debates, I want to look back at another liminal time in the history of the Church of the Brethren. Though some scholars debate our transition to the 20th century, whether it was a faithful re-articulation or apostasy of the church, the shifts of that age reveal what we are confronted with today. The typical focal point for that conversation is the work M.G. Brumbaugh. It was his historical re-narration which confronts us today, especially the distinctly modern terms he used to describe the tradition.
As the world moved into modernity, the Brethren were not immune to the changes. Through increased travel and as technological and philosophical innovations emerged, the sectarian practices of the 19th century Brethren would soon threaten its very demise. The community could either re-understand its witness in a new time or find itself increasingly irrelevant.
Brumbaugh’s narrative recast the tradition for a community which was interacting increasingly with the modern age. Looking back some say that this new narrative compromised the uniqueness of the Brethren and functionally opened the door to assimilation to American culture. Whatever the assessment of this shift, it is clear that our current understandings of Peace as active peacemaking rather than non-violent non-resistance; Service as altruistic assistance rather than mutual aid: and Community and Non-Creedalism as elective participation in congregations rather than mutual formation and discernment are rooted in this 20th century shift. Our tag line, Continuing the work of Jesus, peacefully, simply, together, is a sign that our terms of Brethren Identity are indeed rooted in Brumbaugh’s translation and are the fruit of modernity.
So it is no wonder than our members see in our current conversations the potential demise of our very way of being Church. For when our terms are cast in modern visions of making peace, humbling service, and family-like relationships there is no other conclusion than to say they are, or soon will be, compromised. Our very ways of debating and dehumanizing in the process of discernment do contradict what we say are our bedrock values. How can we speak of peace making when verbal violence defines our interactions? How can we speak of service when our interactions are demeaning? How can we speak of community when our very relationships between congregations and persons could break?
Indeed, the Church of the Brethren as we know it in these 20th century categories cannot continue. But that does not mean that the tradition dies. Maybe our understandings of peace, service, and community are no longer adequate for this new age.
We need a new set of terms, rooted in the ordinances and practices, which speak of the root values of both the 19th and 20th century understandings which gave flesh to our tradition for 300 years.
What might those new terms be?