David Brown's website
To save repeated attempts to summarise the difficulties I’ve been facing at my own church congregation (ecclesia) over the past many months, I’ve decided to write them down.
(In this web copy, I've omitted or substituted some names. The church is referred to as XXXX and individual names replaced by letters. For those unfamiliar with the Christadelphian church, see the bottom of this page)
Early in 2010 objections were raised to my voicing the view that God may have used a process of evolution to bring about His creation, and that the various forms of life developed through common descent. The objections were mostly in connection with a Bible School discussion (from people whose offspring I didn’t teach), and with a Sunday evening presentation in April which apparently upset people who, in some cases, weren’t actually there to hear. My own views are on the Evolution and Creation pages on this site and in a letter to which I was one of the signatories, which the editor of the ‘Christadelphian’ magazine refused to publish (and which has generated a lot of follow-on discussion, but that's another story).
These objections led to the church arranging committee preventing me taking part in church duties till an experienced member had led a discussion with me. He did, and concluded that my beliefs presented no problem that should prevent my full participation in church duties. However my main critic, who happened also to be Secretary of the ecclesia, failed to reveal this information to a June church members’ meeting (EMM) from which I was absent, and the meeting voted to continue my exclusion till some ‘concerns were worked through’. The committee took two months (!) to say exactly what they wanted to ask me about, but I co-operated in good faith and spent many hours in discussion with various members of the committee. As a result, a majority of them agreed in October that I should resume participation and that a recommendation to that effect should be put to the next (November 4) members’ meeting.
Instead of honouring the majority view the Secretary broke ranks, stepped down from his post and, refusing to discuss his differences with me on a calm personal basis, circulated a six page tirade against me just before the members’ meeting, resulting in a big upset and a tied vote on my resuming participation.. The document contained a ‘resume of events’ which included wrong or misleading information – I’ve annotated it and summarised the main issues and you can see the document and my annotations and summary here – but in the interests of harmony, I didn’t blast off a response. The members’ meeting went ahead despite my being unable to attend it.
What should have happened after the tied vote was for the committee to honour their majority agreement - that is a key principle – and for me and the committee to try and allay some people’s concerns about their recommendation, offering some reassurances. For my part, I spoke to a series of people to do just that. What actually happened was that the committee gave in to my main critic and several weeks later called a ballot on a ‘statement’ not only containing a diametrically opposite recommendation to November 4, but adding far more draconian restrictions on me and, in a covering letter, calling in emotional terms for everyone to endorse the statement. I believe this course of action was profoundly wrong.
The statement included no indication that anyone was at fault but me, and ‘required’ me to agree “not to raise divisive issues ....in our ecclesia or any other, nor to promote his views on the origin of Adam and Eve”, and not to do any ecclesial duties till at least the end of 2011. I couldn’t accept that, because Christadelphian meetings are autonomous, so it isn’t for my own to veto what other meetings can ask me to talk about; and because if we were to move on, I believed it essential that ALL the difficulties were put behind us – including all inquisitions, tense debates, bans, restrictions, votes and the like .
The ballot itself was profoundly unfair both in process and content. Unfair in process because (a) I was given no opportunity to discuss the content of the statement that was circulated and to find words that I could endorse too, so restoring unity; (b) I was given no chance to put my case before people started to return their ballot forms - I was presented with the letter and statement after the documents had been posted to members; (c) the Sunday platform was misused to urge people to, in effect, vote against me, in effect canvassing; (d) people had little time to return papers and very little chance to speak to me even if they’d wished to.
In terms of the content of the statement, the item on me was sandwiched between sections of text with which few if any would disagree – including obviously fine sentiments about unity and a section on the statement of faith itself. Constructing the statement in this way was reminiscent of an underhand political trick: it almost guaranteed that most would vote ‘yes’ even if they would not support point 3 in isolation. And the outcome shows the ploy worked.
So, I submit the ballot was wrong in principle, unfair in process, unfair in content, inconsistent with good charitable practice and unworthy of a Christian church.
Where are we now? There are some pointed questions to ask (they're set out here); but rather than pursue them I wrote to the committee (here) in an attempt to seek reconciliation, because I believe it’s a Christian obligation to do so; the committee backed off from their earlier position that unless I endorsed the statement they intended to start a process leading to my expulsion, but in other respects have maintained an intransigent line – thus perpetuating a climate of corrosive tension, upset and broken friendships.
In early January they issued a letter to the members, essentially subjecting me to indefinite exclusion from active participation, specifically saying the committee has no plans to make any proposal to change the situation. Which, even though they've at last included a note of regret, if not apology, for the hurt caused especially to my wife, makes it pretty impossible to start a process of reconciliation.
I remained open to reconciliation: it's a Christian obligation. But though it takes only one side to start a battle, it takes two to make peace.
In yet another attempt to be conciliatory, but to appeal for an end to the nightmare, I wrote as follows to the members:
Dear brothers and sisters
I’d like to endorse the call for unity in the ABs’ letter circulated yesterday. I fully accept the wish for reconciliation and am profoundly sorry that poorly-chosen words of mine and over-reactions to them have led to such discord. I’m sorry too that this has gone on so long, as the ABs had agreed a resolution last October which with one more vote would have been endorsed by the members’ meeting. I just want to put this business completely behind us, discuss Scriptural matters (which is really all it's about, differences in interpretation of inspired Scripture) in a Christlike way and play my normal part in the activities of our ecclesia. I am happy to assure you that I have no intention of raising divisive matters on origins or any other Scripture topic, and that I have no plans to speak at any ecclesia on that subject in the foreseeable future. If we could put behind us all inquisitions, bans and exclusions, I’ve offered in a spirit of reconciliation voluntarily to forgo any presiding or speaking duties for the first half of 2011, gradually resuming thereafter with no need for any further tension or upset, and in the same spirit of reconciliation to invite my main critic to consider doing the same.
It is impossible, however, to face the future positively, or to feel that I can contribute as I should, with the prospect of indefinite exclusion from any active role in the ecclesia. It is now nine months since I last played an active role, and my exclusion has been extended time and again. While this stigma continues neither Viv nor I can move forward or return to normality: it’s as though we are being humiliated, punished and deprived of any meaningful fellowship. In the spirit of yesterday’s letter, we appeal to you to put all the difficulties of the past year behind us and allow Viv and myself once again to enjoy fellowship with you all and to contribute actively to the work of the ecclesia in sharing and living the Gospel.
Your brother in Jesus
The letter, which had been through several drafts, was well received by some. I also wrote to the young people I'd taught (letter here), concerned about the impact of these events on them.
I hoped that the committee would show some reason - indeed, compassion - by agreeing to bring these awful events to an end and at the same time, avoid the prospect of a vote later, perhaps much later, that would reopen the issue, reopen the wounds, and cause terrible hurt yet again to my wife, to me and doubtless to others. I wrote to the new secretary:
Thank you again for your helpful comments on my draft letter. Viv tells me some have said kind things to her about it.
...... I’m also very apprehensive about months, perhaps many months, of uncertainty while I wait and hope that someone might tentatively ask that I be permitted to play a part in the ecclesia. I don’t think it’s in the interests of the ecclesia for me to be the subject of discussion and judgement again after we’ve tried to let matters rest - on reflection it seems certain to raise tensions and anxieties all round – and it makes it quite impossible for Viv or me to rebuild relationships or to be comfortable at [XXXX] while the uncertainty, the unspoken question mark over my head, remains. Moreover, it is hardly in the spirit of reconciliation and moving forward that we all very much want to see. It is this uncertainty, this leaving of the wounds open and judgement pending, that is so damaging for both Viv and me in health, stability, concentration on work (we have both had work colleagues expressing real concern). And perhaps those of you who would wish to exclude, even ‘punish’ me (and Viv?) might think about ‘forgiving as we have been forgiven’ and carefully read 2 Corinthians 2:5-11.
For these reasons I’m now persuaded that the right course is to remove the one piece of uncertainty in the ABs’ letter by agreeing now (and confirming at the February EMM if you really want a vote) that I will fulfil my offer to step aside for six months, that I - and probably some others - swallow a lot of hurt and ill-feeling and hold our peace, and that we then regard the whole issue as closed. There will be no need to raise the subject again, in June, in October, in connection with next year’s programme, or ever. We shall all have “.... the assurance .... that neither [we] nor anyone else is going to be quizzed or questioned, when no one should need to fear an issue being raised with them with which they are uncomfortable”. This is in no way inconsistent with Sunday’s circular letter, and I do not believe the ecclesia would think ill of the ABs if they concluded that on reflection, subjecting me to an indefinite exclusion with uncertainty over a possible further vote is neither the safest for the ecclesia, nor the most compassionate, way of bringing this episode to an overdue end. We should nail things down now, allow all of us to find closure, and then get on with doing what points 2 and 4 in your statement said.
Your brother in Jesus
The result, in a late night call on January 23: nothing. No certainty as to whether a move to 'reinstate' me would ever be made; only a hope that 'if' things calmed down, it might (not that I'd have expected my adversaries to change their minds). Only the claim that if I were allowed to play any active part - or even perhaps if the possibility were raised at all - 'sixteen to twenty' members would leave. I asked who they were, so that I could go and listen to their concerns, allay them if I could, apologise readily if necessary, and restore relationships. But no, the information still remained (and remains) secret. It occurred to me this claim might be as false as the completely wrong claim that 'all the parents' of young people I taught in Bible school had complained about me. Just as for that earlier falsehood, if this new claim had been put about in error I hoped those responsible would want to correct it and apologise; if it'd been put about knowing it to be false, a different description would apply. Meanwhile if I tried to contact anyone I thought might have been offended, there was no response and I found myself accused of disturbing them. Damned if I do, and damned if I don't...
So where didthat leave us? I didn't appear on the 2011 church programme, and all that was held out to me was another nine months of uncertainty and the prospect that 'if' all was harmony till then the committee would deign to recommend to a members' meeting in November 2011 that I'd be permitted to participate from January 2012. So that'd be another vote: a bit like reopening a wound to see whether it's healed. I have little confidence in anything to do with this church any more, but one thing I am confident about is the ability of my adversaries to come up with some reason for causing trouble again and accusing me in November - taking us back to square one. In place of this self-evidently stupid course of action - unwise for the congregation as a whole, let alone me - I proposed that any decision be taken right away. I asked the committee to agree, and get endorsement at the next members' meeting if they really felt they needed it, that there'd be no more voting on this later in the year; that I'd take a normal part from 2012 and appear again in the Christadelphian diary (where speakers are listed) from which, in a petty and cheap move, they'd removed my name without the courtesy of telling me. I suggested they merely agree that should gaps arise in the programme in the second half of 2011, my filling them would be considered; and that the relevant parents and young people would be consulted on whether I contribute to Bible school and youth group.
So, given that before sabotage by one member of the committee it'd all been agreed back in October that we'd put the campaign against me behind us and that the 'ban' on my participation would cease, I seemed to have conceded a lot - probably too much? - since then in the hope of reconciliation and harmony. Meanwhile, no apology, little or no movement, and the idea of fellowship in this church was, for me, rather sick. What I could, however, see was evidence of the next victim being lined up - yes, the same individual marching up to another speaker and taking him to task...the saga beginning again? When will we ever learn?
The outcome, in February 2011, was modestly positive in the sense that the committee decided there need be no further votes later in the year - a point endorsed by acceptance of their minutes at a members' meeting - and in a separate letter, gave some reassurance about considering my offer to fill any casual vacancies in the second half of 2011 and restoring my name to the diary listing. Which at least gives us a chance to let the issue drop as far as the church as a whole is concerned, and try to rebuild relationships.
That left one thing: I felt I ought to make a(nother) approach to my main critic, seeking his help in that task of rebuilding relationships. I hoped that he would agree to step back from church duties for 2011 as I had done, to let feelings calm down. I hoped that he would find it possible to offer an apology to those his actions had hurt most. I asked for a face to face meeting (with Matthew 18:15 in mind) but was refused. Here's the relevant part of my subsequent letter:
"... My intention was to ask you to consider some steps you could take in order to help re-establish harmonious relationships within the meeting and repair some of the damage which has been done as a result of the events that have taken place. Let me put them to you for your consideration.
First, I have accepted that my name does not appear on the 2011 ecclesial programme. I ask you to do likewise by withdrawing from your planned presiding and speaking duties for 2011, as I have done.
Second, I trust you will agree that following the interventions you have made, a great deal of hurt and distress has been caused to a number of members: not least Vivienne, who has been devastated by those events; our children, whose remaining prospects of continued interest in the Christadelphian faith have, I fear, been wrecked; and other young people who have been disturbed and disheartened by the actions taken against me. However sincere your intentions, I trust that you will regret those consequences and I hope that in the interests you can find it in you to make an apology to Vivienne and those others affected, if not to me – as I have done to those whom I understand to have been disturbed by the views I hold, or am thought to hold.......
I make these points not in a sense of recrimination but in the desire that the [XXXX] meeting should move on, learning from recent events in order that the distress and damage to faith which I and my family – and others – have experienced will not be inflicted on others in the future.
I was met with a flat refusal.
PS....Andrew Collinge's useful booklet "Behind the Scenes" from the Christadelphian Support Network (http://www.chsn.org.uk/index.asp?id=1&nid=30) has this to say about handling disputes:
"I think it's worth mentioning what should not happen: the letter of complaint to the ABs; grumbling to others about how upset we are by what so-and-so has done; ignoring the brother/sister with whom we are upset. It's easier to give in to our natural inclinations than it is to follow the way Christ commanded which is to go and see our brother or sister alone. This is hard to do, especially when feelings are hurt. May the Lord give us strength to meet this challenge"
In the interests of preventing others being mistreated, my list of things we've got wrong is here.
Note: The congregation in question is a Christadelphian church. Christadelphians are a lay adventist community with 'Biblical unitarian' (i.e non Trinitarian) beliefs. They have no professional ministry or formal central authority, though a strong de facto influence is exercised by the central publishing organisation based in the UK. Members commonly refer to each other as brothers and sisters. Individual congregations - usually called 'meetings' or 'ecclesias' - are autonomous and administered by a committee of male members, in this case 7, referred to as 'arranging brothers' or ABs. In this particular congregation (XXXX) of some 80 members, the church secretary is chosen from the committee by the other committee members, and the committee decide who goes on the roster to preside at, or give the talks at, the services and weekly Bible study classes. The committee members receive no special training, a fact which is sometimes all too obvious.
In this saga, the composition of the arranging committee changed following the annual ballot of members in October 2010. [JB], who up until his lengthy circular against me had been secretary, and [PA] were among those not re-elected; [CB], who had participated in earlier discussions, was elected to the committee and took the role of secretary for 2011. The combined 'old and new' committee acted together in Nov - Dec 2010 and at the start of 2011.