|Rev. Dr. Bryan Collier, Lead Pastor at The Orchard|
The Orchard Church of Tupelo, Mississippi became the first congregation to officially secede from the United Methodist Church in the current controversy over same sex relationships.
A press release by the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a traditionalist “renewal” group within the United Methodist Church, began this way:
“The Mississippi Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church and The Orchard have announced that negotiations have been concluded between them, resulting in the withdrawal of The Orchard from The United Methodist Church. The Orchard is one of the 25 fastest growing churches in the United States. Dr. Bryan Collier is the senior pastor of The Orchard and a member of the governing council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.”
Bishop James Edward Swanson, Sr. and the Mississippi Annual Conference “negotiated” an amicable separation in which Orchard Church would pay an exit fee of $69,000 and keep the church assets. The bishop and the conference effectively waived the “trust clause” included in all United Methodist Church deeds, which provides that if a local congregation closes or otherwise ceases to be a United Methodist Church, the property reverts to the Annual Conference.
Obviously, the trust clause is supposed to have serious meaning in terms of dollars and cents, but it is also about connection, accountability and community.
Orchard Church will walk away with a $7,000,000 property on which they have a mortgage of $5,000,000. They will also walk away from more than $200,000 in unpaid apportionments over the last five years. And, apparently, they will not repay the Annual Conference for the funds used to purchase the property when the church was started.
For a more detailed discussion of the terms and conditions, please check out Jeremy Smith’s excellent blog post.
The website for The Orchard is wonderful. It is inviting, encouraging, and uplifting. If you are looking for a church home, they present themselves as a welcoming possibility.
For starters, “The Orchard” is a great name. They will not be confused with the stuffiness of a thousand “First” United Methodist Churches all over the country.
I could not find anything on their website to indicate that they had ever been part of the United Methodist Church, or that they had withdrawn from the denomination. Or that they were leaving because they believe that the UMC has not been firm enough in punishing those clergy who have acted against the UM Book of Discipline by officiating at same sex weddings, or in disciplining bishops who have ordained and appointed gay pastors.
In a section called WHAT WE BELIEVE, they have this statement:
“The Orchard is a place devoted to the cultivation of fruit for Christ’s kingdom. We remember that Jesus said to his disciples, “I chose you and sent you to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last.” (John 15:16) At The Orchard we are trying to live up to this challenge. We focus on our “cultivation” efforts by Growing Deep and Branching Out. Growing Deep means that we commit ourselves to deepening our love of God and helping others do the same. Branching Out means that we reach out to others with Christ’s love. We are called to live as faithful messengers of God’s grace and hope in the world.”
The statement is almost universally applicable to churches all across the country and all across the spectrum of theological perspectives. But it isn’t boilerplate.
In a section called BRANCHING OUT, they tell us:
“We believe each of us are uniquely gifted by God. All Christians are ministers and are called to serve together, learn together and discover innovative ways to communicate the Gospel to the world. At The Orchard, we seek to discover and use our gifts with excellence as we Branch Out to serve God and others.”
Clearly, they know what they are doing. At the most basic level of presenting the message in ways that are attractive and inviting they do a much better job than most churches. They have a lot to teach us.
If I were a gay man searching for a church home, there is nothing to warn me that my spouse and I would be warmly welcomed by people who would love us even though they believed that our “lifestyle” was a sinful abomination.
The Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Bryan Collier, is a member of the governing board of The Wesleyan Covenant Association, which describes itself as “an association of congregations, clergy persons, and laity who desire to cooperate in the mission of the WCA to promote the ministry of the gospel from a Wesleyan theological perspective within The United Methodist Church and kindred bodies.” The WCA advocates for the “traditional” biblical understanding of same sex relationships as incompatible with Christian teaching and the prohibition against ordaining or appointing “practicing homosexuals” as pastors.
Although Dr. Collier is no longer serving a United Methodist Church, and has led his congregation to secede from the denomination, the WCA board recently voted to maintain him as a member of their leadership and to continue the Orchard as a member congregation. In a press release, they explained,
“Some have raised a question about whether Dr. Collier's continued service on the WCA Council is consistent with the WCA's emphasis on covenant-keeping within The United Methodist Church, and our deeply-held conviction that promises - especially those made at ordination - must be kept. We believe that it is, and that our remaining connected to Dr. Collier and the Orchard is a sign of the hope we have for the future of the global Wesleyan movement.”
Think about that.
And consider the fact that Bishop James Swanson, who blessed the agreement with The Orchard, was the featured preacher at a recent gathering of the WCA.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association emphasizes “covenant-keeping within the United Methodist Church” and has a “deeply held conviction that promises – especially those made at ordination – must be kept.”
One wonders how leaving the United Methodist Church can be seen as covenant keeping within the United Methodist Church, or how Bryan Collier’s decision to lead his congregation out of the denomination that ordained him and in which he made his vows of ordination can qualify as keeping the promises he made at his ordination.
Apparently, what the WCA believes is that acting against one small part of the Discipline by offering the ministry of the church to a same sex couple asking to be married is worse than throwing away the whole book and the whole church.
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