[This post picks up the story in the middle—here is the link to Part 1]
Merger and the “Membership Guidelines”
In February of 2000, an open letter was published in the Mennonite Weekly Review signed by close to 1,000 Mennonite church members, including numerous pastors and other church leaders, calling for a more inclusive approach. The letter asked for more conversation among those in Mennonite churches and sought to demonstrate that those who favored inclusion made up a sizable minority of church members.
I signed the MWR letter and afterwards learned that I was the only ordained person in Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) to sign it. About a year after the MWR letter, VMC issued a statement requiring ordained people in the conference to agree not to advocate against the statement’s points about “homosexual practice”—including this one: “We believe that the practice of homosexuality is rebuked by Scripture as sin.” This requirement was never actually strictly enforced, but I did face an extended process of having my credentials reviewed. In the end, the conference pressured me to resign my ordination but was not quite willing to remove it when I resisted the pressure.
The MWR letter was released in the midst of negotiations between the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church to merge. Numerous people took the impending merger as an opportunity to exert pressure to keep Mennonite churches from allowing for the presence of the inclusive perspective affirmed in the MWR letter.
At the joint general assembly of MCs and GCs in 1999, the GCs voted to affirm the merger. And, Canadian members of both denominations decided to join together apart from the US churches and form Mennonite Church Canada as a separate entity from the US churches. However, the MC delegates did not achieve the pro-merger vote that was required, so the process continued. One of the main stated issues was that numerous MC delegates threatened to reject the merger unless the anti-inclusive stance of the denomination were strengthened.
So, what became the 2001 Membership Guidelines were formulated. Enough of those who opposed inclusion found the strict anti-inclusion provisions acceptable (and enough of those who supported inclusion were willing to give up on a more inclusive denominational stance for the sake of achieving the merger) that the delegate approved the merger and Mennonite Church USA was created.
It was notable, that in face of the threats by some not to agree to the merger, these Guidelines, a relatively short document (4 pages) that spoke to the key issues that would shape the proposed new denomination devoted about 25% of its length and one of its three main sections to “Clarification on some issues related to homosexuality and membership,” in effect giving the “homosexuality” issue status as the most important issue facing this new denomination (I have written a critique of the Guidelines here).
Continuing to give in to threats
The Membership Guidelines established as the “teaching position” of MC USA that “homosexual sexuality activity is sin” and that MC USA pastors must not officiate at same-sex weddings. As with earlier efforts, they were an attempt to impose uniformity on denominational understandings—in face of an ever-growing number of Mennonites who favored a more inclusive approach, including the on-going presence of gay Mennonites in the churches.
In fact the Guidelines did not settle the issue. Gays and their allies continued to be visible in Mennonite communities. Hence, the dynamics of threatening to leave continued. Two particularly ironic examples of this process led to the removal of two congregations from MC USA. The policy of the new denomination allowed only congregations that have membership in area conferences to be members of the denomination (this policy was different in the former General Conference Mennonite Church that did allow individual congregations to be in the denomination).
Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia had been a member both in the GC Eastern District and the MC Franconia Conference. Germantown had become a welcoming congregation, with openly gay members and public statements of inclusion. During the 1990s, Franconia Conference voted to remove Germantown, but the Eastern District could not because, like the other GC conferences, it do not have provision for the removal of congregations. When the merger was approved (which meant with the new polity, conferences could kick congregations out), leaders of congregations that had already decided to split from the new denomination because it was seen to be too liberal, acted at the EDC annual meeting just before they left the conference to get EDC to kick out Germantown.
When the merger was approved, the various conferences from the two merging denominations had also to decide whether to join the new denomination. The Virginia Conference contained two districts that did not favor the merger and threatened to (and eventually did) leave rather than be part of MC USA. Numerous other individual congregations also shared similar sentiments. One of the presenting issues was the lack of rigorous enough rejection of homosexuality (this despite the Membership Guidelines and various Virginia Conference actions such as the above-mentioned prohibition against “contrary advocacy”).
While this process was proceeding, a tiny congregation in Harrisonburg—Broad Street Mennonite Church—agreed to allow its meeting space to be used for a same-sex wedding (neither of the partners were part of the congregation). Another congregation in the conference raised objections and threatened to leave the conference if Broad Street weren’t forced to refuse to allow the wedding. The congregation, which had no gay members and had not made a public statement in favor of inclusion, refused this demand. In the course of just a few months, the conference decided to kick Broad Street out over this refusal. Ironically, the congregation that had initially raised the issue left the conference anyhow.
At this same time, VMC leadership also was pursuing discipline against a pastor of a different conference congregation, Kathleen Temple (my wife) of Shalom Mennonite Congregation (here’s a detailed account of what happened). Kathleen sought to adhere to the no “contrary advocacy” demands of the conference, but was under scrutiny because of her unwillingness to agree theologically with the conference position on “homosexuality.” Ultimately, the conference leaders decided to take away Kathleen’s ordination.
The soul of MC USA
MC USA has continued to experience people making threats to leave it. The threats are used as leverage to try to impose conformity with restrictive denomination statements. The dynamic is on-going because the numbers favoring inclusiveness have continued to grow. The recent emergence of the Pink Menno movement has provided powerful evidence of the growing presence within Mennonite churches of those with inclusive beliefs, especially among young people. The Pink Mennos have had a prominent public presence at the last several MC USA conventions, asking for the church that they are part of to become more inclusive.
Even more recently, an MC USA conference, the Mountain States Mennonite Conference, affirmed the call to ministry of a lesbian pastor by one of its congregations and granted ministry credentials to this pastor. And Eastern Mennonite University has initiated a “listening process” to discern whether the school will implement a policy of hiring gay faculty and staff. And a group of over 150 MC USA credentialed pastors (and a few whose credentials have been removed) signed an open letter calling for more inclusiveness.
These events have led to a sense of crisis among many. And a renewal, it appears, of threats by some congregations to leave the denomination. I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a leader in the largest MC USA conference where he expressed a serious expectation that a major split is quite likely in the near future over these issues.
My sense is that this current crisis, whether or not it is the most serious one we have faced yet in this 30+ year process of coming to terms with the presence of gay Mennonite church members, has roots in the action by denominational leaders at the 1983 Bethlehem Assembly to dismantle the Brethren and Mennonite Council booth.
The terrible irony here is that those courageous BMC activists made the Mennonite churches a wonderful offer back then. “We are willing,” they in effect said, “to face intense hostility in order to help you to learn to talk about these issues, to help you to learn to know us as human beings, to help you in your work to discern the work of the Spirit in our present day.” BMC’s purpose was not actually so much to do its work on behalf of gay Mennonites (that certainly was part of the work) as it was to do its work on behalf of the Mennonite churches, on behalf of the spiritual well-being of this community of Christians that the BMC members themselves loved.
By dismantling that booth, a slap in the face that—to the BMCers’ everlasting credit—did not drive advocates for inclusion away, the denominational leaders set in motion a dynamic that continues today. The people who manifest a spirit of fear, a spirit of destruction and coercion, a spirit of willingness to leave and even destroy the denomination if they don’t get their way—these people have been empowered by the continual enablement of the threat dynamic that we see in the history recounted above.
About ten years ago, my home church (Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg) initiated a process that led to our transfer from Virginia Mennonite Conference to Central District Conference. Just last Sunday, we spent our worship service re-introducing Central District to the congregation.
I was struck with a sense that Central District is indeed the future of MC USA. I won’t make this a prediction, but I will suggest one way to see how things may go. At the heart of the Central District ethos is a commitment (in harmony with the practices of the old General Conference Church that CDC originates in) to being church together amidst diversity. Central District does not have a mechanism to remove congregations. When there are differences, it is not an option to tell a congregation that you must fit into our mold or else you will be kicked out. So there is no leverage available to leaders or congregations who would threaten to leave unless someone else is kicked out or at least disciplined and forced to conform.
I have often wondered what the past 12 years in MC USA would have been like (and what the future would look like) if the merging denomination had followed the GC path of no provision for kicking people out rather than the MC path of the constant possibility of top-down coercion and threats. As it turns out, I suspect, the GC polity (ala Central District) is where MC USA ultimately will end up anyhow. But it seems as if there are two very different kinds of path to get there.
One path is that the denomination itself makes an overt decision to change how our polity works. We would do this intentionally and allow for extended education and conversation and try to have as much support and agreement concerning this change as possible. We would recognize that some congregations would not accept the change and we would accept that such congregations may leave.
The other path would be the longer term result of congregations continuing to split off, denominational leaders continuing to empower the threat dynamic, on-going ill-feeling and low and even high level conflicts. Finally, the people that remain will be those who adhere to a GC-like approach.
As I reflect on the current ferment, I wonder about denominations and about our denomination in particular. I fear that too easily Mennonites have come to equate “church” with “institutional church, i.e., denomination.” I hear a lot of people, especially leaders, use the language of “the church” (in the singular) when they talk about the denomination, with the implication that this is a coherent, stable entity.
Such a concept of church as institution/denomination can lead to a kind of idolatry, it seems to me. One way this idolatry expresses itself is when violent, hurtful actions (or inactions) happen for the sake of insuring the institution’s survival. The above litany of the dynamic of coercive threats, the stifling of conversation, and punitive discipline contains all too many examples of such violence for the perceived sake of institutional survival.
Yet, the denomination can exist and not be an idol. It can be seen as penultimate, as existing not as an end in itself but in order to serve the vision of the gospel—summarized most concisely as love your neighbor as yourself. And I do think the MC USA denomination does serve this vision (at times). The institutions can and do (at times) empower Mennonites better and more effectively to love our neighbors.
This commitment to love the neighbor (which Jesus, Paul, and John all tell us is how we love and serve God) should be at the heart of our thinking about our denomination. Of course, the neighbor includes the gay person (and straight person—and those who are hostile toward the gay person). Too often, MC USA has compromised on the call to pursue this love for the sake of denominational survival. Our terrible irony is that such compromises have continued the denomination on a self-destructive path and made marshaling our spiritual resources for creative response to our present crisis much more difficult.
Our deepest hope, though, is that regardless of the viability of our denomination as institution, the opportunity to embody the way of Jesus in our broken world remains. Nothing stops any of us from pursuing that opportunity.
45 thoughts on “Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 2)”
Good stuff, TG. Assuming You’ve heard about the Shenandoah confession of faith.
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I have heard of the Shenandoah Confession. Indeed, one of my star students did most of the heavy lifting in creating it.
Here’s a link: Shenandoah Confession
Thanks, Ted, for this thorough recount and analysis. It’s especially ironic that as congregations have continued to peel away from MC USA, more and more have joined on with BMC and its Supportive Communities Network.
Ted, I reached the same conclusion as you did, that “the denomination itself makes an overt decision to change how our polity works,” as you’ll see in my response to the “Discerning God’s Will Together” book. I wonder if you’ve thought more about what a process to evolve our polity (that truly allows “for extended education and conversation”) might look like.
I can imagine what such a process would look like, Dave. It’s harder to imagine getting a chance to put it into practice.
This is largely an accurate description of what has happened in broad strokes. I think you could step back a bit further and get a larger perspective yet.
In recent years when non-Mennonites have asked about the practice of Mennonites, I have observed that there is no single practice in worship. Mennonite congregations look like most other denominations in their various iterations, save the most liturgical and most extreme fundamentalist and pentecostal congregations. There are still some congregations that follow worship and organizational styles of the Mennonite denominaiton of the 50’s and 60’s, but most have been assimilated and resemble congregations in their surrounding geographic areas. Separating the institutional components of MCUSA, like it’s schools, MCC and MDS and other groups from the denomination wold allow individual congregations to relate to other Mennonites as the Spirit moves them in their context. It is time for the dissolution of the organized denomination, IMO, where leaders fight a losing battle to please everyone. Mennonite conflicts are a direct reflection of what is happening in society at large, a trend that has ended Mennonite uniqueness as a witness in the world.
One point that I think is important contextually is the position of Mennonite congregations on people who are active in the military. While membership was restricted to practicing pacifists 50 years ago, there are few Mennonite congregations who would draw a line and insist on a position of non-resistance for members, even among the more “liberal” of our congregations. The loss of this unique identifying trait underlies my observation that assimilation is the rule for most Mennonites.
Which returns me to wondering what point there wold be to try to keep a single, unifying denominational structure? Or, further, what point there would be to attend a Mennonite congregation when convenience and other factors might make it easier to express one’s wish to follow Jesus in a congregation of another denomination?
This wineskin is rotted and leaking. It is time for a new one.
In your response to the decline of enrollment in Mennonite Colleges, perhaps it is the lack of support from parents who see additional value in sending their children to denominational colleges. While there is a premium charged to attend a Mennonite College, there is sometimes a sense that having Mennonite professors who undermine 18 years of teaching is more threatening than sending their children to a place where they expect to see wickedness. As Menno Colleges have been perceived to lighten the rules on partying and liberal sexuality, the value proposition from these schools has decreased immensely. Take a look at enrollment of schools like Wheaton, Cedarville, Messiah, IWU Mt Vernon and others where the student covenant is far more restrictive. These colleges are not facing declining enrollment.
As our students attend non-menno schools, they are introduced to other passionate believers who will never cross the doors of a Mennonite Church. They marry outside of the church and our church loses those who are passionate about their faith and retains those who want the church “include” them on their terms.
Likewise, as churches/member find less commonality on issues that they see as key, such as their understanding of sin, repentance, and centrality of Christ, they will leave and seek to affiliate with other like-minded congregations. Sometimes the quiet in the land would rather walk away than fight a well-oiled political machine that sometimes appears more skilled in the use of political organizing and social media than Bible Study and discipleship. I would suggest that there is no middle ground because in the eyes of Pink Menno and BMC, there is simply no way for a church to be loving toward queer people without offering full membership, marriage and ministry, so how can the two co-exist? How can we remain brothers when you are teaching your children that my faith offering repentance and hope is one of bigotry and hate? The action of leaving (or “Threat” as you characterize it) is is not violence or the wielding of power, but instead could be argued the most peaceful way of resolving the issue.
I realize I am coming rather late to this discussion. However, the question ‘how can we remain brothers…?’ seems to rather miss the point: We are family. I have three brothers, and we disagree on many things. But we remain family, despite our differences.
Just as it is wrong to deny that the image of God is present in someone with whom we disagree, so too it is wrong to see ‘brotherhood’ as something that depends upon our agreement or disagreement. (And if you are not willing to admit to the presence of God’s image and the redeeming power of God’s love extended to someone who disagrees with your position — then perhaps yes that is bigotry. But even were I to think your position is bigted, that does not negate the reality of being family together. As me sometime about my grandmother who was in her 80’s before she finally came to accept it was not appropriate to use the ‘N’ word!)
Just as you have evolved in your understanding of faithfulness and discipleship since the 1970s, so too my knowledge and understanding have been challenged and evolved; so too have our expressions as congregations and denominations changed.
It seems at the very least — even if we don’t agree — that we remain brothers and sisters in our humility and our recognition that we are all disciples and pilgrims in our journey of faith. “Remaining brothers” is not at all the question: you ARE my brother. The question is, how do we treat our brothers and sisters when we do not agree.
Good insight, Mary (good to hear from you after all these years). I think the family metaphor is quite useful.
Would that we might understand that our “family” is the human family in its entirety and that our loyalty to our brothers and sisters must rise above ethnic, racial, gender, orientation, national, political or religious differences of any kind. Why should we not suppose that the family and household of “God” includes all, be they Mennonite Christian, any other brand of Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Animist, Agnostic, Atheist, etc. since none of our “faiths” cancel our common and essential humanity. Or are we doomed to the exclusivism of worshiping a tribal deity where, clearly, only some are welcomed to the table?
Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Keith.
Two points of clarification.
(1) I didn’t mean to be assuming anything about why Mennonite youth don’t go to Mennonite schools. I was simply inferring that it bodes ill for the future of MC USA keeping its youth in the denomination for fewer Mennonite youth to be going to denominational colleges—based on the demonstrated connection between attending Mennonite colleges and remaining in Mennonite congregations.
(2) I don’t think that “the action of leaving” is coercive. It might indeed be “the most peaceful way of resolving the issue.” My point is about using the threat to leave in a coercive way. Certainly people and congregations should be free to leave. But they should be resisted when they use a threat to leave to try to coerce the broader faith community.
From my own pastoral experience I have come to believe that anyone who threatens to leave, be it a person, congregation, or entire conference, has already emotionally left. The best response is to say, “Thank you for leaving, we have wasted way too much time responding to your threats, and we need to get back to the business of being the people of God doing the work of Jesus as we understand it. Goodbye, and God bless you.”
Reminds me of something John Wesley once wrote in his journal about his estranged wife, ‘For what I cause I know not to this day, [my wife] set out for Newcastel, purposing “never to return.” I did not leave her: I did not send her away: I will not call her back.’” (p. 174)
My question is whether this is the way we should feel about a church divorce, or whether we should continue to “call folks back”.
Great stuff, Ted. It’s good of you to lay out the history, painful as it is, so thoroughly. One minor correction: it was “EDC”, not “PDC”, that kicked out Germantown.
I find your thesis compelling, and probably believe it myself, but seeing it laid out in full color, and having been in a position of conference leadership myself, I do wonder what the alternatives are or were, and whether they would have been any better. I do wish that MC/GC and MC USA leaders had stopped/would stop the coercion and threats, or the acceptance/acknowledgement of such threats. But when one is in a position of trying to “hold the center”, the options don’t look very simple.
After all, one of the alternatives would have been for the Old MC to crack down completely, kicking out all dissenting congregations and staying “true” to the “noncelibate homosexuality is sin” argument (akin to Lancaster Conference’s 1997 statement cited in the Lin Garber article you cited). A likely scenario is that all dissenting/expelled congregations would have then shifted over to the GCs (as many were already dually-affiliated), leaving two denominations with major distinctions (since the possibility of merger then would have been rather small).
An alternative on the other side would have been for MC USA leaders to stand up for a GC polity and to tell those who think that “noncelibate homosexuality is sin” that they can believe that themselves, but they can’t force that on others. While I would have applauded such a move, it probably would have led to Lancaster, North Central, and Franklin Conferences (at least), and many other congregations, opting out of MC USA. They’d all have formed their own separate denomination, probably, and what was supposed to be a “merger”, a “transformation”, no less, would have resulted in the biggest split since the initial formation of the GCs in the 1800s. I’m sure the leaders at the time didn’t want to be responsible for that! (It was already painful enough to split along national lines, after all.)
But would it have been worse than now? Or better? I honestly don’t know.
Thanks for this, Dave. It’s great to get your perspective.
I did notice the “PDC” mistake and corrected it.
I certainly agree that for those trying “hold the center,” there are few obviously attractive options. And I certainly don’t doubt that most of those in leadership roles during this history were sincere people seeking to do their best.
But it’s also not obvious, as I think you agreeing, that these other scenarios you suggest would have been worse than what happened. Without thinking about them a lot, I suspect they actually might have been better. Certainly the end of the General Conference Mennonite Church has been the near death knell of the formerly vital Mennonite center in Newton, Kansas. And, personally, I would rather the Canada/US split have not happened (it might in any case, of course, but if the GC/MC merger hadn’t happened the nationalist splits may not have either).
So, it seems to me that our inability to anticipate all that much about outcomes argues for strong efforts to act out of a sense of what is most truthful and most consistent with the way of Jesus—even if we are afraid it might lead to “the biggest split since the initial formation of the GCs.”
The problem with what did happen was that the threatening forces were given a “victory” with the 2001 Membership Guidelines that did a lot of violence against vulnerable gay Mennonites that still has significant ripples down to today—and, if my thesis is correct, helped diminish the soul of the denomination and make it more difficult to deal redemptively with our present issues.
Since you sound open to a denominational division, then what do you think of the idea a friend of mine suggested more than a decade ago: We in SCN, or SCN-leaning, congregations, could leave MC USA amiably and form our own denomination, the Progressive Mennonite Church?
If the Membership Guidelines are as violent as you say, then maybe we should go our separate ways, accept that the mainstream Mennonite denomination is not ready to be accepting, and form our own new body.
Could it be that progressives really do want more than mere tolerance, we want to change the church, to be more like us? (Speaking for myself, I certainly do, because I’m part of it!) If this is the case, though, would it perhaps be more honest and courageous to strike out on our own, with all those who wish to be welcoming, affirming, and progressive, than to continue chafing against a COF we can’t fully agree with, Membership Guidelines we don’t agree with, etc.? After all, we knew what the “rules” were going in.
Personally, I am a denominational (and conference) supporter (because of the affiliative benefits these bodies bring — i.e., support beyond the local congregation, friendships, strength in numbers, etc.), so I have not wanted to go this route. But I wonder why others do not (especially given some commenters’ low opinions of denominations).
While your original thesis is reasonable for those who see the issue the way we do, an opposite thesis is believed by many others in the denomination, as represented by the letter recently sent by pastors in Indiana-Michigan Conference: “We believe the ongoing dialogue over blessing same-sex relationships, credentialing pastors in same-sex relationships and the additional demands of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) advocacy groups is crippling our witness and mission to the world.”
Which thesis is right? Both sides feel equally strong that theirs is, of course, but which one is? And more importantly, how can we possibly have unity among congregations and conferences who differ so strongly over the *description* of the problem, much less its possible solutions?
Given these competing theses, I am not sure there is hope for a successful synthesis this time around. I pray that I’m wrong, and that our leaders, fallible and finite and criticized (by both sides) as they are, manage to work out a Third Way forward. Undoubtedly any proposal will receive criticism from progressives for not going far enough, and “cause” conservative congregations to leave, since they will feel that the church has abandoned them.
But maybe one solution is for progressives to be the “bigger” people (the elder sister/brother) and choose to amiably form our own new denomination rather than take part in a theological war over the soul of MC USA. Otherwise, a partial, unsatisfying compromise may be the best we can get.
As one of the many non-ethnic Mennonites in my congregation, Saint Louis Mennonite Fellowship (SLMF), I am a bit amused by the lack of awareness among conservative Mennonite churches to the issue of homosexuality. You are not keeping LGBT people out of your church, you are simply making them live secret lives. Christ welcomed everyone! I believe he would welcome all of his children as God made them and that all of those whose habits we deplore, smokers, obese, odoriferous, loud, socially awkward. I see so many people marginalized in the churches. Where is the love of Christ in our actions? For me, “inclusive” means everyone; regardless of sexual orientation, past criminal history, mental health history, personality, size, or any of the many traits that can make one of God’s children less appealing to our selfish sensitivities.
I am saddened when anyone leaves the fellowship of other Christians, but do not think we can yield to such pressure. Perhaps we will not be the Mennonite Church USA, perhaps we will be a small group of like-minded Mennonite churches whose mission is smaller, but true to our vision of Christ.
I can worship at SLMF because I know I am welcome, whatever my nature as given me by God, whatever my sexuality, whatever my failings, whatever my hurts in life. If we become part of a small but vibrant denomination, the light will shine with more beauty and power.
Thanks. This is extremely helpful for those of us who grew up in the denomination through these years but were unaware of what was taking place.
Ted, I also really appreciate the work you’ve done to lay this out. I also think you nailed it that Mennonite polity is a huge part of this. I have never been clear exactly what form of polity the Mennonite Church has embraced–and frankly it matters. My hope had been that the Anabaptists would do this well but I have been disappointed. As another blogger has pointed out, continually kicking the can down the road results in violence to those who wish for community.
My own opinion is that few models of ecclesiastical polity in existence today provide the structure to love in the way Jesus commanded us to love nor to hold the tensions of opposing views. You said it well when you said, “Such a concept of church as institution/denomination can lead to a kind of idolatry, it seems to me. One way this idolatry expresses itself is when violent, hurtful actions (or inactions) happen for the sake of insuring the institution’s survival.”
I believe that if we were able to embrace a new polity that allowed for dissent, it would be revolutionary. And many people would hate it because it would not satisfy the binary game of who is in and who is out which we’re addicted to as a culture and unfortunately, as a church.
This is so helpful both as an historical document, and as a call to give birth! As a student at AMBS in 1979 I wrote my story as a closeted gay and shared it with the editor of the monthly “Christian Living” magazine. He liked it and published it, but when I shared my reality with a counselor at AMBS, I was told that I would need to get “professional help” to due with my attraction to other men. I dove deeper into the closet for 30 years until by God’s grace I moved to a city with a Mennonite Church that provided safety to talk, and persons who walked with me. For the rest of the Mennonite Church, I am still “Don” (as I was when the article was published), but for my community of faith, I have the name given me at birth. What a joy to be safe, no longer rejected, and afraid!
Important reflections, Ted. As one with dual affiliation with the Church of the Brethren and Mennonite Church, I can say the denominational dilemmas you identify in your post are the same in the CoB. Almost weekly I am drawn into conversations about the sinking Brethren Boat.
Two decades ago, the resistance to LGBTQ inclusion was tolerated with regret by many progressives in the church by suggesting that at least the denominations were forward looking on peace and social service to neighbor both nationally and internationally. Now, it seems the unfortunate position on queer sex has become a magnet for other regressive theologies in the denominations on ecclesiology, atonement and politics. It has also become a central reason for the exit and exile of many from the churches.
Within the context of Christ and culture understandings, many thoughtful members of both the Mennonite Church, USA and the Church of the Brethren have concluded that God living in the world has moved far beyond the tribal gods now dwelling in denominational structures and carefully managed by churchly bureaucrats. We are living in the twilight of denominational gods. These gods are carrying a sickness unto death.
Yet there are happy examples of CoB and Menno congregations dissenting from a sexual and ecclesial polity locked into the cultural-linguistic understands of 1982 and they are growing! In and through their radical hospitality they are successfully contributing to the difficult peace of the city and poetically and prophetically announcing the return of God.
Helpful, and interesting, history Ted. Where do you come out on pacifism – or the inclusion/exclusion of active members of the military as a criteria for membership?
Good question, Rick. I am working on a new post, “How Mennonite Church USA might survive: A fantasy.” I hope to address your question there in the broader context of a vision of what the denomination could be.
A quick response here. I’m opposed to excluding active members of the military. In general, I’m opposed to using membership as a boundary maintenance tactic rather than as a welcoming tactic. This boundary maintenance mentality is one of the roots of the problems I describe in my post here.
Of course, many Mennonite congregations do accept military people as members and many more accept non-pacifists. I’m a strong pacifist, of course. But I think the best tactic is the strong, clear teaching, preaching, and practice of pacifism in our churches and denomination. If we are clearly embodying the way of peace and military people want to be part of us, I’d say praise the Lord!
Unless I missed it, when and who decided on the moratorium on letters/articles? on homosexuality in TheMennonite? It seems like the proverbial ostrich, or is it playing opossum and hoping the topic will go away?
I think the “moratorium” is over now, Jonathan. I submitted an opinion piece critiquing the way the Confession of Faith has been misused in relation to homosexuality. I was told that they had to wait for the ending of the moratorium to be approved by their board. The article was then published in January 2013. There have been other pieces since, including a nice on by Norman Kraus in the March 2014 issue.
Good stuff, Ted, and thanks for this valuable history. I well remember the difficult days of censure to Kathleen and have always appreciated your advocacy and lived-out witness as a couple. A friend of mine was at the Bethlehem, PA conference. He told me that not only was the BMC booth dismantled by conference leaders but security police were called to forcefully remove the BMC folks from the premises. Have you heard this from others? For him it was the last straw and he left the church. Wondering if other reports and more details from that watershed conference action might be available. FYI, Stephanie Krehbiel is doing her dissertation on this very same history and I encourage you to invite her to include her writing and research here. On this issue you appear to be on the same page.
Since you and Carol (below) both reference the Bethlehem ’83 events, I thought it might be good to share what Lin Garber wrote in his essay that Ted cited in Part 1. I wasn’t there, but from what Lin writes, while exclusion clearly happened, a number of opportunities and openings also happened:
“But at Bethlehem, the following events happened:
BMC set up a display with the initial approval of the governing boards, but it was ordered to be dismantled after a few hours. The Mennonite Women’s Caucus then provided display facilities at its booth.
A workshop session, with a sympathetic theologian and a sympathetic psychiatrist leading, was held with an overflow crowd in attendance.
BMC was assigned a private room within the convention facility to which drop-ins were welcomed.
The Region V Listening Committee conducted a session at which several gay men were invited to contribute.”
I was at Bethlehem 83 and I remember it as Dave has outlined it above. I attended the workshop, and also dropped in at the private room to talk with the BMC personnel.
Thank you so much for your very helpful and insightful analyses, Ted. I particularly appreciate your acknowledgement of BMC related members who, with courage and graciousness, offered to take on the hard work of conversation and vulnerability at a time in history where the consequences of such actions were much greater than they are today.
I resonate with your insight that the dismantling of the BMC booth symbolized the shift in the loyalties and commitments of denominational leaders. It is as if in that moment, lgbt people became, if not “the enemy,” then certainly “the problem” both for the threatening conservatives and for denominational leaders as well. This “problem” designation was carried forward into the way “the issue” has been framed and addressed ever since, something that even allies have often accepted without much debate. Case in point is the recent grand “elephant in the room” experience at EMU that is being hailed as such a ground shaking and wonderful event. Were there even any actual “elephants” in the room??
What I most valued, Ted, was your assertion that the way the denomination has treated lgbtq people has deep implications for the soul of the denomination. Here I would argue that denominational and conference leaders have not just allowed or enabled “those who are opposed to a more gay friendly denomination to exercise influence by use of threats to leave the denomination.” Rather, many leaders have themselves become active players in this violence, even taking the initiative at times. One recent example out of many is in Central Plains Conference. Here the conference has taken it upon itself to review a pastor’s credentials simply because her congregation had developed a marriage statement that did not specifically reject the possibility of her officiating at a same sex wedding. While the pastor’s credentials were not removed (since, after all, she had never officiated at such a service), she was none-the-less warned that this could occur should that status change. This was a preemptive strike carefully choreographed by conference leadership to inhibit any such actions on her part, and also to discourage any lgbtq person who cared about her from requesting such pastoral care. As far as I know, the Executive Board has not indicated that it had any concerns about the conference “process.” I don’t anticipate any such announcements.
All of this is to say that I think the violence is considerably deeper and more pervasive than even Ted has indicated, Ted, and that more is at risk in terms of the denominational soul. As a society, we have grown significantly in our understanding of the very harmful consequences of anti-lgbtq behaviors and attitudes upon the well being and health of lgbtq people. Claims of innocence are no longer valid. By ignoring these realities and continuing to support, engage in, or overlook behaviors and attitudes that do harm to lgbtq people, leadership is willfully participating in the violence. This makes the work of reconciliation and justice even harder.
Sadly, I do not have confidence in the ability of the current denominational leadership to take the risks, model the vulnerability, and take the responsibility that would be necessary to begin the kind of spiritual healing that is required. We have to look to other sources for that kind of leadership. Fortunately, some of this is happening in SCN (Supportive Communities Network) congregations that are open and affirming, among courageous pastors, theologians and scholars, within Pink Menno, and even within some conferences like Central District and Mountain States. Whether this is enough remains to be seen, although I am encouraged by the growing energy.
Strength to you, Ted!
Thanks so much, Carol. Good to hear from you. I fear you are right about the depth of the violence. I hadn’t read any of the letters from numerous pastors referred to in the March issue of The Mennonite when I wrote my blog post. It is rather overwhelming to see the hostility expressed again and again.
I do believe that the leadership you refer to in your final paragraph will be “enough” to keep the healing work going, even if it won’t happen within our current structures.
Carol: I am cautiously optimistic that the leaders of the church will not be as reactive this time. They know that there is a strong tidal wave of thoughtful and faithful support for a position that is more affirming. That certainly doesn’t make it easy for them, but I expect to see something that we have not yet seen from our MC USA leadership.
Good statement, Ted. Thanks. I wonder whether you over-simplify the General Conference tradition. In some ways, it is more congregational. Even if conferences didn’t kick out congregations, some congregations, disaffected by theology, left. Once a whole university was started by congregations concerned that the majority of the church was fast losing their firm commitment to premillennial dispensationalism (Grace University).
I think there may be more than “two paths” in the fork in the road that you identify. Back in December 2000 had a conversation with a conversative Mennonite bishop in Lancaster Conference who didn’t like my web page on the Bible and Homosexuality (http://ljohns.ambs.edu/Homosexuality.htm). He said, “Unless you are willing to draw a line in the sand, and say, ‘Over this line I will not go, and you must not go,'” you are not and cannot be a faithful Christian. Perhaps he’s right. I have spent a lot of time since then wondering what it was about lines in the sand that reveal or prove faithfulness.
I think the more likely scenario is that the church will not choose one of the two paths, … but rather both.
This is certainly a painful time for the church. But it need not be filled with Angst. You are right that over-concern about Angst in the church has influenced too many leaders to choose the conservative route. In some ways this is a wonderful time for the church–a time to talk about what really matters in the kingdom of God. If we do not get overly concerned about the shape of the church, or the numbers realigning in some way, we might find it possible to thank God that March 2013 represents a wonderful and almost unparalleled opportunity for people in Mennonite Church USA to engage in creative theology! A time to pursue what it is, exactly, that God is calling the church to be and to do. Thanks be to God!
Loren, You are right that the history of the GC church and its congregationalism complicate Ted’s interpretation at bit. However, I think he is generally correct in his narrative hermeneutic.
As you know, the GC seminary was in partnership with the Church of the Brethren seminary in Chicago before the birth of AMBS. Thus, during and after the consultations leading to the GC-OM merger creating the MC, USA, several senior GC Menno pastors and leaders who were educational products of the Chicago seminary spoke quite candidly to some of us about their fears of the imperial or colonizing tendencies of the Old Mennonites.
Several of these GC leaders suggested this was much more about “culture” and “a mode of being in the world” than theology proper. They predicted the strong possibility of the division we are now seeing on the horizon, not simply because of queer sex, but because of what LGBTQ inclusion signifies about one’s cultural-linguistic understanding of the other, the individual & community, freedom of conscience, social pluralism and a democracy of the soul.
One irony, though, Scott, is that as I remember it by far the strongest push for the merger came from GC leaders. And in the 1999 assembly, the GC delegates strongly passed the merger resolution while the MC delegates failed to pass it—leading to the 2001 Membership Guidelines. It seems likely that the urge to merge was a main reason why the GCs accepted most of the main points of the MC polity (including that conferences can kick congregations out and that congregations have to belong to a conference to be part of the denomination).
Oops. I meant March 2014!
Ted, Yes, this is correct and it is an irony. I remember two unofficial, informal conversations, one at Laurelville and one in North Newton, in which GCs explicitly stated Christ & culture worries about the Old Mennonites and their sometimes unconscious desire to maintain old, Amish-like bishoprics with tight borders and boundaries defining who is in and who is out. There were further reflections on the punitive culture of the Mennonite Church and how uncritically the violence of the ban or church discipline replaced the violence of the sword. With a rule-based doctrine of pacifism, the human emotions of anger and aggression must go somewhere and this peace has destroyed many.
Thank you for this history. I believe the disconnect in communication between both sides is due to differing ideas about interpretation and authority of scripture. All dialogue about homosexuality that doesn’t address this issue is probably going to include a lot of people talking past each other.
I Corinthians 6:9-10 – – “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Does the Mennonite church not believe the Bible anymore?
Thank you for bringing Scripture into the conversation, it seems to be pointedly missing from most of the conversation on this subject. My only comment would be this: as Christians we must defend biblical teaching no matter how difficult or different from the current cultural passions or norms. God does call us to be hospitable and to embrace marriage, all within His framework, not one of our design. Sometimes taking a stand for God means offending a sinner. Today it could be you who is called out for sinful behavior, tomorrow it could be me. Nobody should be exempt. Not even practicing homosexuals.
Apparently not. The leadership declared homosexuality an unsin.
I was considering attending a Mennonite church for the first time, and wanted to do a little research on what Mennonites believe. I appreciate the candor in the articles and comments, and based on what I have read, have decided to continue seeking elsewhere. Will you please be so kind as to pray for me, that I will find a body of believers to worship and grow with? Thank you for your petitions in my behalf–
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Imho the special charisma of Anabaptism is the gift of withdrawal from the world – Mennonite churches have a justification only as a kind of forecourt to Amish and Hutterites..
Anabaptist ought to renounce at least some fashion of the world; it is rather unimportant if that are buttons or homosexuality.
On the other hand. homosexuals ought to have formed their own intentional communities and to show that they can live as rightly and as productive as Amish or Hutterites; in this case they would have proved their right to be a part of Anabaptism. But they didn’t (couldn’?) do that.