[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.