Ted Grimsrud—July 1, 2014
It’s difficult for me not to be discouraged by the report from Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board released today concerning MC USA’s Mountain States Conference and the licensing for ministry of my friend Theda Good, a married lesbian pastor. As is typical for such reports (produced by several hands in times of stress and intense disagreement), this one is full of ambiguities and even internal contradictions, not to mention convoluted and passive-aggressive sentences that may taken to support various interpretations.
Still, the main thrust of the report seems to be to rebuke Mountain States for its action. One point that is clear is the insistence that conferences are being told that they should not take actions that are at variance with denominational positions. A big question is whether this insistence has any teeth. It seems to be a historical fact that over and over again Mennonite conferences have indeed taken actions that are at variance with denominational positions—just in relation to ordination of pastors we might think of the ordination of non-pacifist pastors, the ordination of divorced and remarried pastors, and, maybe most relevant to our current situation, the ordination of women.
The language in this current statement, when scrutinized, seems more to be language of “this is what we (the Executive Board) want” than of “you must do this or you will pay.” Perhaps such language reflects a desire by the report writers to be as gentle as possible—or, maybe more likely, the implicit recognition that the Executive Board doesn’t really have a lot of leverage against a dissenting conference. The historical examples indicate that usually conferences have gotten away with whatever variances they have chosen. At the same time, we must recognize that our current environment seems utterly unique. Already many other unprecedented actions have been taken to censer, exclude, and punish those at variance with the stated positions of the denomination concerning homosexuality.
I decided a number of years ago to try to pay less attention to internal politics in my denomination of choice, Mennonite Church USA. The last General Assembly I attended was Wichita ’95 (which I should say, was a terrific experience—I’m kind of glad that my last Assembly was one I can remember with much happiness). I haven’t followed denominational issues very closely—including this current situation with Mountain States. So I don’t have any inside information or special insights about it. But it still has piqued my interest, no matter how reluctant I may feel about caring much about such institutions and their struggle not to self-destruct.
Last February and March, I allowed my interest in MC USA’s future to stimulate me to write what proved to be the most popular piece I have ever posted, “Will Mennonite Church USA Survive?” And I followed this up with “How Mennonite Church USA might survive.” [I will admit I that did harbor the tiniest hope that some folks from MC USA’s Executive Board might want to converse with me about the ideas I share (since I assume that at least a few of them were among the thousands who added to my “hit” total). That none did may add to my distress at what they came up with last weekend.]
This current report, which I do not plan to read real closely or try very hard to understand, stimulated a couple of thoughts. I’m taking the opportunity here to share them hoping for further conversation.
An encouraging (or discouraging) trend
Last week, as I read about a large congregation, Clinton Frame Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, switching from MC USA’s Indiana-Michigan Conference to the South Central Conference, I thought how this reflected a trend that may or may not be helpful for the healthy future of the denomination. My idea was that what happens with the Mountain States issue over the weekend would indicate how hopeful this trend might be.
In the past several years, a number of MC USA congregations have switched conferences. It’s an interesting dynamic. At the time of the merger that created MC USA in 2000, congregations that were members of both denominations and hence two different conferences (the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church), had three choices—they could stay in both conferences, they could choose one over the other, or they could work to merge the area conferences from the two denominations into a single conference (interestingly, Mountain States [which had been an MC conference] agreed to join the GC Western District and the MC South Central Conference; Western District also agreed to this merger, but South Central didn’t quite have strong enough support to make the change—hence, the three conferences remained distinct; this entire issue would have played out differently had that merger happened). From the beginning, a few congregations decided to end their membership in one of their conferences, surely due to a sense of less ecclesial compatibility.
I may not have this history completely accurate, but as I remember it at least one congregation—Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship—was “orphaned” with the merger. It had been kicked out of its MC conference and belonged to the GC as an independent congregation. The new MC USA polity did not allow for independent congregations to be members, so Atlanta needed to find a conference that would accept it. The Central District Conference, a former GC conference, with a long history of tolerating differences, agreed to accept Atlanta even though Georgia did not fit within the existing Central District geographical footprint. (Geography was not a stated criterion for conference membership in the new denomination.)
About the time of the process that led to Atlanta joining Central District, the congregation I belong to, Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg, Virginia, became increasingly anxious about its future in Virginia Conference—anxiety greatly exacerbated when Virginia Conference summarily kicked Broad Street Mennonite Church out due to dissenting views on homosexuality. We desired a conference that we would feel safe in, though at that point no disciplinary procedures had begun against us. As far as I know, Shalom was the first congregation in MC USA that was in good standing in one conference that wanted to switch to another. The Atlanta precedent helped Central District be open to including another congregation from outside its geographical footprint.
We were given the idea then that we had gotten in the door just in time. That our ability to switch conferences (thus remaining in MC USA) and remain theologically at variance with MC USA’s stated positions on homosexuality troubled many. The sense was at that time that the denomination would try to make it harder for congregations to make such a switch (though after our move, St. Paul Mennonite Fellowship in Minnesota joined Central District—so it’s possible my memory makes this opposition to our move stronger than it actually was).
Then something that perhaps had been unexpected began to happen. Congregations that were more conservative than their conferences began to switch—most notably, First Mennonite Church in Berne, Indiana, one of the largest of all MC USA’s congregations left Central District (perhaps in part due to Atlanta, Shalom, and St. Paul joining) and became part of the Ohio Conference. Now this current switch of the Clinton Frame congregation, seemingly for similar reasons (Berne is near Ohio, but Goshen is outside the geographical footprint of South Central Conference). Apparently several other congregations have or will soon make similar moves.
There are major differences between the impulse that led Shalom to switch conferences and that of Clinton Frame. This isn’t just a simple trend with identical motivations from both “left” and “right.” But one key effect of all the switches is the same—the movement toward less ideologically diverse conferences combined with (at this time) sustaining the diversity of the larger denomination.
This is where this trend gets interesting, and where the response to Mountain States perhaps becomes a harbinger of the near future of MC USA. Congregations switching conferences due to ecclesial compatibility could have the impact of increasing the chance of the larger denomination managing to persevere through our current crises. If the denomination is willing to live with the diversity among the conferences and allow each a fair amount of autonomy. Or, it could be that the large, conservative congregations switching conferences could actually strengthen the tendency toward purging those at “variance”—maybe in the future on the level of removing conferences and not only congregations.
I thought of this last week: that the decision concerning Mountain States would give us an indication of how this is all trending. The rebuke of Mountain States that I see in the Executive Board’s report, then, says to me that the forces who want to purge MC USA of “variant” perspectives are dominant right now. In my view, this can’t be good (see my “Will Mennonite Church USA survive?” post for more analysis of why this would be the case). Those who support the rebuke of Mountain States are fighting a battle they can’t win—they will either “succeed” and manage to exclude a few MC USA congregations (but the point of view reflected by Mountain States’s action will remain present in the denomination) or they will simply delay the day when the denomination as a whole reaches the point of accepting its diversity, but with a lot of damage done in the meantime.
A fascinating precedent
I also had another thought—and here even more am I relying on faded memories. It seems that there are some important parallels between this current controversy over credentialing pastors and one that was flaring brightly thirty-some years ago when I first connected with Mennonites. My wife, Kathleen Temple, and I attended the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (now, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) in the Fall of 1980. We affiliated with the Mennonite Church part of AMBS (that was the affiliation of the congregation in Eugene, Oregon, that first acquainted us with Mennonites in the flesh). At that time, there was only one ordained woman, Emma Richards, serving an MC congregation. As I understood it, that ordination had been quite controversial and involved some acting in “variance” from first the congregation and then the conference. The ordination occurred in 1973 and still by 1980 had been followed by no others in the denomination.
That time at AMBS in the early 1980s was actually a watershed period. Probably one-half of the students training for ministry were women—in a denomination that at that time had only one ordained parish pastor. There were no tenured women professors. Change was in the air, and change did come quite quickly (even if not adequately). One part of the change was that even though the actions that led to Emma Richards’s ordination involved some violation of stated denominational positions, the response did not have the intense hostility that the current response to Theda Good’s credentials has had.
It took awhile, but the Mennonite Church before long came to welcome women pastors—even while respecting those congregations as full members who did not share that welcome. It would be interesting to have an informed conversation about similarities and differences between these two issues—credentialing women pastors when doing so went against unanimous denominational policies and credentialing married lesbian and gay pastors when doing so goes against unanimous denominational policies.
I tend to think that one way through the current impasse would be to invoke that past precedent. We learned that we could live with diversity, that we didn’t need to rebuke and threaten to exclude those at variance, and that in fact female pastors turned out to be just as gifted and suited for ministry as male pastors. I believe the same thing could happen with gay and lesbian pastors.
If MC USA is not willing to follow a similar trajectory in the present, it would be helpful to have a conversation about why this is. What is that makes credentialing Theda Good so different from credentialing Emma Richards that would lead to what appear to be quite coercive threats that if carried out could cause extraordinary damage to our denomination? I suspect the answer to this question would require an answer to the broader question that has not heretofore been answered—Why is the “homosexuality” issue important enough that our denomination and its member congregations and institutions would devote the kind of time and energy to resisting change that it has in the past thirty years (see my critique of this dynamic of resisting change, “The Logic of the Mennonite Church USA ‘Teaching Position’ on Homosexuality”)?