Is the Mennonite (Church USA) project doomed? Some ruminations

Ted Grimsrud—April 21, 2015

It’s a fairly relaxed finals week around Eastern Mennonite University, which allows for a few longer and more wide-ranging random conversations. I had two visits today that each ended up focused on the present and future of Mennonites. My thinking was stimulated, and I decided to try to write a few things down.

I guess I remain deeply interested in the slings and arrows of Mennonite Church USA, even though it has been a long time since I participated actively in any denominational or conference activities. I shared my reflections some months ago, “Will Mennonite Church USA Survive?”, “How Mennonite Church USA Might Survive,” and “Is the Survival of Mennonite Church USA Now Less Likely?”

In the eight months since that last post, events have not inspired any more confidence in the possibility of a happy outcome to the crises that seem to be besetting our denomination—though I would also grant that many good things are happening among Mennonite churches and that it’s possible that not as many Mennonites as I think are concerned about denominational politics and struggles.

However, my conversations today reminded me that I do feel concern, and made me think that, as if often the case, writing a bit might be therapeutic.

Whither MC USA?

In one of today’s conversations, my friend talked about discussions he’s had about the future of MC USA, especially in relation to the upcoming general assembly in Kansas City this summer. He has heard from some that the only way through the current struggles in the denomination is to move in a more congregational direction, with less conference-wide and denominational central authority and expectations of uniformity. The delegate said we need to move in a more “GC-like” direction—referring to the polity of the old General Conference Mennonite Church before the 2001 merger that created MC USA.

Now, I agree with this. It’s one of my main arguments in the posts linked above and is actually something I have been saying for about 25 years. But I have been struck lately with how improbable such a move is. I’m not sure quite how to articulate my thought. I have not heard anyone else state it, either. It has to do with what maybe one could call collective-consciousness.

Mennonite “collective-consciousness”

My sense is that “MC-Mennonites” (those from the former Mennonite Church [Old Mennonite] that merged with the GCs) tend to feel a stronger sense of identification with everyone in their organization (be it congregation, conference, or denomination). So, if there is someone in the organization that truly is doing something wrong, that reflects poorly on everyone else. People who feel this way are not likely to be comfortable in any kind of structure that allows the wrong-doers to be members in good standing as well.

The current example would be when Mountain States Conference in MC USA licensed a married lesbian for pastoral ministry. For many, this act seems to have offended them in large part because that makes MC USA as a whole complicit with profound immorality. It has been interesting how this has been framed by many as an offense against the denomination by the “renegade” conference. However such a framing ignores that Mountain States seems to have worked fully in adherence with denominational polity that places licensing and ordination solely in the hands of area conferences.

So, at least in terms of licensing and ordination, there is autonomy for conferences. This actually was, as I understand it, mainly a victory for the MC-polity at the time of the merger because congregational autonomy was greatly reduced. Power was shifted from congregation to conferences, perhaps in part to keep individual deviant congregations in line. However, apparently it was not imagined then that entire conferences would be willing to be accepting of LGBTQ membership and even leadership. Weakening congregational autonomy led to more conference autonomy (everyone at the time seemed leery of providing for increased denominational power).

The response of many to be so outraged about Mountain States action and to threaten to (and already in actuality to) leave the denomination with that action as one of the main stated causes shows antipathy toward conference autonomy when it comes to actions that are offensive to these folks. Their intense reaction to the expression of a little conference autonomy shows how far from accepting a move toward more congregational autonomy many in the denomination would be. So the idea that MC USA as it is now could make such a move seems pretty far-fetched. Such a move toward more congregational autonomy would not be likely to stem the tide of those whose offended sensibilities are pushing them to leave (or at least threaten to leave).

“Collective-consciousness” across the ideological spectrum

Interestingly, though, I don’t think that this sense of collective-consciousness is a monopoly of what we could call forces on the “right” that oppose acceptance of LGBTQ Christians. I have heard many on the “left” express strong feelings about being part of a conference or even denomination that would allow congregations to accept active military personnel as church members.

In my experience in the old General Conference Mennonite Church, I did not sense this same kind of concern. Perhaps one could relate this to a deeper desire among those in the MC tradition for a sense of being part of a pure church. There seems to be a sense that one’s own purity is tainted by being part of a congregation or conference or denomination that does not patrol its boundaries carefully enough.

My suspicion (and I am trying to express this very tentatively) is that this collective-consciousness is pretty powerful. And I also suspect that this may be one reason why it is very difficult to imagine a positive outcome for MC USA. Those who support greater inclusion of LGTBQ people—including affirming those with leadership gifts—are not going to be leaving MC USA. Clearly their numbers are growing, and I can see from my own students at Eastern Mennonite University that the support for inclusion is getting ever stronger among younger Mennonites.

Three likely choices

The people who oppose such inclusion seem to have three choices—(1) they can learn to live with the diversity and even with likelihood that their views will increasingly become minority views in MC USA, or (2) they can simply leave (which obviously is difficult and painful for those with long ties to the denomination and the Mennonite identity). Or, (3) they can try to stem the tide of change by using threats to leave as leverage to keep denominational policies as restrictive as possible (this clearly has been pretty effective, at least in the short run—for example, I have heard it said that the main reason that the quite restrictive Membership Guidelines that shaped the formation of MC USA fifteen years ago were as extreme as they were was due to threats by some large conferences not to accept the merger otherwise)—with the intent that at some point they will leave if the tide isn’t turned satisfactorily.

Option one is the only choice that would leave MC USA essentially intact. However, if I am right about the strength of this sense of collective-consciousness, it seems quite unlikely that many will be able to take this option.

For those with leadership responsibilities in MC USA, I wonder if the main choice is between (1) focusing on clarifying and pursuing a vision for an inclusive church that can place its best energies on embodying the gospel of peace that the Anabaptist tradition has been entrusted with in distinctive ways or (2) focusing on scrambling around as best they can to prevent those who are taking option 3 above from departing the denomination.

I’m not one who decries the emphasis on these divisive issues in denominational life. They are simply the cards MC USA has been dealt by the cultural moment we exist in. And struggling with these issues is an opportunity for growth. What will be sad, though, is if these challenging times do not lead to greater self-understanding, deeper theological awareness, and a clarification of the core convictions that we want to animate our faith communities. We have a chance to learn a lot from our stressful circumstances—will we have the courage and wisdom to do so?

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25 Comments

Filed under MC USA, Mennonite

25 responses to “Is the Mennonite (Church USA) project doomed? Some ruminations

  1. Evan Knapp

    Ted, I would warn you about ruminating on negatives. I try to offer you signs of hope, day by day, but you don’t blog about those. Your friend, Evan

    • I know I don’t listen to you enough, Evan. But please note my six previous posts on an anarchistic reading of the Bible–including the most recent one on your best friend.

  2. Thank you, Ted. I grew up on Old Mennonite/MC congregations but have, lately, been involved in what used to be GC congregations. I prefer the GC polity which seems to be your stated option 1 above… however, I think even in those GC churches there is still a strong sense of denominational identity. We’re Mennonites… and anyone who has the Mennonite “brand” should look, essentially, the same. If I go to a Mennonite church in NYC I should expect at least the same theological and doctrinal teaching as one in Hesston, KS…. at least, that is the general thought that seems prevalent.

    But I remuniate, sometimes, over the churches that Paul wrote to in the NT.. and I can’t help but think that the Christian church in Ephesus probably had some differences from the church in Corinth…. but Paul didn’t spend time in trying to keep them in line in these areas… instead, he spent his time keeping them in line in the basics… how to love, how to forgive, how to live in unity even when there is diversity in your own congregation, how to be a disciple, how to spread the word, how to take care of the marginalized in your midst…

    With our “modern” church as it is and as connected as it is through the technological advances of the past 100+ years (automobile, telegraph, telephone, railroad, airplane, and internet), it’s so easy to think that we’re all “the same”… but there is still a strong cultural and localized feel in each congregation… and no matter how much we try, it seems that this is the model that ends up being the most natural.

    In any case… thanks for these ruminations… I only hope that those who need to hear them receive them with grace.

    • Thank you, Robert. I thought about doing a riff on my experience in GC congregations and conferences in the old days (and my current experience in Central District Conference, which—along with Western District Conference—seems to be carrying the torch for the GC polity today). But I wanted to keep the post fairly short.

      The reality was that these GC conferences, with their tendency toward congregational autonomy, still had a strong sense of identity. The congregations generally clearly saw themselves as part of the GC denomination—and the influence of the districts was important in that sense of identity.

      I think you’re right about the early churches. They were different from each other, had conflicts, but also managed to have a sense of unity.

  3. Ted, as usual, I find your reflections stimulating. As I think about this post, I conclude that you are dealing mostly with a sociological issue of the impact of collective consciousness, its manifestation in Mennonite culture, and the political fallout of that factor in our current situation. What I don’t find is an explanation of why this is such a strong force in the Mennonite church culture today. We are aware of historical roots in the difference between MC and GC past cultures. But, why?

    After teaching the oldest S.S. class in my home congregation this past Sunday, in which I emphasized that loyalty to Jesus as incarnate, 1 John exhorts to love as a unifying factor. Perforce I introduced the crisis in our denomination as a place where unity around Jesus needs to issue in love and mutual acceptance. After class one of the members reported the contrast observed by a family member of the difference in Church of the Brethren culture and our Mennonite culture. This relative reported that in the C o B, neighboring congregations are recognized as accepting or rejecting of GLBQTs but it is not considered a problem. In Mennonite ecclesial culture today it is huge. Why? What is the root of this problem in our concept of church? And, what is the biblical theological answer?

    • Thanks, John. I hope you devote some of your considerable intellect to this question about “(Old) Mennonite ecclesial culture.” I think you raise questions that I have too. Why is this problem present (assuming I have at least to some degree touched on something that is real)?

      All I can do right now is speculate—which I fear doing very much of, partly because even after all these years I still feel kind of like a stranger among the Mennonites.

      But I think it is likely that the “concept of the church” is indeed part of the dynamic. Linked also, perhaps, with the characteristics of a shame culture.

      (Old) Mennonites do seem to have a tradition of seeking a “pure church” going back to the 16th century. This quest has surely contributed both to the sustenance of a viable tradition (when many other small Christian groups have simply been absorbed into the wider church and culture) and the articulation of some useful ecclesiological theories (I am thinking right now that I want to revisit some of Yoder’s writings with this issue in mind).

      But it has also contributed to many problems–including the dismal legacy of one church split after another and a kind of mystification where the ideals are seen as reality in face of actual evidence to the contrary.

      And the shame culture could certainly contribute to the sense that the presence of “sinners” in our midst reflects poorly on me. After all, “what do other people think?”

      • Dave Hockman-Wert

        Sorry to get in late here, but reading this thread, I thought I might offer an idea. Having studied the Old Order Amish in grad school, I read a lot about how the Amish believe in collective salvation. Being from a pre-modern culture that isn’t as individualistic as the mainstream U.S. culture, there is no “personal salvation”, but rather, one’s salvation depends on the purity of the group. Thus, they set and keep the Ordnung (rules) and use the Ban, in order to keep people in line. One person’s sin can ruin it for everyone.

        I think this sensibility is partly what drives MCs, who tend to be much closer to the OOA than the GCs. (And, I might argue, those MC conferences who exhibit this tendency the most tend to be most like the OOA.)

        But what is odd about this is that the OOA are highly congregational — they don’t let actions by other groups/churches determine their Ordnung or their salvation. Present day Mennos seem to be adding that part (i.e., being offended by — and feeling sullied by — a conference half a country away) on top of the congregational collective salvation motif.

      • This is a great insight, Dave—about the Amish sense of collective salvation. It makes a lot of sense. I’ll keep thinking about it.

  4. Pingback: Musing – Broader Mennonite Stuff | Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship

  5. David Gingerich

    Ted,
    I am interested in your commentary on the collective consciousness and the ideological spectrum. It has been interesting for me to observe how similar the rhetorical strategies are between people who are so opposed to one another in the debate over same-sex issues. It seems to me we can all too quickly become like our “enemies” when we join a “movement” either right or left.

    In my reading, I understand Niebuhrian ethics of moral man in immoral society to claim that an individual can be moral in a way a social grouping cannot be. My understanding of Anabaptist theology is counter, that what enables me to be a moral individual is made possible by my belonging to a community of believers. For example, I am by nature and nurture a very impatient person and have violent tendencies. Yet I am convicted that the way of Jesus is not coercive or violent, but ultimately patient and forgiving. I don’t for a second believe that if I did not belong to a church tradition that held consistently that the way of violence was in opposition to the witness of Christ that I would be able to develop the virtue of loving my enemy. In other words, it takes a discipline far greater than I have alone to live up to my “pacifist” convictions. Now however, with the non-existence of church discipline it seems that although it may be a “teaching position” for us in the Mennonite church, non-violence is just an option we can take or leave. How does this not harm or corporate witness to Christ as we seek to be the body of Christ, the church? It seems that the Anabaptist witness has been one of being doers of the word. We focus on our beliefs having flesh and blood. So we believe that our lives are our testimony. How does a body so divided that some can shake our enemies hand in love and others can kill our enemies in defense of ideals or country give a unified witness to the non-violent love of God? (Perhaps another example is the Amish school shooting. Would have the families of the victims been able to so quickly show forgiveness and love to the perpetrator and his family had there not been a clearly understood, disciplined belief that the proper response to such a tragedy is forgiveness? The Amish still practice a pretty strict form of church discipline. Would they have practiced such discipline if the family had refused to forgive? Or sought “justice” through our nation’s courts? I don’t know.)

    The problem with this of course is that taking such a stance makes us “pacifists” sound incredibly arrogant. And, we who worship a crucified Savior can’t bear sounding arrogant. If we judge that Jesus’ witness is to non-violent patience, then those who practice “justified violence” are sinning. They are in need of repentance and restoration. That makes us sound like we believe we are right and others are wrong. The “just church re-solution” that was proposed and I see you signed seems to make that same claim. It calls for those who hold to a traditional view of sexual intimacy to be one available only to married heterosexuals to repent of that view and embrace homosexuality as normative. Isn’t that calling for uniformity of belief at least on this one issue? I am making no statement here on the rightness or wrongness of that. I am just saying it seems that you yourself are calling us to some amount of collective consciousness on the issue of sexuality, just as those with a traditional view are also doing. Am I mistaken in this observation?

    My limited understanding is that the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition has practiced church discipline in the area of participation in the military and the use of violence. My understanding is that the intention of this discipline has been restoration to a unity with God and the body of Christ the church. I also understand how this has been abused and become punitive rather than restorative in many cases that have held the rule to be of more importance than the restoration. Yet I wonder if the church had neglected to practice discipline, regardless of motive, would the church be able to make claims such as “we are an historic peace church”? Would the church have been able to negotiate alternative forms of service to our country other than the military?

    My fear with moving away from “collective conscience” thinking is that once it is moved away from, the church becomes invisible. One has to take it on faith that there is a community present within the professing church that holds Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence (as one example) to be a crucial and central part of the gospel. It seems to me that trust in the community of faith is undermined when a central belief like this is reduced to the category of differences that don’t make a difference. If all in the church are mature people of faith, then we might assume that we can debate and hold differing opinions on this, and it will be left up to God in the end to separate the wheat from the tares. However, we believe that the gospel of Christ is for everyone. Shouldn’t we accept the assignment given us in the great commission? We are to make disciples of Christ, teaching them to obey everything Christ commanded. How can we do that with integrity and unity if one Mennonite teaches the use of justified violence and the other teaches self-sacrificing non-violence? What are people who are new to the faith to believe is “obedience to everything Christ commanded”? How do I in my local congregation release my children to a Sunday School teacher who may not have the same Christian conviction of Christ-like non-violence as I profess? My children may not grow up with my convictions, and they will eventually have to make their own decisions. I will be devastated if they choose not to believe or to join the ROTC. But that will not change my conviction that Jesus taught the way of non-violence, and it doesn’t lessen my responsibility to train them, to teach them everything Christ has commanded.

    This is getting long, and it has less to do with the current same-sex debate as it does with the section of your piece on collective conscience. Perhaps I misunderstand too much. I am a mere small brain! It just feels inconsistent to me to think that we can have a teaching position and complete freedom to hold contrary beliefs as long as we maintain the freedom of choice to join a body on our individual terms and then claim to worship in unity the same God. Maybe we do, but as a pacifist my hope is to develop the discipline and virtue necessary to actually bet my life on the fact that Jesus’ command was one of non-violence. I can’t do that without a community that will hold me accountable to that.

    Sorry to monopolize your space on here. Just thoughts I am wrestling with.
    David

    • Thanks for the thoughts, David. It’s hard to know how to respond. There is so much you say that I resonate with–and I think some misunderstandings, too. For now, though, I need to keep my thoughts fairly brief.

      The term I made up off the top of my head as I was writing yesterday evening is “collective consciousness.” I am simply trying to be descriptive, struggling with getting a sense of the dynamic that seems to make it so difficult to be content in a denomination (or conference) with different views on certain issues. My main thought is that this dynamic is driving MC USA to its doom.

      But I have no idea what to do about it. Maybe we need to start imagining a post-MC USA world and figuring out how our faith tradition can function in such a world creatively and wisely.

      Most of what you say about the importance of a faith community to help us sustain such core convictions as pacifism seems right to me. I think the issue is how do we sustain that kind of community without this destructive element. Because the reality is that we are going to have differences and you will do things that bother me a lot (and vice versa, of course). How can we sustain a mutually encouraging relationship that is honest about the differences–but doesn’t feel like your “failures” in some sense diminish my faith?

      I do think you misunderstand me if you think (1) I believe that there should be no room in MC USA for those who disagree with me concerning “homosexuality” or (2) I think MC USA should be characterized by each person having “complete freedom to hold contrary beliefs.”

      I’m looking for some kind of space where we do argue for normative convictions and try to cultivate communities that embody those convictions while at the same time living with differences and functioning non-coercively.

      This kind of discussion lends itself better to face-to-face settings. I think I heard that there is a possibility you might be heading in this direction for a grad school sojourn. Might that be? I hope so.

      • David Gingerich

        Thanks Ted,
        Yes, I will be enrolled this year at EMS. However, I will be doing my first year through the hybrid program, so our face-to-face meeting will have to wait. If I survive this year, I will see you fall of 2016.

        I don’t think I intended to say that I think YOU advocate for complete free range of belief. But it seems that would imply there are limits to how much we can differ in our beliefs/practices and still be obedient to the same God. So, it seems it is a matter of defining which differences are differences that matter and which differences don’t matter, which is nothing new under the sun. I do sense in general there is a tendency to stake a claim on being Mennonite that is far more heavily derived from ethnic/social belonging than on Anabaptist conviction. That produces a deficit of trust for me in considering the motivations of people contributing to the conversation. (That is my confession.)

        I also really do understand that you don’t think everyone needs to agree with your position on sexuality to have a place in MCUSA. But I fail to understand how that works once we get passed the “intellectual belief” stage and into the practical affirmations of gay marriages. (remember I am a small brain) In my limited understanding it seems that one who insists that committed gay relationships are “normative” and is asking for those who hold an opposing view of the matter to repent (i.e. the just-church re-solution) would feel violated if their pastor in their local congregation declined to perform such a ceremony or accept into membership practicing same-sex couples. Likewise it seems that someone who holds a view that the scriptures regard those in active same-sex relationships as being in need of repentance, would feel violated if their pastor chose to perform a same-sex ceremony or advocated for a practicing same-sex person to become a member. Like you say we are not going to agree on everything and you and I are going to do things that annoy or offend each other in some way. But that seems different to me than saying I think what you advocate as a moral good is a moral evil. It seems there is little chance for reconciliation if we can’t agree whether a certain behavior is sin or not. So if you kill someone in Jesus’ name and consider it a moral good, I fail to see how we can be reconciled (in unity) if I consider it a sin in need of repentance. (To go back to what I consider a larger problem than sexuality) This is what I need to hear more about, and perhaps you can direct me to some resources for understanding how this works.

        It seems to me that denominationalism with a robust ecumenical commitment at least in some ways provides the space you desire. What I hear in Mennonite circles is a deep embarrassment over the divisions in our church’s history. We have split and split over differing beliefs and practices. Yet I find hope in the ways in which the Anabaptist subgroups work together in the areas where there is no conflict. Take for instance humanitarian relief agencies like MCC and MDS. To me, it looks like there is very broad participation in those organizations by various Menno/Anabaptist groups. But they do have differing practices and beliefs that in some way or another offend the other group’s consciences. Lately I have wondered if we ought to be so embarrassed over the fact that we have divisions, and instead lament the manner in which those splits occurred, and the ways in which the “rules” became our objects of worship rather than the convictions those “rules” were meant to teach. What I fear is (to use Miroslav Volf’s analogy) is that we will hold on to each other and our Mennonite name so tightly as to strangle one another rather than embrace and release one-another.

      • Well, David, I will look forward to talking in the Fall of 2016!

        To be honest, I don’t feel like I have much at stake in the future viability of MC USA. It could even be that if the whole thing collapses some new life will spring forth out of the rubble that is fresh and creative. But I am sad that it seems that many of the dynamics that are contributing to the possible doom do not seem to be gospel-derived.

        I was confused by your reference to the “just church re-solution.” I had forgotten I had signed it. So I went back to look at it. I think you are reading it somewhat differently than I was when I signed it. You seem to interpret it as calling for forcing everyone to “embrace homosexuality as normative.” Your wording here is a bit unclear, but I think your raising this does point to something that is at the heart of what I am trying to say.

        There seems to be a sense in what you say that to be part of a denomination, one must agree with everything about it (or at least not have anything about it that one strongly disagrees with)—especially in relation to ethical issues. I am deeply committed to pacifism, but I could imagine being part of a non-pacifist denomination. I might even think that a non-pacifist does not worship the same God as I do. But I would not think that their heresy corrupts me. And we can still be in the same church as far as I am concerned.

        I may advocate that MC USA change to actually embrace same-sex marriage. But I don’t have in mind that everyone would have to agree with that. Just as I don’t feel contaminated now by being part of the denomination with what I think are highly problematic Membership Guidelines that do seem violent toward gays.

        Maybe this is a key difference between “conservatives” and “liberals” on the “homosexuality” issue. The “liberals” who have remained in MC USA have accepted being a minority in a denomination with objectionable Membership Guidelines. But now that it appears possible that the “conservatives” might be losing their ability to determine denominational policies and practices, many seem to be deciding that they can not abide being a minority in a denomination with what they believe are objectionable policies and beliefs.

        Hence, the likelihood of MC USA’s doom—and the opportunity to see what will come next.

  6. Barry Friesen emailed me this comment that he was unable to get posted here:

    Ted, you do not perceive the Mountain State Conference decision to license a married lesbian to be a violation of the Membership Guidelines. This leads you to characterize the reaction of critics as incoherent (“denominational polity places licensing and ordination solely in the hands of area conferences”) and abstract (“antipathy toward conference autonomy”).

    For purposes of discussion, if you were to perceive the Mountain States action to be a deliberate violation of its covenant with the other conferences and a direct challenge to a foundational understandings of the new denomination (i.e., the Membership Guidelines), how would that change your analysis?

    Your discussion of a “collective consciousness” is helpful, as is your point that such a consciousness can include acceptance of a diversity of views; the so-called GC model illustrates this. Yet this all may miss the point, which is that even with a more spacious understanding of affiliation, the willful violation of key agreements will have serious consequences.

    I have concluded current Mennonite understandings of church leadership do not fit well with the institutional requirements of denominational life. This is reflected in the unwillingness of district conference leaders to act over the past 18 months as our denominational church slid into crisis.

    This also partially explains the negative tone of many comments from progressives about those who expected Mountain States Conference to be disciplined for its action. And I wonder: if the Colorado Rockies broke its agreement with other owners of major league baseball teams, would they also regard “discipline” with chagrin?

    • Thanks, Berry. I think I can see how you would perceive that the Mountain States Mennonite Conference (MSMC) action is “a deliberate violation of its covenant with the other conferences.” Though I think such a perception moves far beyond the actual documents and policies (more on that below), I will try to respond as you are requesting.

      If I shared that perception, I’m not sure it would change my analysis much. I’m mainly trying to describe the dynamics of what I call the MC “collective consciousness.” I was only using MSMC’s action as an example. I could have used other examples—perhaps EMU revising its hiring practices concerning LGBTQ faculty and staff. I think the dynamics I describe are there regardless of the appropriateness of MSMC’s action. As with the US response when Iraq invaded Kuwait, there would many responses other than “warfare” to deal with the “violation.”

      That people are willing to leave or take down the denomination over this indicates that there is something more going on that a simple variance of a particular action. I don’t at all know, but I assume other conferences have licensed or ordained people who are in some way at variance with denominational expectations in the past (for example, the credentialing of Emma Richards when women were not to be credentialed) without precipitating such a crisis. To lay the denominational “slide into crisis” as the feet of MSMC seems unfair.

      But I also think your general indictment of MSMC is unfair. I think you perceive the Membership Guidelines as way more “foundational” than they actually are. They were not the basis for the creation of the new denomination but a hastily thrown together and extraordinarily sloppy hodgepodge that came into existence in order to appease major elements of the prospective denomination that were reluctant to go ahead with the merger.

      More stable and clear than the Guidelines, that don’t actually speak directly about credentialing issues in any case, is the polity insistence that credentialing power lies solely with the conferences and not the denomination (or individual conferences). MSMC thus had every right to make their own decision about who to license.

      Where this “collective consciousness” analysis kicks in is with regard to the question of why this conference’s discernment, seemingly processed in an open and democratic manner within the conference, should have led to the extreme reaction from other parts of the denomination. Even if MSMC acted in violation of the Guidelines, why not simply engage in conversation about that and seek to learn together how best to proceed? Why should someone in Ohio be so offended by what a separate conference did—especially since the credentials are MSMC credentials, not MC USA credentials? I doesn’t seem healthy to me. If MC USA is doomed, it’s not because of MSMC’s action action but because of inability of others to live with that action (that these others are not responsible for or directly affected by) even when they don’t agree with it.

      • Ted, people who are leaving are confident they will carry on an Anabaptist identity. What they are leaving (as they see it) is a dysfunctional structure in which the breaking of key agreements cannot be addressed in a cost-effective manner. Collaborating through the MC USA structure has become a burden, in other words, rather than a help.

        The fact that the Membership Guidelines appear sloppy to you is not particularly relevant; they were pivotal in the formation of the denomination. That they can be broken without obvious consequence leads people to the very prudential judgment that they can more effectively collaborate in another way. So it’s not some vague sense of group shame that is driving the exodus, nor MSMC’s action in and of itself, but the ineffectiveness of the CLC, where the owners of MC USA sit together and dither, thereby pushing other agenda and purposes aside.

      • Dave Hockman-Wert

        I know I shouldn’t dredge up an old argument with Berry, but I can’t help myself when I see him slandering those who don’t deserve his opprobrium.

        Berry, you say, “breaking of key agreements”, I say, “they broke no agreement”. Again, show me where there is any agreement, key or otherwise, that states that conferences cannot license pastors in a same-sex covenanted relationship. You won’t find it. Implicit assumptions are *NOT* “key agreements”. So how can you claim they broke a key agreement? If you are going to claim anyone breaks a covenant (a genuinely big deal), the least you should be able to do is show where they broke the covenant. (And if you’re going to call up the COF or the general statement in the MG that “homosexual, premarital, and extramarital sex are against the teaching position” or however it’s worded, I’ll happily pre-empt you by asking, then why didn’t Ohio and Lancaster Conferences call for kicking out those conferences that have licensed (and probably ordained) divorced and remarried pastors? Oh, what, they didn’t know about these cases? Well, how could that be? I’m sure they care about the COF, right? I’m sure they’d want to enforce the “for life” language as much as the “one man and one woman” language, right?)

        But the worst things you say are about the CLC, a council of conference leaders, some of whom are volunteers, that are doing their best to use their “relational” power in a system that contains huge disagreements. How can the CLC be “ineffective” when they don’t actually have any executive power (that would be the EB)? How can they be “dither[ing]” when discussion and discernment is their primary task?

        Just because they aren’t making punitive recommendations to the EB, you think they are being ineffective? That’s ridiculous. It’s not their role to cast judgment on each other; it’s their role to talk with each other, listen to how the Spirit is moving in one another’s contexts, and discern, if possible, what might be be the best for the whole. (Speaking of which, back when your conference refused to accept women as pastors, CLC did not make some punitive recommendation. Rather, we listened to Keith and Joanne tell us about what happened, asked tough questions, and wept together. It was a holy moment.) Sometimes, it’s impossible to find agreement. Given the positions of the conferences at this time, how could we expect otherwise?

        I think Ted’s comment in another thread speaks well to what happened here, and it’s nothing to do with a “dysfunctional” denomination. It’s that “conservative” folks can’t stay in a system where they’re the minority. As I recently heard from a wise Menno leader, “‘Liberals’ would rather fight than leave. ‘Conservatives’ would rather leave than fight.”

        “Maybe this is a key difference between “conservatives” and “liberals” on the “homosexuality” issue. The “liberals” who have remained in MC USA have accepted being a minority in a denomination with objectionable Membership Guidelines. But now that it appears possible that the “conservatives” might be losing their ability to determine denominational policies and practices, many seem to be deciding that they can not abide being a minority in a denomination with what they believe are objectionable policies and beliefs”

      • Thanks for this, Dave. It’s interesting that in the “Background” commentary in the new Executive Board resolution, they acknowledge two different ways of seeing the Guidelines (specifically, surely, Part III)—as a temporary expedient to help the merger happen or as an essentially permanent set of standards. Without making an argument, they go on to assume the second option. Sad.

  7. Jason Alderfer

    “… tendency to stake a claim on being Mennonite that is far more heavily derived from ethnic/social belonging…” As an avid genealogist of my own and other Mennonite families, I wonder what we might find if we compared the overall degree of inter-relatedness among historically GC Mennonites vs. historically MC Mennonites. If it were true that MC Mennonites were more likely to be related, perhaps there might be more “tribal” forces at work. Perhaps even a slight degree of difference could have profound consequences. Another angle for comparison might be whether one might find a difference in how GC vs. MC Mennonites value their family (or other non-faith based social connections) within the church. Just thinking out loud…

  8. Pingback: Mennonites and “separation”: More ruminations | Thinking Pacifism

  9. Jerry C. Stanaway

    Support of same-sex marriage is okay with me. While doing that, we also need to be absolutists against abortion as well as against war, otherwise we’ve just substituted one kind of violence for another. I wonder why Pink Menno Facebook groups don’t seem to want me to bring up those of us who affirm the rights of both our LGBT brothers and sisters and of our unborn brothers and sisters. We definitely do exist.

  10. Jerry C. Stanaway

    Actually, a Facebook bug I’ve just been told about may explain why Pink Menno seemed to be rejecting an article I posted on LGBT pro-lifers. I don’t want to be guilty of bearing false witness.

  11. Linda Rosenblum

    “But now that it appears possible that the “conservatives” might be losing their ability to determine denominational policies and practices, many seem to be deciding that they can not abide being a minority in a denomination with what they believe are objectionable policies and beliefs.”

    I assure you it is not about power over polity that is at the bottom of this issue. You are closer to the truth when you discuss the “collective consciousness”. My experience as an ethnic MC from a background very closely tied to OOA and conservative conferences, is that membership does have a deep covenanted meaning and joining the church does mean that one accepts the Confession of Faith as stated. Yes, this leads to schism and multiple variations of Anabaptism but the fact that the GCs ever existed in the first place attests to that schismatic nature. Those who enter into that covenant who do not agree to “the terms” so to speak, in essence are violating the covenant with those who entered into it in good faith supporting it (all of it).

    No, most of us cannot fathom a denomination where something considered sin is considered a non-essential and expect to raise our children under a false teaching. MCUSA will fall and many of us have left already.

  12. Ted,

    I would not count wide, wide future participation in MDS and MCC as a sure thing. There are already tensions in MDS simply because the chasm grows every day between the mainstream evangelical & ultra-liberal side of the spectrum compared with the Old Order & conservative side of the spectrum. If one of those sides drops out, there won’t be much of an MCC or an MDS to speak of. Look at what already happened to MVS.

    My understanding is that Groffdale (Wenger) is working on creating a parallel institution to MDS to replace the gap left by MVS, so that their young men will have a viable alternative to the draft in the event of a war. Yep – they actually think actively about what to do in the event we have a war with a draft. And the Groffdale folks are quite open to recruiting conservatives to participate too.

    Would this new institution blend well with the MC USA end of the spectrum? Probably not. They intend to be a male-only institution. Conservatives would not have difficulty participating in that, but I sure don’t see the ultra-liberal constituency being on board with that.

    That’s not a conversation I’ve heard in the mainstream Mennonite blogosphere for a while. It seems conscientious objector status is just something taken for granted.

  13. Pingback: Describing the Mennonite Church USA “conflict” | Thinking Pacifism

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