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.
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?