Ted Grimsrud—June 19, 2015
Once, when I was in high school, I was on a school bus returning from a basketball game on a rainy winter night. Roads were narrow and windy in the Coast Range of southwest Oregon. On this part of the road there was one spot where it was possible to pass. As we got to that spot, a car flashed by horn blaring. We recognized the people in the car as recent graduates from our school and we were all celebrating because of having won our game. Then we watched in horror as the car speeding by started to spin out of control. The scene remains vivid in my memory, these 40+ years later. It was like that car froze in space for the longest time before hurtling off the road.
As it turned out, the speeding car only ended up in the ditch. No one was hurt and the car wasn’t seriously damaged. I can only hope that the outcome of what seems like a similar scenario for Mennonite Church USA will be as benign. One watches with a sense of horror as the car seems to be spinning out of control, with a landing no one can predict.
I keep writing about this denomination of which I’m part (see my list of links to posts at the end of this one). Maybe partly it is in hope of helping to affect the upcoming “landing”—though I realize that I am about as powerless to effect where MC USA goes as I was way back when to effect what happened with my friends’ car. But there was something I wrote a few weeks ago that triggered a response that has caused me to think. How do we navigate our tensions, speaking honestly but also respectfully?
Being too negative in discussing one’s opponents?
In my May 12, 2015, post, “The ‘end’ of Mennonite Church USA,” I tried to use language as descriptively as possible in laying out what seems to me to be the situation we are facing. One comment on Facebook gave me pause, though (as this comment was not by someone I know and as it is now lost in the cyber mists and as I am not actually wanting to engage them personally, I will not name the person). As I understood the commenter, I was too pejorative in my representation of what’s going on. This evaluation has made me reflect—is it possible to talk accurately about the actual situation, even in a descriptive way, and still remain utterly non-offensive? Should that even be a goal?
The Facebook comment characterized what I did as accusing those who have been opposed to the welcome of LGBTQ Mennonites of having a spirit of aggression, even violence. Now, I did try pretty hard not to explicitly use that kind of language. To illustrate the point in the Facebook comment, my post was quoted: “On the one hand, you have people who simply want to be part of the church themselves, and have been almost completely peaceable in relation to others in the church. And on the other hand, you have those who want to keep people out, to make them feel like second-class Christians (or worse), and who single the sexual minorities out as the problem.”
I will admit that this quote shows that I am critical of the restrictive dynamic. But it’s also clear, I think, that I offer a description and not an evaluative accusation of “aggression” or “violence.” I thought it was important to try to be as descriptive as possible. But that leads to a big question. How do you describe something that is discriminatory accurately without seeming to accuse those who are being discriminatory of being discriminatory? Or is should that be a goal?
Maybe this is a kind of test. Can the restrictive side’s actions be accurately described without those on that side feeling they are being attacked? Notably, the Facebook comment did not critique my description (of course, it was a short comment), only that by making that description I seem to take a polarizing rather than conciliator approach. The commenter suggests that rather than saying that the restrictive approach is, “we want to keep you out,” I should have said something more that would value their intentions and not be too confrontive. However, I think that such an approach would be to mis-describe the situation. Hence, the dilemma. I believe being respectful is important. But I also believe seeking the truth is important. Both need to be goals, in my opinion. Maybe because I think a lot of writing and talk has tended to tilt toward “being respectful” more than “seeking the truth,” I feel the need to work harder at describing the situation more accurately (recognizing, of course, that my sense of what is “accurate” is shaped by my own biases).
Not really an “impasse”
One part of MC USA going forward, I think, is finding a way more accurately to describe what has and is happening around these issues. A key element of this description is to realize that terms such as “impasse” (this is the term favored by Harold Miller in his Mennonite World Review essay, “Friendly conservative suggestions to progressives”) are not particularly accurate. Michael King is sharing some thoughtful and perceptive thoughts at his Kingsview blog called “Blogging Toward Kansas City.” I read him, though, as being careful to spread the responsibility for the current distress evenly across the spectrum.
My sense is that were we to seek accurately to name the situation, and not make sure to be “even-handed” and accepting of the more pleasant myth that this is a situation equally caused by all the stakeholders, we would be led to characterize it in different terms than “impasse.” We are facing a struggle over defining the identity of MC USA. But it is an interesting kind of struggle. To the extent we can, in a general sense, identify two “sides”—recognizing that many people are not identifying with either “side”—what we have had is a dynamic where the two sides are saying very different kinds of things.
One “side” has said, we want to define MC USA with those of you on the other side (LGBTQ Mennonites and their allies) not being part of it, at least not as full participants on all levels. The other “side” has said simply we are part of this community and want to remain part of it and we fully accept that you who are more restrictive in your views are part of it as well. The threat causing the fellowship to “fragment” (Harold Miller’s term) has always been only from one side. The pro-inclusion people have always wanted to contribute to the community’s life and strengthen its sense of wholeness. The pro-restrictive people have been the only ones threatening to “fragment”—by working to exclude LGBTQ Mennos and those who advocate for inclusion, by threatening to leave if restrictive policies are not implemented, and by actually leaving and taking along with them as many as possible.
We maybe should even go so far as to acknowledge that the core issue in this “conflict” is the issue of exclusion not sexuality (or, perhaps a milder term that I try often to use is “restrictive”—as in restricting the participation of LGBTQ Mennos in the church as well as restricting the participation of supporters of inclusion). One key moment in the story of exclusion came back in 1983 at the Mennonite Church’s Bethlehem, PA, General Assembly. The newly formed Brethren and Mennonite Council for Gay and Lesbian Concerns had been granted display space at the convention. Then, after the convention began, denominational leaders personally informed the BMC folks that the permission had been rescinded and the BMC booth was physically dismantled. Since then, BMC has been excluded from General Assemblies.
In the years since, over and over again, various congregations, conferences, and parts of the larger Mennonite denominations have practiced exclusion. For most of this period, not only have LGBTQ Mennonites themselves faced exclusionary dynamics, but also those who have advocated for the churches being non-exclusive (the examples are manifold—see Roberta Showalter Kreider’s important book, The Cost of Truth: Faith Stories of Brethren and Mennonite Leaders and Those Who Might Have Been; see also this well-researched account of the fate of one Mennonite pastor, Kathleen Temple [my wife], who lost her ordination in Virginia Conference due to her advocacy for inclusion).
The erosion of the exclusionary dynamic
More recently, though, the excluding dynamic has become less successful. This change is partly because of the gradual self-removal of many restrictive congregations from MC USA. For example, in Virginia Conference, even with the defrocking of Kathleen Temple and the expulsion of Broad Street Mennonite Church from the conference due to its being non-exclusionary, numerous congregations have left the conference. Now, a large Virginia Conference congregation, Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, has taken a public non-exclusionary stance and remains in good standing in the conference.
More famously, Mountain States Mennonite Conference has licensed a married lesbian pastor. Other conferences (for example, Central District Conference and Western District Conference) have shown great tolerance toward inclusive congregations. At least three MC USA congregations have openly LGTBQ pastors. The college where I teach, Eastern Mennonite University, owned by MC USA, has gone through a widely publicized process of discernment that has not concluded yet but has led to the likely permanent discontinuing of discriminatory hiring practices.
None of these developments can be described (at least not accurately described in my view) as “fragmenting” the fellowship. They have all been undertaken in the context of affirmation of the church fellowship and wanting to make MC USA a more welcoming place. The problem arises because those who support a continuation of the excluding dynamic are resisting the evolution of the MC USA community toward a more welcoming community.
Those who tend toward exclusionary practices seem to have three choices in face of this evolution. (1) They could accept the new environment, perhaps not happily but recognizing the need for people in a healthy spiritual community to be able to live with diversity. (2) They could strive to retain and perhaps strengthen the former exclusionary practices. It would appear that the MC USA Executive Board’s decision to present a resolution to reinforce the exclusionary message from the 2001 Membership Guidelines from the creation of MC USA reflects this option. (3) They could leave. It appears that the formation of a new ecclesial entity, the Evana Network (for “evangelical Anabaptists”), has the purpose of being a landing place for congregations that leave MC USA.
The second of these three options surely is inherently unstable and temporary. The evolution of MC USA from more exclusionary to more inclusive seems irreversible. The main issue is how large a part of the current denomination will remain as that evolution continues.
Years ago when I was being considered for ordination in the old Pacific Coast Conference, I was put in a very uncomfortable position. Several conference pastors intensely opposed my ordination, largely because I was considered too non-exclusionary (though that was long before I became a public advocate for inclusion). One pastor in particular, who served on the Conference credentialing committee, presented this as a either/or issue. Either we refuse Ted’s ordination or I leave. The process was held up for nearly three years as a result.
In the midst of that time, I had people say in my presence how difficult this was for them. They felt they had to choose between “Al” or Ted—and they liked both of us. I wanted to protest. It’s not like that. I am not attacking “Al.” I am not saying he has to leave. I’m not saying him or me. The conflict is totally coming from his side. All I’m saying is that I want to be part of the Conference too, and I’m not willing to leave in order to appease his antipathy.
It feels pretty much the same now. The “conflict” or “impasse” is not about two irresistible forces butting heads, striving for control of the denomination. It’s one group trying to sustain their control by excluding the other. And the other “fights back” simply by refusing to go away. My expectation is that some day, MC USA will no longer be animated by exclusionary dynamics. The question is how will we get there—and who will remain. The sooner that day arrives, I suspect, the sooner MC USA will be able to devote its best energies to witnessing to Jesus’s gospel of healing love.
Ted Grimsrud’s blog posts about Mennonite Church USA
How Mennonite Church USA might survive: A fantasy—March 23, 2014
The “end” of Mennonite Church USA—May 12, 2015