Ted Grimsrud—July 15, 2015
Mennonite Church USA had its biennial general assembly in Kansas City the week of the Fourth of July. Most of the attention before and afterwards seems to have been paid to the discussion of whether the denomination should strengthen the role of the 2001 Membership Guidelines that were part of the founding agreement the merger that created MC USA from the former General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church. These Guidelines were formulated in order to single out the alleged “sin” of LGBTQ Mennonites and to forbid pastoral participation in same-sex weddings.
This is the first of three posts that will respond to the passing of the resolution that re-affirmed the Membership Guidelines. Here I will give some historical background to the Guidelines and describe what they say. The second post will offer a theological critique of the content of the Guidelines, and the third post will reflect on the relationship between the Guidelines and the Mennonite peace position.
Reaffirming the Membership Guidelines
While it is likely that for most who attended this year’s convention, the experience was about much more than the official business that was done, Kansas City ’15 maybe will nonetheless be linked with the decision about the Membership Guidelines in the same way that Saskatoon ’86 and Purdue ’87 continue to be remembered for the statements on sexuality that were approved then by delegates—and whose reverberations continue.
I actually hope that this will not be the case, that the delegate approval of the MC USA Executive Board’s resolution that enlarged the role of the Membership Guidelines will prove to be the last gasp of a failed attempt to underwrite a restrictive approach to the presence of LGBTQ Mennonites and their supporters in MC USA. As it is, the presence of the Membership Guidelines as an official part in MC USA’s structure signals a tragic failure of Mennonite pacifism, or, as it has traditionally been called, the Mennonite “peace position.”
This blog post is a continuation of a series of reflections that have allowed me an opportunity to think out loud about the current struggle over whether MC USA will be welcoming and compassionate. I wasn’t at the Kansas City assembly, and I don’t write as one particularly well informed about the inside dynamics of MC USA politics. My sense of what happened at Kansas City is mainly filtered through the laments expressed on social media by those who hoped the Membership Guidelines would not pass. What I mainly have to offer, I think, is a historically-informed analysis of some of the underlying theological and ethical issues—more than insight into what actually happened on the ground in Kansas City.
It’s difficult to say now, of course, what the long-term impact of the passage of that resolution will be. It is likely that not that much will directly change. On one level, this resolution—passed alongside a resolution on “forbearance” that called upon MC USA members to respect those with different views—only reiterates the tension-filled series of statements dating back nearly thirty years where MC USA and its two predecessor denominations (the General Conference Mennonite Church [GC] and the Mennonite Church [MC]) have said both that the denomination believes “homosexual … sexual practice [is] sin” and the the denomination is committed to respectful dialogue among differing perspectives (both points are official “teaching positions” according to the original 2001 Membership Guidelines that were part of the founding of the new denomination with the merger of the GCs and MCs).
This is what I guess might happen. Those who oppose the Guidelines will continue to seek for more welcome in MC USA, and many will disregard the restrictions the Guidelines establish. This opposition will likely lead to more tensions and conflict depending on how those with the authority to enforce the Guidelines respond. Many of those who have been threatening to leave MC USA—from all appearances the main audience for the new embrace of the Guidelines—will continue to leave (media reports from the assembly quoted at least two leaders of large congregations and conferences indicating the likelihood that they will not continue in MC USA despite the passage of the pro-Guidelines resolution). Thus, the moral integrity of MC USA will suffer, given this effort to appease the restrictive forces at the cost of the spiritual and emotional well-being of a vulnerable minority in the denomination. The cost is genuine even as the effort signified by the Guidelines to encourage people to stay in the denomination will mostly be a failure as many leave anyhow.
The history of the Guidelines
The Membership Guidelines approved in 2001 in Nashville had their origins in the same kind of dynamics as the current re-approval—using a condemnation of LGBTQ Mennonites as a way of encouraging restrictive Mennonites to stay in the denomination. They were formulated shortly after the delegates to the 1999 joint MC/GC general assembly in St. Louis failed to approve the original Guidelines (the U.S. delegates, that is; the Canadian delegates did approve the Guidelines and split from the Americans to form MC Canada).
A new leadership entity was formed at this time, the Constituency Leaders Council, and the CLC formulated a new section to the proposed Membership Guidelines that specifically required that the new entity formally take a restrictive stance—most directly in stating that it is a “teaching position” of the new denomination that “homosexual … sexual activity is sin” and forbidding ordained MC USA ministers from performing same sex weddings or union ceremonies. This new section was the only change of substance and is about the only difference between the MC USA and MC Canada versions.
This assertion of an explicitly restrictive stance for the new denomination was enough to gain the support of those who opposed inclusiveness in relation to LGBTQ Mennonites. The affirmation of the Guidelines was nearly unanimous by the delegates at the 2001 general assembly when the new denomination was formed. Presumably, delegates who may have supported a more inclusive stance were willing to accept officially making the new denomination discriminatory because of seeing “church unity” as a higher value—”unity,” of course, that excluded a vulnerable (though small) minority from full acceptance.
Probably another factor in the approval of the Guidelines by those who might have wished for a less overtly restrictive approach for the new denomination was the message stated within the Guidelines that they were a temporary expedient based on contingent circumstances. The introduction to the new Section III referred to the presence of dually-affiliated congregations that had been disciplined out by their conference in one of the denominations and remained in good standing in the conference of the other denomination. Thus framed, the Guidelines were meant to serve the purpose of guiding MC USA in dealing with those congregations. As it turned out, the status of the two congregations that I know of who had actually been kicked out of one conference was quickly resolved. One, Germantown Mennonite Church, was almost immediately kicked out of the conference it had retained membership in and was removed from MC USA. The other, Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship, soon established membership in a new conference in MC USA with the approval of the conference that had kicked it out. However, the resolution of these relationships—seemingly the occasion for the formulation of the Guidelines—did not lead to the Guidelines being phased out.
The introduction to the new Section III had also stated that the Guidelines would be reviewed by 2007—again with the implication that they were meant to be seen as temporary. It would have made sense to some delegates to think that they could accept this expedient for the brief time that it would take to get the new denomination established and then move ahead without the Guidelines. As it turned out, even though the status of the dual-affiliated congregations that had precipitated the Guidelines was resolved quickly, the review apparently never happened. According to one report, MC USA’s executive board may have discussed the Membership Guidelines but never brought them back up to the delegates at the 2007 general assembly. So a review never happened in a public way.
Then, in 2013 the executive board did make some small revisions to the 2001 Guidelines that removed the references that showed how the Guidelines were presented as temporary and contingent. This revision included removing the references to the issue of the dual-affiliated congregations and the promise of a review by 2007. It also removed the section from 2001 called “Context for the Guidelines” that underscored their contingent nature. As a consequence, it became possible for the current resolution to present the Guidelines not as a temporary expedient meant to deal with a certain complication in the merger but instead as “the guiding document for questions regarding church membership and same sex relationships/marriages.”
Of course, it was a deeply problematic tactic to begin with, to specify one small, vulnerable part of MC USA for what many perceived as condemnation as a basis for establishing enough “unity” for the passage of an otherwise endangered action that would create a new denomination. But the problem has been exacerbated by the willingness of MC USA leaders to transform a temporary expedient into a “guiding document” that continues this condemnation as a tactic to sustain this “unity” and thereby cede tremendous power to those in MC USA who have threatened to leave.
The “resolution on the status of the Membership Guidelines” (2015)
The newly formed MC USA has never quite reached a place of stability. Even with the 2001 Membership Guidelines, numerous congregations departed from the denomination due to perceived theological incompatibility. And numerous others threatened to leave, putting pressure on denominational leadership to crack down on what some suggested was a creeping inclusiveness—most notably the licensing for pastoral ministry of a woman married to another woman in one conference and the pastoral role held by at least two other openly LGBTQ ministers in congregations in two other conferences.
MC USA’s executive board brought the “resolution on the status of the Membership Guidelines” to the Kansas City ’15 general assembly, and by a 58% – 42% vote, the delegates approved the resolution. One of the main effects of this resolution was to transform the Membership Guidelines from its original status as a contingent expedient meant to deal with the question of what to do about dual-affiliated congregations to a permanent “guiding document for questions regarding church membership and same-sex relationships and marriages.”
This transformation seems to have happened by a kind of sleight-of-hand seemingly without being presented as such. The 2013 revision by the executive board deleted the materials in the original Guidelines that made their contingent nature clear. And the 2015 resolution simply names the Guidelines as the “guiding document” without acknowledging the original context for the Guidelines—or the promise made in 2001 that the Guidelines would be reviewed, presumably with the possibility that they could be adapted or discarded once their original reason for existence ended.
The new resolution gives the Membership Guidelines a much more central role as an enforcement tool. This happens partly by its assigning to the Constituency Leaders Council the responsibility to act as “elders” in confronting conferences “who make decisions that are not aligned with the documents named above (i.e., the Membership Guidelines and the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective)—a new role for what has hitherto been an advisory group.
The resolution also reinforces the misuse of the Confession of Faith embedded in the Membership Guidelines (more on this in my next post). It perpetuates the myth that the Confession speaks about same-sex relations when the article from the Confession cited in the Membership Guidelines (Article 19) actually addresses divorce and remarriage (see my essay critiquing MC USA’s “teaching position” on same-sex relationships).
We see one problematic expression of this twisting the Confession to single out same-sex partners in the recent book MC USA has published to guide ministers, A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership.On page 63, the book seems to allude to the Confession of Faith in stating that “a monogamous heterosexual relationship [is standard] for married persons.” But there is no allusion to the “for life” that is part of the Confession’s definition of marriage. This turns the emphasis of the Confession on its head. Article 19 is explicitly about divorce and takes a very restrictive view—and is reinforced by the New Testament verses cited and the commentary. It only tangentially alludes to same-sex marriage. However, Shared Understanding is silent about divorce and explicitly forbids same-sex marriage for pastors—and the blessing of same-sex marriage.
One may assume that the book ignores divorce because it is now widely accepted in Mennonite churches—many pastors and other church leaders are themselves divorced and even remarried. I think that it is a good idea to be accepting of divorced and remarried persons, even leaders. We may say that we understand marriage to be “for life” while recognizing exceptions. However, it is deeply problematic that such a generous spirit is not present in relation to same-sex relationships.
This double standard reflects some profound theological problems with the Membership Guidelines. I will address those in my next post.