It’s awfully hard to say what’s going to happen with Mennonite Church USA—especially as its largest Conference, Lancaster, nears the completion of its process to leave the denomination. It is a bit surprising to me that fully over 80% of that conferences bishops voted to leave MC USA—I wouldn’t have expected that much disaffection (but I know little about that Conference). The final step in the process will be a vote over the next few weeks by the Conference’s ordained ministers. As this vote only requires a two-thirds majority, it seems likely that Lancaster will make the move to split.
In the above paragraph we have a clue concerning the complexities of Lancaster’s relationship with wider denomination—that they would have a vote of “bishops,” a category of leadership that few if any of the other MC USA conferences have. The relationship of Lancaster with the larger denomination has always been tenuous and complicated, so this move now to leave should not be seen as unexpected.
The effort to keep Lancaster in MC USA
It does seem, though, that the effort on the part of MC USA’s leadership to keep Lancaster in the denomination has not been successful. While surely there are many elements to this struggle to retain Lancaster’s connection, one aspect of the dynamic strikes me as especially notable—and especially regrettable.
Back in the 1990s, a major element of the effort to merge two Mennonite denominations (the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church) had to do with whether Lancaster—then as now the largest conference in either denomination—would join in the merger. The first time the decision came to a vote of General Assembly delegates, the General Conference delegates voted their approval, and the Mennonite Church delegates came up a bit short.
Presumably a major element in the failure of the MC vote to yield approval of the merger was the concern many delegates had about the new denomination being theologically sound enough. Surely the theological tensions had been present for generations and ran deeply. However, the issue that ended up being the sign post for soundness turned out to be the inclusion (or not) of LGBTQ people in the churches.
In order to increase the likelihood of strong enough support for the merger at the next General Assembly, denominational leaders agreed to create a new document, the “Membership Guidelines,” that had as its main concern explicit statements to reassure those most concerned about theological soundness that the new denomination would not be inclusive of LGBTQ Mennonites.
This strategy worked. The vote to merge, when it was retaken two years after the original attempt, was high enough so that the merger was approved. Mennonite Church USA was created. Enshrined at the heart of this new denomination was a singling out of one tiny element of its membership as distinctively problematic. Apparently the large majority of the delegates who approved the Membership Guidelines (including presumably a fair number who would personally want to be more inclusive than the Guidelines allowed for) felt it was worth singling out this tiny minority as distinctively problematic for the sake of establishment of this new denomination. It was stated, though, that the Guidelines would be reconsidered before long. That is, they were not being presented as necessarily being a permanent part of the denomination’s official regulations.
I don’t remember how explicit reporting ever was about the specific role Lancaster Conference played in the dynamics around the Membership Guidelines, but surely the inclusion of Lancaster in the new denomination was looming in the background of many people’s considerations. As it turned out, in the process over the next few years of individual conferences deciding whether to join the new denomination, Lancaster was slow to decide for sure. Ultimately, they did join MC USA as one of the last conferences to do so, and presumably many who has created and supported the Membership Guidelines breathed a sigh of relief.
Now, ten years later the relationships within MC USA had became increasingly strained. It was time to revisit the Membership Guidelines and see if the denomination wanted to retain its special focus on singling out LGTBQ Mennonites as distinctively problematic. Lancaster apparently remained uneasy about its on-going relationship with the larger denomination. So, once again denominational leaders argued for emphasizing that MC USA would not be inclusive.
They presented delegates with a resolution to reaffirm the Guidelines. This time, though, instead of being perceived as a temporary expedient in order to facilitate the formation of a new denomination, the Guidelines would be accepted as the long-term position of the denomination. Again, it seemed as if the tactic of focusing on singling out LGBTQ Mennonites as a uniquely problematic part of the denomination would help keep people in the denomination—at least it appears that that is what many of the delegates to voted to reaffirm the Guidelines may have thought.
However, now we are seeing that this tactic may not have been successful. Despite this attempt to reassure Lancaster Conference leaders of the “theological soundness” of the denomination, those leaders (at least the bishops; we’ll see whether the broader body of ordained leaders agrees in the weeks to come) have decided to separate themselves from MC USA.
The moral cost
There are others far better situated than I am to assess the likely consequences for MC USA (and for other institutions, such as my employer, Eastern Mennonite University) of the impending Lancaster departure. It seems possible that those consequences may be negative in many ways—though it also seems possible that some (perhaps unforeseen) quite positive effects might emerge.
My main interest here is to reflect on what I would characterize as the deeply, morally, problematic nature of the use of the Membership Guidelines in the effort to create and hold together MC USA. These problems are thrown into sharper relief in light of the failure of the sacrifice of the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of many LGTBQ Mennonites to sustain the “unity” of MC USA.
I have a hard time being sympathetic with those who may have “agonized” about creating and supporting the Membership Guidelines, knowing they might by hurtful yet concluding that that sacrifice of “just a few people’s wellbeing” was the “necessary cost” for holding the Mennonite Church together.
I don’t believe this is that much an issue of what one considers to be the “true” or “biblical view” concerning inclusion of LGBTQ Mennonites. There were and continue to be numerous leaders and other delegates who would be on the “left” personally on the theological issues who nonetheless voted in favor of the Guidelines. And surely there were some on the “right” theologically who would recognize the corrupting element of singling out a powerless and vulnerable tiny minority as the locus of complaint about the “soundness” of the new denomination (though I have to admit that I don’t know personally of any).
Both at the time of the original Guidelines and then again last summer when they were up to be reaffirmed, it would not have been difficult for people in power to insist that whatever the problems might be concerning the stability of MC USA, these problems must not be “solved” by singling out these vulnerable people in this way.
In light of what happened with the Membership Guidelines, it is difficult for me to see how MC USA has much moral integrity left. At the same time, people are resilient and the Spirit of God is a healer and surprises are always possible. All of us should continue to pray that out of all the noise and hurt, some new awareness of the way of shalom might be discerned and embodied—whether it happens within the existing structure of MC USA or in some new manifestation.