Ted Grimsrud—February 23, 2019
When Mennonite Church USA was formed in 2000 by the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church (minus the Canadian halves of those two denominations who joined to form a separate denomination, MC Canada), its total membership was well over 100,000. Now, eighteen years later, that number has dropped to about half of what it was. I have no analysis as to why exactly this has happened, but I do think just about everyone involved would agree that these are difficult times for this young denomination.
I also think that many of us feel a bit despairing about this trajectory and the possibilities for the near future. In this blog post, I will reflect on just one element of the situation that has fostered my discouragement—the difficulties we have had for many years in engaging one another in serious conversations about the issues that matter the most to us, often issues that involve tension and conflict.
A rocky beginning
I had a difficult beginning to my pastoral career. In my first permanent pastorate that began in 1987, I immediately faced the challenge of how to process a request for membership from two gay men in a committed relationship. I strongly supported them but was not sure how to process the request in our small congregation. We were quite liberal for a Mennonite congregation at that time, but this was a new question for most of the people.
Not long before I started at the church, it had spent some time discussing biblical and theological issues and people quickly realized they could not hope to find agreement. So, to my disappointment, they weren’t interested in me leading them in an examination of the issues on an academic level (even though when I joined them, I was in the midst of writing a dissertation in Christian ethics and was chomping at the bit to utilize my expertise).
Our leadership team decided the best approach would be to interview members and active participants individually to get a sense of the overall attitude, and then to have a congregational meeting to discern together how to move forward. We insisted that the two prospective members be fully involved and always be informed of what was happening. The interviews indicated that while most people were in favor of affirming the membership request, there was also some significant opposition.
A broken relationship
Our congregational meeting was, as one would imagine, pretty tense. We went around the circle and each person briefly and calmly shared their thoughts. I was sensing that we didn’t have a strong enough group agreement to proceed with membership—the main objections had to do with concern about getting in trouble with the wider conference. But then came a disruption. A long time member of the congregation burst out angrily that the process was a sham, that he was shocked we were even considering welcoming these men into our fellowship, and that he had had enough. He walked out, leaving the meeting and the congregation. I actually never saw him again over the next seven years I served that congregation—that relationship was permanently severed.
I was stunned. I thought we were engaged in a helpful discernment process that actually was trending toward what I would have assumed he would have considered a victory—to say no to the membership request. As it turned out, after he left we regained a sense of equilibrium and completed our reporting, I suggested that it did seem that we weren’t agreed enough to move forward. I proposed that we not move forward with membership, but that we find ways to welcome the two men as “active participants.”
As events played out, this seems to have been a good course to follow. The congregation avoided conflict with the wider conference and the two men continued to be involved with us until they moved to Europe about a year later. I think that because they had been present for the decision-making, they understood the situation and respected where we ended up. Most of the people seemed pretty happy with how things worked out.
However, the man who left our meeting remained alienated. I talked with him once on the phone, but that was all. His wife, who had stayed for the rest of meeting, also never came back. I was deeply troubled by that incident. It violated my sense of how a church community should work. We need to talk together and should be very reluctant to end the conversation. In this case, the objections of this person were very important in our group discernment. Even though two-thirds of the people wanted to say yes on membership, we heard the dissenters and agreed not to move ahead with a “yes.” But for someone to simply walk out seems to reject the dynamics of communal discernment.
Foreshadowing a difficult history
In some ways, that membership process back then foreshadowed a lot of what I would experience among Mennonites over the next three decades. In that situation, we did have the ideal of communal discernment. Imperfectly, we did come close to meeting that ideal and ended up with a compromise that at the time worked out pretty well. But we also experienced a painful refusal to stay engaged on the part of some important people in the community.
Over the years that followed, I have seen quite a bit of this refusal to engage. I became involved with others who sought to influence the Mennonite Church to be more welcoming of sexual minorities. We faced a lot of opposition in even getting conversations going. My argument was always that those on the welcoming side were a significant part of the denomination, albeit surely at the time a minority. It seemed that the minority voice should not simply be ignored and silenced. [Here is an essay I wrote at the time about this.] But it was difficult, and at times costly, to speak out.
During my seven years at that first permanent pastorate, I did not speak out very loudly. But when I was asked during my ordination interview, I cautiously expressed doubts about the Mennonite Church’s rejection of the possibility of church-blessed same sex relationships. That expression of doubt was enough to trigger resistance to my ordination that lasted three years and only ended with the departure from the conference of three congregations. After two years of quiet in the Midwest, my family moved to Virginia and I began teaching at Eastern Mennonite University.
The struggle to speak at EMU
Early in my time at EMU, I was briefly quoted in the school newspaper saying, in response to a direct question, that the Bible didn’t say much about “homosexuality.” A few days later, I was visited by a senior fundraiser and told to keep my opinions to myself. I found this frightening. I spoke to the academic dean who assured me that this man was out of line to approach me like this, and I learned later that he had been reprimanded. But I also learned that he agitated behind the scenes to get me fired.
A few years later, I added my name to a full-page ad in The Mennonite Weekly Review that called upon the Mennonite Church to be more welcoming. It turned out that I was the only ordained minister in Virginia Mennonite Conference to do that, and soon an effort was made to take away my ordination. The president of my college met with me and demanded that I voluntarily give up my ordination. He said that if the conference took it away I would lose my job. Fortunately, some conference leaders agreed that I was okay and I remained credentialed.
Around this time, the EMU Board of Trustees issued a statement forbidding any faculty or staff from speaking out on the issues of sexuality. As well, Virginia Conference formally forbade ordained people from expressing “contrary advocacy” on these issues. This was all kind of intimidating, but I tried to continue to find ways to express my views. I published a short article on academic freedom where I argued that Mennonite theologians have a responsibility to the churches to express their views as part of the discerning work of the church.
Conversation becomes more possible
Then things started to change a bit at EMU. A new president was greeted with a challenge when some students unfurled a large rainbow flag in the middle of campus and made the TV news. He promised that we would have some conversations and formed a committee to work at such conversations. They spent their first months at internal conversation, most of the conservative members then left of the committee, and its work essentially petered out. But first, it did move ahead in one way. A member of the committee, seminary professor Mark Thiessen Nation, while himself a “traditionalist,” agreed that conversation was needed. He proposed to recruit me as a dialogue partner for some public conversations.
I allowed Mark to persuade me. I didn’t feel totally safe about stating my views in public, but decided I should take the opportunity with assurance that as long as I spoke in the context of a back and forth with someone with the traditionalist view I would be okay. We spoke in several venues, including a chapel service in front of six hundred or so people. I would guess that I was the first EMU faculty person in an approved event to state explicitly that I supported same-sex marriage. And I didn’t get in trouble for it.
Mark and I put together a book, Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexualty, published in 2008 by the Mennonite Church’s publishing house, Herald Press. It was (and still is) one of the very few books of its kind—an extended point/counterpoint debate on biblical and theological materials between people with opposing views. It was a difficult book to put together because we truly did disagree. Some of the tensions we felt with each other are present in the final product, and the book ends without resolution (though we do conclude with a chapter of our shared convictions). The book did not gain traction in the way we hoped. It certainly did not usher in a movement for serious and open theological engagement in Mennonite settings.
Things continued to evolve at EMU, as a few years later a process was begun to decide whether EMU should be openly willing to hire people who were in same-sex partnerships. However, the process did not involve “serious and open theological engagement” on the issues. In fact, it intentionally did not. Neither Mark nor I were asked to share our expertise. Faculty and staff did have the opportunity to share our views briefly in group settings, but the actual decision making was pretty hidden. I was pleased that EMU affirmed an explicit policy of non-discrimination, but I did not feel happy about the lack of overt theological reflection.
MC USA struggles
The broader Mennonite Church USA has continued to be an environment of tension and uncertainty (here’s an account of events in the 1980s and 1990s). While it has not changed its restrictive formal policies, various congregations and conferences have been allowed to remain in good standing while welcoming LGBTQ members, hosting weddings, and even calling LGBTQ pastors. At the same time, a large swathe of congregations and even conferences have removed themselves from the denomination.
I don’t know how things could have worked out differently. It seems, perhaps, that the irresolvible conflicts were inevitable and could not have been prevented. However, I deeply regret that in these past thirty years, the denomination did not work harder at finding ways for open and inclusive theological conversations. I can think of a few moments where that began to happen and was squelched. In the 1983 Mennonite general assembly, a fledgling group supportive of LGBTQ Mennonites now known as the Mennonite-Brethren Council for Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, and Bisexual Interests was given display space in hopes of conversing with delegates. Midway through the convention, an edict came down from denominational leaders that the permission to be there had been revoked. The display booth was dismantled and potential for conversation aborted. Over the next several decades, requests for a similar presence were always denied by convention leaders.
Shortly afterwards, a denominational task force was created to produce a study book on a broad range of sexuality issues. The task force met over several years, doing a thorough study and producing a careful, nuanced book. The book encouraged Mennonites to pursue conversations and provided guidance that would consider various points of view. However, the book did not find widespread usage and the recommendation for conversation never found affirmation from the church leadership that had commissioned the work.
Finally, another task force was created by denominational leaders in 1990, a Listening Committee for Homosexuality Concerns, that convened at several Mennonite general assemblies to talk with all interested persons about these issues. The committee had an active presence for a few years and as it concluded its work created a summary document that also recommended further conversations. Denominational leaders decided not to release the summary statement or to pursue the recommendations to encourage conversations.
It does appear in recent years that the proportion of Mennonites within MC USA who support same-sex marriage and the calling of LGBTQ congregational leaders has gotten large enough that these views are acceptable. However, there have been no denominationally sponsored efforts to address these dynamics theologically. Such conversations would obviously be difficult and would not likely yield clear and immediate benefits. However, as with EMU’s decision consciously to avoid theological input in processing what to do with its hiring policies, such avoidance sends a message that biblical and theological discernment is of marginal value—and that our differences truly are irresolvible.
Is turnabout fair play?
A recent development reveals another layer of complexity—and furthers my sense of despair. A conservative Mennonite pastor, Harold Miller, has for years engaged in conversations with progressive Mennonites on sexuality themes. (I have interacted with Harold in various on-line contexts for about 20 years myself—our most recent and most detailed exchanged happened in 2017.) In a recent post on his personal blog, Harold attempted to summarize the arguments for and against accepting same-sex marriage (s-s-m). Mennonite World Review, with Harold’s permission, reblogged Harold’s post and then posted a link to the blog on its Facebook page.
I have had several of my posts reblogged like this. MWR, as I understand it, subscribes to numerous blogs by Mennonites and occasionally finds a post deemed worthy of greater circulation. These posts are not commissioned by MWR and do not reflect the views of MWR staff (one of their former staff people who vociferously disagreed with me on numerous issues was the one who asked my permission to reblog several posts). My sense is that MWR sees value in various points of view expressed by people in their constituency getting more attention—a means, I could say, of furthering the conversation.
In this case, Harold’s post elicited many negative responses on Facebook. A few of the responses criticized his treatment of arguments about s-s-m. However, most focused on an analogy Harold used that was seen to be racist. I do think Harold was clumsy in how he wrote at this point. He later acknowledged that and apologized and tried to rewrite the offending sentence. It was interesting to me, though, that most people seemed to miss the point Harold made. He was trying to summarize a pro-s-s-m view and how it used the analogy of civil rights for black people to argue for civil rights for LGBTQ people. That is, it is some pro-s-s-m people who are the ones who made the analogy between blacks and LGBTQ people that Harold alludes to.
Where Harold got clumsy was when he tried to give the counter argument to the civil rights analogy. He says, in effect, that while black people can’t choose the color of their skin, gays and lesbians can choose whether or not to be sexually intimate. This appeared to be implying that there is something wrong with being black, that if they could they should want to change their skin color. I believe that this is not what Harold thinks or wanted to imply.
I think part of the problem is that the analogy Harold refers to is an analogy about being discriminated against because of one’s unchosen identity—the civil rights issue is about this kind of discrimination. It’s not about behavior. The idea would be, for supporters of nondiscrimination against LGBTQ people, that just as we now reject discrimination against people of color due to their racial identity, so we should reject discrimination against LGBTQ people due to their sexual identity.
However, the terrain of the discussion has changed. Harold himself would not, I think, now want to claim that there is something wrong with the sexual identity of one who is same-sex attracted. He’s not advocating a change in sexual identity but focuses on opposing s-s-m (i.e., a certain behavior he believes is immoral). So he’s wanting to say that one would counter the civil rights analogy now by saying that while there is nothing wrong with the gay or lesbian person’s sexual identity (as there is nothing wrong with a black person’s skin color), it is wrong when the gay or lesbian person acts immorally (i.e., engages in sexual intimacy outside of a heterosexual marriage). But he mixes up identity and behavior and ends up making a clumsy statement.
Because of Harold’s confusion, he is read as making a racist statement. The criticisms are sharp. I suspect, though, that some of the heat was due to people’s antipathy toward Harold’s opposition to s-s-m—and that he is known to many of the responders for his earlier writings and public statements to that effect. What is most notable and troubling to me, though, is what Harold’s critics say along with disagreeing with him. They expressed anger with MWR for reblogging Harold’s post and many stated Harold should never be allowed to be published again.
Those comments felt like a call to censorship to me. It felt like a new version of the ways those opposed to welcome tried to shut down conversation a generation ago. It felt like the dynamics of polarization are being ratcheted up even more.
To be clear, I disagree with Harold about most of these issues—our long debates show that. And I also think he did not do a good job of making his argument. I’m all for vigorously challenging his ideas. But I think those who criticized what he wrote should have tried harder to understand what he actually said (though I will confess to having difficulty doing that myself at times; I have always tried to be accurate in my representations of his thoughts, even when I failed). I think in this case, Harold’s critics jumped to the worst possible interpretation of what he wrote. I also think they may have been a little disingenuous in sharply critiquing him for racism when likely their main beef with him is his views of sexuality.
I think the responses to Harold—and especially the calls to silence him—are not positive contributions to conversation. As I have tried to show in this post, I believe that the failures in MC USA to work together at discernment are mainly the responsibility of those on the traditionalist side of the spectrum. And, I should add, the disintegration of MC USA seems to me to be happening mainly because of that refusal to respect dissenting points of view. However, it only adds fuel to my despair about MC USA to see this recent reaction to Harold’s blog post.
A philosophical conclusion to lessen despair
I also realize, though, that my entry into the Mennonite world as a young adult forty years ago had everything to do with my idealism. I thought the Mennonites would be partners in changing the world for the sake of the radical gospel of Jesus. My idealism was never in sync with the perspective of most Mennonites, who weren’t thinking in terms of changing the world and weren’t interested in being radical.
It is possible that my “despair” reflects a remaining residue of my unrealistic idealism about Mennonite radicalism. I had hoped for better. Perhaps a better sense of our current situation would come from a more historically sensitive, down to earth sensibility. I should recognize that the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition has had a long life. It has persevered through many threats and still managed to continue on. Mennonites have not changed the world, really, but they have managed to do a little good here and there—and surely will continue to do so whether the formal denomination, Mennonite Church USA is sustainable as an institution or not.