What’s wrong with Mennonite Church USA’s “Membership Guidelines”?

Ted Grimsrud—December 3, 2015

Last summer, delegates to the General Assembly of Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) voted to reaffirm the “Membership Guidelines” that had been created as part of the founding of the new denomination in 2001 as a merger of the Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC).

I have written several posts about the tensions around this vote by the delegates and the broader distress that plagues MC USA. I posted the first of what was meant to be a three-part series on the Guidelines a few days after the delegates’ vote (July 17, 2015—“MC USA’s ‘Membership Guidelines’: A History”) and meant to follow it up in fairly short order with a theological critique of the Guidelines and some reflections on how the Guidelines stand in tension with the Mennonite peace tradition. Parts two and three of the series never got written.

Now, with the news of the departure from MC USA of the denomination’s largest conference, Lancaster, I have been stimulated to write some more. So, I recently posted “Mennonite Church USA’s moral crisis” (October 27). Here I will share some thoughts on theological problems with the Guidelines, and I hope to produce a post before long on the Guidelines and our Mennonite peace tradition.

My main point with this post is to suggest that the Guidelines do not provide a clear theological rationale for their discrimination against LGBTQ Mennonites. Hence, they themselves become another example of Christian disrespect, even emotional violence, toward a vulnerable population. [Most of the documents cited below may be viewed on Loren Johns’s website.]

The content of the 2001 Guidelines

My 7/15/15 post on the Guidelines summarizes their political impact and how the 2001 Guidelines were reaffirmed without much change in content this past summer. The reaffirmation formalized changes made by MC USA’s executive board in 2013 (though these changes were not pointed out to the delegates) that removed elements of the 2001 Guidelines that showed how the Guidelines were originally presented as temporary and contingent. As a consequence, it became possible for the 2015 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.”

Because of the more permanent nature of the Guidelines, it becomes even more important to be attentive to their content. So, here I will focus on what those Guidelines actually said (what follows draws heavily on a longer article I published in 2013 in Brethren Life and Thought).

The Guidelines coined the term “teaching position” for its summary of the perspective on the new denomination and specified three central formal elements of the MC USA “position”:

(1) The first point was to affirm the 1995 Mennonite Confession of Faith article 19, on “Marriage,” as central to the Guidelines’ understanding of the Mennonite position—quoting the oft-cited sentence that defines marriage as “one man, one woman, for life.” This Confession had been created and adopted in preparation for the prospective merger.

(2) The second point was to affirm the statements on human sexuality that were approved by delegates to the 1986 General Conference Mennonite Church general assembly in Saskatoon and to the 1987 Mennonite Church general assembly at Purdue University (henceforth, “S/P statements”). Again with a quote: the Guidelines name “homosexual … sexual activity as sin.”

(3) The third point was to affirm the call made in the S/P statements for the church to be in dialogue with those who hold differing views.

Both in terms of the original purpose of the Membership Guidelines and in terms of the on-going use of the Guidelines (and the main meaning of the Guidelines in the recent resolution), the second of these three points is prioritized. The Guidelines provided a way officially to commit MC USA to the conviction that “homosexual sexual activity is sin.” Continue reading “What’s wrong with Mennonite Church USA’s “Membership Guidelines”?”

MC USA’s “Membership Guidelines,” part one: A history

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. Continue reading “MC USA’s “Membership Guidelines,” part one: A history”

Describing the Mennonite Church USA “conflict”

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? Continue reading “Describing the Mennonite Church USA “conflict””

The “end” of Mennonite Church USA

Ted Grimsrud—May 12, 2015

The word “end” is kind of cool, because it has two common and very different meanings. It can mean something like “conclusion” (“the game ended in a tie”) and it can mean something like “purpose” (“to gain one’e ends”). So, “end” can lend itself to use in headlines with double meanings—such as my headline for this post.

I suspect that if Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) is in its final days, at least as the institution we have known these past 15 years (and I sincerely hope it’s not), it might be in large part because of lack of clarity about its purpose. And this lack of clarity about purpose has made it much more difficult for leadership in the denomination to find ways to negotiate recent controversies and pressures.

An ambiguous vantage point

Probably everyone who is following the drama and has some stake in its outcome has personal memories and emotions linked with the fate of this manifestation of the Mennonite tradition in North America. I certainly do. When the Executive Board (EB) of MC USA released the text (with introduction) of a resolution it will present to the delegate body at the MC USA delegate assembly in Kansas City this summer, some of my memories and emotions bubbled up to the point of demanding some written reflections.

I offer these thoughts from a somewhat ambiguous vantage point. I am an ordained Mennonite pastor who served for about ten years in congregational ministry and now about twenty years as a theology professor at a college owned by MC USA. I am a member of a congregation that belongs to the Central District Conference of MC USA. I have been a member of a number of MC USA congregations in Oregon, Arizona, South Dakota, and Virginia for well over thirty years. So, I am definitely a stake holder.

On the other hand, it has been twenty years since I last attended one of the delegate assemblies. I won’t be going this year. I have found myself moving ever gradually toward the status of “interested observer” (as opposed to active participant) in denominational politics. I would love it if my thoughts were noticed by people in power in the denomination, but I don’t anticipate they will be. So I’m not writing as a means to affect what happens in a couple of months. I’m not quite sure why I am writing. I guess mostly I write because the thoughts are in my head and seem to be wanting out.

The memories and emotions evoked by the EB’s resolution, “On the Status of the Membership Guidelines,” are painful. I think of two in particular that go back about a quarter of a century. Continue reading “The “end” of Mennonite Church USA”

Is the Mennonite (Church USA) project doomed? Some ruminations

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. Continue reading “Is the Mennonite (Church USA) project doomed? Some ruminations”