Thursday, August 21, 2014

What's going on in Mennonite Church USA?

                                    Brief History

To understand the current situation one needs to understand the past. The branch colloquially called the "Old Mennonites", technically known as the Mennonite Church, has existed for many years, the largest group being in Pennsylvania. It was fairly conservative, and many did not believe in voting or getting involved with politics in any form. It had a top-down, authoritarian structure, led by Bishops.

The General Conference branch, which I grew up in, was started in the Midwest in 1860, and included many immigrants from Russia. It was always more liberal, believed strongly in higher education, and had an organization in which the individual congregations had autonomy. Both the OM's and the GC's were subdivided into "area conferences", which were groupings of congregations in the different parts of the country. Decisions not made at the congregational level tended to be made at the level of the area conferences.

In 1989 discussions started between the OM's and the GC's exploring the possibility of a merger. A vote was taken in favor of merging in 1995, and the merger was finally consummated in 2002.

                         The Homosexuality Issue

A support group for gay Mennonites was formed in the 1970's, called Brethern and Mennonite Council for   Lesbian, Gay. Transgender, and Bisexual Interests, or BMC for short. At the Mennonite Church General Assembly in 1983, BMC was approved to have a booth. However, after a few hours this booth was dismantled by denominational "leaders", and BMC has not been allowed to have a booth at any general assembly since. Thus, a chance to open a meaningful dialogue was lost.

In the '80's and '90's, several attempts were made by both the OM's and the GC's to form committees to study the homosexuality issue and come back with recommendations. The results of these studies were always recommendations to be more inclusive and welcoming to gays, and to recommend better dialogue with those favoring a more inclusive approach. In every case, these reports were shelved and the hard work done by the committees was ignored. In fact, delegate bodies of both conferences, in 1986 for the GC's and 1987 for the OM's, approved anti-gay resolutions stating that all same-sex sexually intimate unions are sinful.

In February of 2000, an open letter appeared in Mennonite Weekly Review (now called Mennonite World Review), signed by close to 1,000 Mennonite church members, including many pastors, calling for a more inclusive approach. This came on the heels of the joint general assembly of the two conferences the year before, when the GC's voted to approve the merger, but enough OM's opposed it that the required percentage of approval was not reached.

This should have alerted the powers that be that all was not right with the merger. But the leaders were willfully blind to the realities, and were determined to plunge ahead. One of the main issues that the OM's were leery about was that the proposed new conference's anti-gay stand was not strong enough, so the leaders set about to make them happy. As a result, the 2001 Membership guidelines were promulgated, discussing homosexuality as if it was the main issue worthy of concern, and containing strong anti-gay language. Enough OM's then approved the merger and the merger was then finalized early in 2002. This started a pattern which has continued to this day, the pattern being that large OM churches continually threaten to leave the denomination if their way is not followed, and the spineless Executive Board, fearful of losing the financial support of these large, and usually prosperous, congregations, simply caves in to the threats.

                      Post-Merger Problems

Many of us felt at the time that this merger made no sense, and sprung from a "bigger is always better" mentality, rather than from any legitimate reasons. History since has proved us right in this view.

There has been ongoing controversy over the homosexuality issue, and, sporadically, over the abortion issue. There have been a number of sorry episodes in which dedicated pastors, seeking only to serve their communities with love as Christ has asked us to do, have faced sanctions from the Mennonite higher-ups for officiating at same-gender weddings. Credentials have been removed for some, while for others credentials have remained in place after much "discernment". Congregations have, I believe in every case, supported their pastors, so that at times whole congregations have been removed from membership in the denomination, or have voluntarily left because of the ongoing harassment from the Executive Board.

                  The Theda Good Controversy

To officiate at same-gender weddings is one thing, but to be openly gay as a pastor is another. This issue came to the fore late last year when Mountain States Conference, one of the area conferences from the GC branch of the church, decided to ordain Theda Good, an openly gay pastor, for a Denver church. This has sparked considerable debate and controversy which continues to this day.

On January 24th a letter signed by 150 Mennonite pastors and others pushed for changes in Mennonite policies regarding gays. The inspiration for this was an article by Ron Adams, pastor of a Wisconsin church, which told the poignant story of his brother, who was born gay and ultimately committed suicide after his rejection by the church.

The Executive Director of the MC USA church, Ervin Stutzman, responded with a February 4th letter, acknowledging the Jan. 24th letter and advocating for more dialogue between the two factions. The Executive Board then met later in Feb. and issued their usual gutless pronouncements. They called for "the creation of a listening task force to review the process by which Mountain States Mennonite Conference decided to license Theda Good, and to examine the ways these actions interface with the existing membership guidelines and policy documents" of MC USA.

The Executive Board again met in June, and issued another statement which condemned the licensing of Theda Good, even though the Executive Board does not, and never has had, authority over the licensing decisions of the individual area conferences. Shying completely away from providing any leadership, the Executive Board stated that any changes in Mennonite doctrine would have to be done by the general assembly, which won't be until next year.

                    The Current State of the Debate

A watershed event occurred last month with the publication of the July 21st issue of the "Mennonite World Review". For the first time, a Mennonite of national prominence spoke out clearly against the heavy-handed and illegal actions of the Executive Board. Editor Paul Schrag wrote a strong editorial in which he says clearly that the actions of the Executive Board were wrong.

Schrag talks about the "two competing visions" of MC USA, one with a strong central authority, the other emphasizing local freedom. Schrag then states that "the best path for MC USA today would be to preserve the local freedom that already exists and not expand central authority."

Schrag goes on to label the Executive Board's actions as wrong, stating that "area conferences alone have the right to license and ordain pastors". He says that "Good's licensing deserves the same respect as any other." Further, he states that "People who have observed the pastor's gifts and established a relationship over time should make the decision. A distant national board should not pass judgment."

And finally, he concludes that "Variation is a fact of life in the church. and it is accepted in all these cases but one. The Executive Board should lead a conversation about how the church can deal respectfully with differences rather than rebuking one." Strong stuff, indeed.

In that same issue of the MWR, several letters to the editor made very strong cases for either tolerance or separation. Don and Elsie Steelberg, a retired pastor and his wife from Wichita, Kansas, wrote that "A revision of the Confession of Faith is necessary. These issues need to be decided at a national assembly so that we can choose whether to part ways." Ruth Linscheid, from North Newton, Kansas, writes that "the institutional Mennonite church is in crisis. This brokenness will continue to grow until MC USA lets go of its fear, prejudice and heterosexual superiority." Floyd M. Mast states that "I am glad that Luther, Calvin, Simons and other were willing to be separated." He goes on to say that "Perhaps it is time to allow for separation in peace and friendship. Both sides take their beliefs seriously, so why pressure them to bend."

Perhaps the most thought-provoking letter was provided by Don Nofziger, of Milford, Indiana. Nofziger says that the GC's and OM's "decided to live together without getting married". What he means is they attempted a merger without resolving their very different forms of organization, with the OM's having a "top-down, bishop-led" system, while the GC was "congregational". He concludes that "Perhaps we need to let area conferences be responsible for themselves....This is not according to the original vision, nor is it the ideal. But it may be the best we can do presently."

What would make Nofziger's vision work is that few of the area conferences from the old congregations ever merged with each other. (I can find evidence of only one such instance--the Central Plains Conference was formed from the GC Northern District Conference and the OM Iowa-Nebraska Conference.) So, it might be workable for the area conferences to be allowed to have their proper autonomy. But, will the Executive Board, dominated as it is by OM's, ever stand for that? Not likely.

The stark difference between the two branches is seen in the different responses of the area conferences in my area of Ohio, both of which had annual meetings this summer. The GC Central District unanimously passed a resolution supporting Mountain States in its licensing of Theda Good, and calling for an approach that is "relational rather than punitive". By sharp contrast, the OM Ohio Conference had a resolution calling for the removal of Mountain States Conference from membership. The vote was 163-101 in favor, a 61.7% vote but still short of the two-thirds needed. So adamant were the anti-gay forces, that the delegates had to vote three times on different measures regarding the licensing of Ms. Good.

                    What about the future?

There seems no hope at all for MC USA to continue as a viable organization. The delegates can vote next summer to separate and go their separate ways. Absent that, we will have years and years of conflict and gradual erosion of support as one congregation after another gets fed up and leaves.

This perhaps might be a cause for alarm, but retired pastor Lynn Miller, who lives in the Bluffton, Ohio area, made a cogent comment when Executive Director Ervin Stutzman appeared at a town hall meeting in Bluffton in June. When Stutzman said that "The homosexuality issue is threatening to tear the church apart", Lynn immediately piped up and said, "No, not the church, the institution." The point is that God's church is alive and well, regardless of whether the institutional church is functioning or not.

On the issue of people or congregations threatening to leave, Lynn has made a very cogent online comment. He states: "From my own pastoral experience I have come to believe that anyone who threatens to leave, be it a person, congregation, or entire conference, has already emotionally left. The best response is to say, 'Thank you for leaving, we have wasted way too much time responding to your threats, and we need to get back to the business of being the people of God doing the work of Jesus as we understand it. Goodbye, and God bless you.'”

When one embraces this perspective, the importance of the institutional church fades into insignificance.

            So, what does the "Confession of Faith" actually say about homosexuality?

What is so odd about this whole controversy is that the Confession of faith never even mentions homosexuality! Both sides of the controversy assume that it does, and that the Confession needs to be changed if the conference is to go in a different direction.

 The sentence in question is the one which says that "We believe that God intends marriage to be a convenant between one man and one woman for life". The footnote to the sentence refers to two passages: Mark 10:9, and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11. Neither of those passages says anything about homosexuality! The thrust of those passages is that marriage should be for life, and that remarriage after divorce is forbidden. Then if you look at the commentary for that section of the Confession, you will see that the commentary also says nothing about homosexuality.

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