Over the course of the past several years, conversations about sexuality, gender and membership have risen to the forefront of Mennonite Church USA conversations, as they have for many other denominations. In the past few months alone, Mennonite periodicals have been filled with articles and editorials about sexuality: there was Pastor Joanna Harader’s explanation of her rationale for performing a same-sex marriage ceremony; a letter from many pastors asking whether the issue of sexuality was worth splitting over; a response from another group of pastors suggesting that sexuality has implications for a broad range of church issues; and news that Central District conference would not suspend the credentials of Pastor Megan Ramer, who had recently performed several same-sex marriages, and that some churches might leave Central District Conference over this decision.
This news is clearly a mixed bag, illustrated the conflicted nature of the conversation and the broad spectrum of understandings about inclusion throughout Mennonite Church USA. This conversation is one whose roots go back many, many years, and the denomination has put out a variety of statements. According to Loren Johns, of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, conversations about human sexuality first rose to national denominational consciousness in the mid-1970’s. Statements released in 1986 by the former General Conference and Mennonite Church denominations in Saskatoon and Purdue respectively both emphasize that sexuality is a good, beautiful gift from God. They talk about sexual ethics beyond simply homosexual relations. And, perhaps most importantly, both statements emphasize the importance of inter-denominational dialogue. They state, “ We covenant with each other to mutually bear the burden of remaining in loving dialogue with each other in the body of Christ, recognizing that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and that the Holy Spirit may lead us to further truth and repentance. We promise compassion and prayer for each other that distrustful, broken, and sinful relationships may experience God’s healing. We covenant with each other to take part in the ongoing search for discernment and for openness to each other.”
Later, in 1995, we a statement on how to agree and disagree in love was released, which offered tools for Mennonites to use when conflict arises. This document emphasizes that conflict is a “normal part of our life in the church” and emphasizes a process of dialogue and community discernment which suspends judgment and avoids “labeling.”
Also, in 1995, the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective was published, which included a statement, in Article 19, that reads, “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” However, in the introduction to this document, it states clearly that this statement gives an “updated interpretation of belief and practice in the midst of changing times,” but that it also is subject to the authority of the Bible and is meant to help guide discussion around Mennonite practices and beliefs. It is not meant to be a final word or creedal statement.
The last five years have seen a rise again in the intensity and frequency of these conversations throughout the denomination. In many conversations that I have had occasions to have while visiting Mennonite Church USA congregations, I sense a growing anxiety from people on both sides of this issue. The question of whether we can remain together as a church with this ideological gulf seems to weigh heavily on many people’s minds. There are fears that churches on both sides of this issue will leave, and that our denomination might never be the same. This fear pervades our conversations with each other, and hovers in the background of each of these articles/editorials and the comments that follow them.
Several weeks ago, the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board released a statement in response to this growing conversation surrounding same-sex unions. In this document, the Executive Board wrote, “The board owns the understanding of our confession of faith that sexual union is to happen between one man and one woman who are committed to each other for life in holy marriage.”
This statement is nothing new and seemed to echo what the board has been saying over the course of the past few years. This particular statement understandably drew both affirmation and strong critique from members across the church.
In response to a call from some pastors to respond with disciplinary actions towards pastors and conferences who were permitting same-sex unions to take place and ministerial credentials to remain intact, the Executive Board states, among other things, that they affirm the understanding laid out in the Confession of Faith. The letter goes on to say, “The board has no plans to suggest that the church should change its current understanding and commitments.”
Unfortunately, and perhaps unintentionally, this statement seems to send the message that the church itself is unified on questions of sexuality and inclusion, and that those with opinions different than the Confession of Faith are outliers. This statement seems troubling, given the fact that there are many committed members, staff, and leaders of Mennonite Church USA who would hold opinions that differ from the statement of the Confession of Faith. And this language, whether intentional or not, does seem to set up an “us vs. them” paradigm which does not serve to enable the dialogue that the church has been calling for since Purdue/Saskatoon to continue.
However, the statement does not stop there.
Later, it states, “The national conference of Mennonite Church is composed of conferences and congregations. The national church does not have the authority to control the discussion or decisions at these levels. Congregations decide on their members and conferences decide on member congregations. Ministerial credentials are held at the conference level and thus minister’s accountability is to the area conference rather than the national conference. We are aware that our polity creates some differences in the practice of church discipline from conference to conference.”
In my mind, this simple statement does have some hopeful emphases within it. Anabaptist polity is not set up to grant high levels of centralized power. Indeed, our denomination uniquely privileges the discernment processes of local communities, at both the congregational and conference level.
This may mean that people on both sides of this issue, and those in the middle, will have to live in a transitional, border space for awhile. We are stuck in a liminal moment, where our denomination bridges a wide range of opinions. This is the same process that occurred as women were allowed into ministry (as one of my professors says, “Churches don’t know how to free everyone at the same time: it happens in chunks.”).
Over the course of the next era, we may need to define our idea of what it unity means. It is no longer a simple, clear-cut concept. We will need to decide if we can truly value and see our theological diversity as a gift that enriches our conversations, just as we value diversity of many other kinds. We will need to determine whether we are willing to remain at the table with one another even though we don’t always agree on the rules that govern it. We will need to decide whether we are willing to broaden and expand our definition of “unity” from simply an integration of difference into a cohesive identity where distinctive, different parts are subsumed, to a complex unity that celebrates diversity and collaboration across difference.
I believe that a complex unity is marked by a commitment to remain in conversation and relationship with one another, sharing a common, unified Mennonite identity, while still celebrating and understanding the diversity of identities and opinions that exist throughout Mennonite Church USA.
It seems to me that there are few denominations that whose polity would allow for such a flexibility and diversity of opinion to exist. If we Mennonites can take seriously the call to be engaged faithfully with discernment in our own local communities, as well as respectful dialogue across the denomination, we could be leaders for many other Christian groups who are struggling to figure out what it means to live together with such varied ideas of community ethics. But to really take this process of discernment seriously, we cannot deny or try to hide the theological diversity that is pervasive throughout our denomination, and we cannot pretend that the church holds one, unified theological opinion on sexuality.
As Parker Palmer writes, we will need to learn to “hold tension creatively” and to understand that, as process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead notes, greater complexity also lends itself to deeper beauty.