On February 17, 2014, the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA released a statement entitled “Moving Forward.” (I’m pretty sure the irony is unintentional.)This statement is a response to the recent licensing of Theda Good by Mountain States Mennonite Conference.
I grieved when I read this statement and realized that once again LGBTQ people are the subject of conversations that they are not invited to be a part of; that once again inclusive churches are being scapegoated for denominational difficulties; that once again the answer from our leadership is a non-answer and therefore a maintenance of the status quo.
I could go on and on and on about all of the problems inherent in this statement; about all of the ways that it disappoints and even disgusts me. And while that blog post would be kind of fun to write, I think it would not be particularly nurturing to the broader church.
What might be helpful, however, is to define a few of the terms and phrases that keep getting thrown around in this denominational conversation–words and phrases that make star appearances in the recent Executive Board statement.
1) Accountability is not the same thing as obedience. Obedience simply means following the rules. Accountability is about relationship. It is about living together in community and encouraging each other toward greater faithfulness–faithfulness to Jesus, not faithfulness to rules.
If you tell me I can’t eat any more chocolate and I comply, that’s obedience. If I tell you I don’t want to eat any more chocolate and you get all the Hershey bars out of my house, that’s accountability. There is a big difference.
2) “Polarities” suggests two groups at equally radical ends of a spectrum. So, to begin with, it is difficult to understand how one could “exacerbate the polarities.” Polarities are, by definition, fully exacerbated already. I am also not convinced that the people who say, “please make space for us in the denomination,” are taking a position that is as radical and hostile (i.e. “polarizing”) as those who say, “make everyone comply with our beliefs or we will leave the denomination.” (More on this here.)
3) At variance. It just means that we disagree with some statement made by some group and approved by another group at some point in relatively-but-not-too recent Mennonite history. Some churches are at variance because they refuse to consider female pastoral candidates. Others are at variance because they practice open communion. Others are at variance because they welcome LGBTQ individuals into church membership and leadership. We need to quit using the term “at variance” as some sort of scarlet letter. Or, as was expressed to me when it was added to my Ministerial Profile, a “slap on the wrist.” It is merely descriptive, and it describes pretty much everyone in Mennonite Church USA.
4) Loving dialog means that we love each other and we are in dialog. It does not mean that we keep our mouths shut for fear of “exacerbating the polarities.” It does not mean that we have conversations about sexual minorities but never with them. (Please read Jennifer Yoder’s testimony regarding her experience as a queer woman among Mennonites.) It does not mean that we accuse anyone who disagrees with us of fraying “the fragile strands of accountability that hold our church together.” It does not mean we threaten to leave if we do not get our way.
If we are loving, then our words are thoughtful and honest. If we are in dialog then we speak and listen and respond and listen and speak . . . for as long as it takes, or at least as long as both conversation partners are committed to the “loving” aspect of the dialog.
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To be honest, when I read that the Executive Board had appointed a(nother) task force, I just wanted to sigh and roll my eyes. But such a response would not have been loving or conducive to dialog. So rather than sigh and roll my eyes–O.K. I said honesty was also part of the deal so I should say in addition to sighing and rolling my eyes–I will pray and hope that we get some definitions right along the way.
I pray that the “task force” will actually be a force for the forward movement implied by the title of the board’s statement. And I pray we will understand that “forward” means discerning what is right for this time, not clinging to denominational rules from nearly a decade ago–or more.
And mostly I pray we get the definition of “Christian” right. That we will be true and faithful followers of Christ Jesus, walking in his way of peace and love and justice.