The Wait is Over . . . Unfortunately . . .

Me and my foundational document.

Me and my foundational document.

Believe it or not, I have been eagerly awaiting the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board resolution–for weeks. Weeks! And it is finally here. Unfortunately.

For those of you who just want the Readers’ Digest condensed version: the resolution from the MC USA Executive Board, “On the Status of the Membership Guidelines,” is a train wreck of a resolution. If you are a delegate, DO NOT VOTE FOR THIS RESOLUTION.

That is all. Carry on with your life.

For those with the forbearance to wade into the wreck and examine the carnage, I offer a translation of the document from resolution-speak into reality-check:

The Membership Guidelines, adopted by the delegates in 2001 and updated in 2013, shall continue to serve Mennonite Church USA as the guiding document for questions regarding church membership and same-sex relationships/marriages, alongside the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.

So, kids, we know there are differing theologies of sexuality within the denomination, but we’re just going to pretend like we all still agree with our 15-year-old ill-conceived guidelines–or at least that we agree on the parts that deal with the “issue” of “homosexuality.” If you don’t agree, kindly keep that to yourself. We’re all  for forbearance. But Karl,—and the rest of you “at variance” pastors– you can’t officiate gay weddings. And Theda, Mark—your ordinations won’t count.

In order to exercise forbearance on matters that divide us and to focus attention on the missional vision that unites us, the delegate assembly will not entertain changes to the Membership Guidelines for the next four years.

If you pesky liberals would just shut up already about justice and inclusion and the Bible and Jesus, we could get back to following our foundational documents and using our big ambiguous words.

We look to area conferences to interpret and implement these documents in mutual accountability with other area conferences, particularly through the CLC.

Western District should definitely not pass a resolution that allows pastors to officiate same-sex weddings. Because mutual accountability means liberal conferences should not challenge or upset more conservative conferences. (Also, stop calling them “conservative conferences.” They prefer the term “evangelical Anabaptist.”) Conference leaders should be more concerned with what other conference leaders think than with joining in the work God is doing in the midst of their member congregations.

We presume area conferences will grant ministerial credentials consistent with the guidelines in A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership, as seems best in their context.

We will pretend that we are the responsible adults in this denomination and Mountain States and Central District are rebellious teenagers who will soon have a moment of insight and turn from their wayward ordaining of queer pastors. We expect all conferences to ignore the Spirit-guided discernment of their communities and deny the gifts of pastors in their midst who happen to be gay (or lesbian—is that the same thing? Do we have to use all the letters all the time?). And never mind that the current version of the “Shared Understanding” document is a provisional revision that will itself be discussed by delegates at the assembly. And that MC Canada has different wording only for the section of this document that deals with pastors in same-sex relationships and those officiating same-sex weddings. Which is the part we are talking about here. Just . . . never mind all those minor details . . . What we mean to say is, “Shame on MSMC for credentialing Theda. Don’t you dare ordain her or else . . . ”

We call on the CLC to take seriously its role as “elders” for the denomination, “discerning and advising the Executive Board, the Delegate Assembly, and the Mennonite Church USA on issues confronting each of them relative to faith and life,” as well as their other functions named in the bylaws (Article IX). We also call on the CLC to exercise mutual accountability by engaging in conference-to-conference peer review when area conferences make decisions that are not aligned with the documents named above, and to make recommendations to the Executive Board if necessary.

We want to take church leaders who have thus far functioned as a support system for each other and make them police each other. It would be so much easier for us if conference leaders would be the ones to enforce the rules. Right now if we want any discipline to happen we have to write the sternly worded letters ourselves. And then people get upset and write us sternly worded letters back. And that hurts our feelings.

We join hands for the work that binds us together—proclaiming Jesus’ gospel of peace, evangelizing the world and growing as missional Mennonite communities. We desire all people who are inspired by the Anabaptist vision laid out in the Purposeful Plan of Mennonite Church USA to join us in this work.

We think if we ignore the presence of queer people and their allies in Mennonite Church USA, they will eventually go away—or at least be quiet. We think it is possible to promote peace, spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, and enhance the vibrancy of individual Mennonite communities while continuing policies and practices that oppress and exclude a particular group of people. We desire all people who agree with us–or will pretend that they agree–to join our work.

– – – –

For those of my friends who helped to write and/or who support this resolution, I welcome your discussion about where I am misunderstanding the intent. (Frankly, I hope I am misunderstanding the intent.) For those of my enemies who helped write and/or who support this resolution . . . I suppose I welcome your discussion too because, you know, Jesus says I have to.

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28 thoughts on “The Wait is Over . . . Unfortunately . . .

  1. When I heard that the EB was going to be working on this resolution, I thought “Oh, good. They’ll bring something creative to match the forbearance resolution.” Then they came back with this. Groan. It’s all so incredibly sad.

  2. I am not surprised, really. The EB is trying to prevent a complete split. They care more about the fit throwing conservatives than they do allowing conferences to do their jobs for themselves and for us to decide to live with each other under the same umbrella.

    I don’t think I’ll ever ask for Mennonite church membership at this point. I think the days of even church attendance at the one I’ve been going to are numbered.

  3. I wasn’t counting on success, yet I hoped. Under the sadness is outrage and something bordering on disappointment, way too deep for words.

  4. The actual issue aside, but the repeated ahistorical posture to baptize the “Purposeful Plan,” a document shot through with corporate lingo, in Harold Bender’s “Anabaptist vision” is troublesome.

    • Yes, Philipp. I couldn’t help but notice that while the Purposeful Plan, the CoF, the ministerial polity, and the membership guidelines are all invoked in this resolution, the Bible is nowhere to be found. (Thus my Bible selfie.)

  5. This sort of “forbearance” is an insult to the peace Jesus built. Very sad. I’m quickly losing my sense of humor about all this. It seems like all the official discussion is about the discussion and not about the “issue” itself – a lot like how mainstream news covers the presidential campaign horse-race but not the issues. We want the most viewers/congregants, so we have to keep it banal. We forget that the path is narrow. Jesus’ peacemaking rocked the boat – it’s something that is entirely missing from this resolution.

  6. So, in the next four years as we wear duct tape over our mouths, should it be the standard issue, conforming gray/silver color, or would it be considered unruly to wear a brightly colored tape?

  7. Think of MCUSA as a coalition of 22 Mennonite churches, each with its own priorities. It has no pope, no one with the authority to sort out disputes; the district conferences are the only ones that have the authority to do that.

    Yes, the Executive Board could have ignored the authority of district conferences and appealed directly to the delegates with something new and creative. I would like to hear it explain why it didn’t do that. My hunch is that it most of all wanted to stop the bleeding, to stabilize the patient (as it were), and this required respect for the main point of healthy stability in the system–the authority of district conferences.

    • Berry, part of my concern is that this resolution seems to DISrespect district conferences. It seems like a direct message to Mountain States and Central District that they should not be allowed to ordain LGBTQ pastors.

  8. It isn’t disrespectful to clearly and candidly describe reality. District conferences have the authority to do as they wish and the Executive Board seems to expect variances to continue. What is in doubt is whether district conferences will prioritize collaboration with one another within a single denominational structure. If so, then out of deference to the others, each will moderate practices that are at variance. If not, district conferences will separate and limit their collaboration to para-church agencies.

    But these are decisions district conferences must make. The Executive Board can’t decide, nor the delegates.

  9. Berry, I was following that line of argument until I got to the “peer review” part. That, to me, sets up a dynamic wherein *some* conferences take *other* conferences to task about their interpretation of the documents and insist on some kind of reckoning. That, to me, moves the locus of authority down a notch from the EB but still makes it conceivable for a conference to run to the CLC when something offends them that another conference has discerned is within its purview. How on earth is that healthy? It’s not even adolescent behavior; most of us have learned by then that it isn’t the best way to resolve conflict. Setting aside “the issue” for the moment, this model of church cooperation is bewildering at best. (Sorry for all of you folks whose lives and ministry are reduced to being “the issue” here. I do not mean any disrespect in my shorthand.) (P.S. I am a person lucky enough to be one of Joanna’s parishioners.)

    • Andrea, I can imagine situations where it is as you suggest (unhealthy), but I also can imagine situations where it is constructive. Certainly the dynamic that the Executive Board is hoping for is not unusual in the business and nonprofit worlds, where entities collaborate so long as they are aligned but stop when they become misaligned and cannot get back together on the same page.

      But judging from how the CLC has responded over the past 18 months, I don’t sense much stomach for disciplining one another. Conferences walking away is much more likely, IMO.

  10. Thank you Joanna.You gave words to my aching heart.

    –At a moment when God is inviting the church toward renewal through the Holy Spirit descending on us to bless our diversity, the Executive Board has turned away, clutching false gods of fear and indifference.

    –At a moment when our LGBT children watch every move of the church, the Executive Board swatted them away and told them to get lost because they are worth less than the Purposeful Plan of Mennonite Church USA.

    –At a moment when the world observes with fascination the Peace Church doing spiritual violence to it’s own LGBT members and their families, friends and congregations, the Executive Board asks people to join hands for the work that binds us together—proclaiming Jesus’ gospel of peace”.

    This resolution resolves nothing. It only resolves to delay or deny full and joyful blessing our LGBT children.

  11. I’m pretty disappointed, though not surprised. I think it’s a good thing we’re going to use our time and resources for productive purposes during the convention. Neither of us is prepared to endure it.

  12. Joanna- As a “conservative” on the other side of this issue, I assure you that the idea of forbearance will not satisfy those who do not wish to remain in a church, conference or denomination that continues to call sin a non-sin. They will leave anyway because their convictions and conscience cannot allow them to remain. This resolutions does not please anybody nor will it stem the tide of those leaving. Linda Rosenblum

      • I read one of your earlier posts about how many from the more traditionally-minded Mennonites (mainly from the MC side of the house) feels that entering into MCUSA meant that one accepted the Confession of Faith as a covenant with other members and that those who disagree (and in turn act against that confession) have violated the covenant. I couldn’t agree more with that assessment. It is hard for us to understand why those in disagreement with the CoF ever joined the church in the first place. Why must those who have joined in agreement then accept what we believe to be against Scripture and then stand in “forbearance” to sin? What about the covenanted relationships we thought this was all about?

  13. As the parent of a member who this decision affects, I can’t even begin to describe my heartbreak right now. We knew things probably hadn’t progressed far enough yet, but it still hurts. This isn’t just a theoretical issue they were talking about here. These are our fellow members, our children, our siblings, our friends, our youth, and the seekers coming to us to find the love of Jesus. Real people getting turned away from the Kingdom of God, getting hurt in His Name, and for what reason again???? Certainly not something He said to do.

  14. Well. That’s disappointing. I was rather hopeful when Central Plains came up with their discernment plan this year, which in my understanding basically says “If a congregation has put time into discerning an action which is at variance with the CoF, we are going to trust their discernment even though it disagrees with ours.” I suppose this renders all the years put into getting to that point useless?

  15. Linda Rosenblum:

    Just for the sake of discussion, let’s say that 15 years ago we formed a denomination by accepting a covenant document that, among other things, stated that all women had to wear dresses and keep their heads covered at all times. In the ensuing 15 years many of us (and many of whom were not part of that covenant agreement when it first came to be, by the way) came to understand, through prayer and discussion and honest, heartfelt discernment, that although these things are specifically sanctioned in the Bible, a more enlightened perspective, informed by scientific research and expert opinion, means that we cannot now endorse that part of the covenant, while agreeing that most of the rest of it is still a deep part of what we believe together.

    I suggest that this is how a large part of Joanna’s readership perceives where we now are in MC-USA. Yes, the covenant was agreed to 15 years ago. But covenants change even while the fundamental tenets of faith remain. What I keep asking myself is, When, How, and Why did this issue (sorry, folks, I know you’re not an issue) become The Issue that is tearing us apart?

    Something else, which someone cited on a Facebook thread on this topic, is that ministerial candidates are not asked to affirm every word of the CoF. In fact, they are specifically asked to state which, if any, of the articles they have a problem with, and why. A discussion then ensues. If ministers are held to this standard and still licensed, why do we ask more of ordinary members — to adhere to all articles of a “teaching document” or else invalidate the whole thing?

  16. Well to be perfectly honest, covenants concerning just the scenario you have described have split churches in the past causing schisms just like the one today in MCUSA. I however, would argue that the head covering and clothing issue in Scripture is not specifically denounced as sin but rather a symbol of modesty and submission, unlike homosexuality which is specifically identified as sin (as I read it). I in no way doubt the sincerity of discernment of those who disagree with the CoF stance on marriage and sexuality. But on the other hand, I cannot in good conscience raise my children in a church (congregation, conference or denomination) that teaches something in what I feel is in direct conflict with Scripture. That doesn’t mean I teach hate or exclusion.

    I can’t speak to the issue of what requirements regarding licensing ministers’ adherence to the CoF. I don’t know what they are and if they are uniform across the denomination. I think there exists a huge chasm between understandings of Scripture, CoF and “teaching documents” and what constitutes accountability and covenant between the different sides of this issue (I know you don’t like the term issue because we are talking about people but I don’t like being called “exclusionist” either because nobody is being excluded only being called to repent and follow Scripture IMO).

  17. Hi, Linda. I’m all too aware that the very issue I named has split churches. My grandfather was a Mennonite minister who had to preach on these subjects. I asked my mom, his daughter, how he would be viewing today’s situation. She said that based on his stances on the issues of his day, he probably would have been in the “I don’t fully agree with the inclusive position, but let’s stay together and work on it” category. She did say, however, that he preached a sermon about not using wedding bands on a Sunday when she happened to be in the congregation, an engaged woman planning to exchange wedding bands with my father. (Imagine! Not using wedding bands!) He did it because he had to (I guess the bishop told him to), not because it was his fervent belief. She said she still feels hurt by that message, even though he has long since passed to eternity, God rest his soul.

    To return to the topic, though, I struggle with the “repent and follow Scripture” injunction for LGBT people when we don’t demand the same of people who are divorced and remarried, who charge other people interest, who eat shellfish, who don’t sell all they have and give it to the poor, etc. When’s the last time a remarried ministerial candidate was told she couldn’t be credentialed? Or someone who owns stock in a bank not allowed to serve as church treasurer? Even if simply being a person who loves someone of the same sex were a sin — which I do not believe — why aren’t we just as demanding on those who do other things that are just as clearly called forth in Scripture?

    I am not trying to start an argument or change your view. I’m just stating my own point of view and lack of comprehension of the “other.” I’m grateful that we are having this civil discussion on my pastor’s blog and that she’s not contemplating banning either of us (at least, I don’t think she is!).

  18. I guess it all boils down to how much sin and hypocrisy one is willing to “tolerate”. We will all draw our lines somewhere in the sand and pointing to this speck or that speck in somebody else’s eye doesn’t really change anybody’s opinion as to where their own lines of conscience are drawn. Yes, we all sin and yes we all have moments of hypocrisy and I don’t know answers for everything. I have to read the Bible and live by faith. That’s all anybody can do. (As far as the eating shellfish is concerned, I think that Paul has already addressed that one in the NT, and personally, I love shrimp as does my Jewish mother-in-law).

  19. The delegate skype session in which this resolution was somehow construed to be supplemental and supportive to the Forbearance Resolution was even more disappointing. No amount of rhetoric can make this resolution out to be anything but anti-forbearance. It is not logically possible to vote in favor of both resolutions. If a delegate wants to help the EB make good on last June’s implied possibility of making changes to the Guidelines, she has to vote :no” on this one.

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