04 March 2014
Division and Exclusion
The issue of human sexuality has become a major issue of division in the church, more than any I can remember since I became active in the church. Recently, the Mountain States Mennonite Conference (MSMC) affirmed the ministry of Theda Good (http://www.themennonite.org/issues/16-12/articles/Mountain_States_first_conference_to_license_samesex_pastor). In response, several other conferences wrote letters to the Executive Board (EB), and both directly and indirectly requested that MSMC be removed from Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) (http://www.themennonite.org/issues/17-3/articles/Letters_from_conference_leaders_and_pastors_express_concern_about_Mountain_States_decision).
My first thought on reading this article and the letter from my home conference, signed by people I know and by many leaders from my home area, was to renounce my membership at my home congregation. However, I would not cease attending this congregation when I return, nor would I change the venue of my upcoming wedding. I am a part of this community, and though we disagree on these matters, I want it to be clear that I do not wish to withdraw from the community. This differs from the views expressed in the Ohio Conference letter (http://www.themennonite.org/uploads/File/Ohio%20letter.pdf), which calls for the removal of an entire conference based on such a disagreement.
Embracing Our Identity:
However, my fiancée pointed out that this action gives those who signed the letter exactly what they want: the eradication of all those of differing opinion from the church. As much as my desire to distance myself from such a harsh viewpoint is understandable, and even reasonable, it really is an unproductive move. Rather than distance ourselves from those in our tradition with whom we disagree, it would be far healthier to acknowledge the difference and focus on working together and healing. For instance, the Anabaptists at Münster are certainly not typical of all sixteenth-century Anabaptists, but an acknowledgement of this part of us allows us to move forward. Similarly, while we have distanced ourselves from our Catholic roots, we should acknowledge our connections to the Catholic Church and our history with it to achieve a better understanding of ourselves and our faith. So while I may wish to distance myself from congregations who oppose fully including and accepting LGBTQ people, I would also be distancing myself from part of my own identity and community.
Secondly, removing myself from the community in any way signals that I have become less willing to work together and add my voice to the discussion. MC USA has affirmed the value of diversity among its members, and I dearly hope that they were referring to more than racial diversity. New views and perspectives are valuable to a community, and they help it to be greater than it could be were everyone of the same mind. Progressive and inclusive perspectives are incredibly valuable in our communities because they prompt us to reconsider our current stance and encourage us to change for the better. All change comes out of a tension between the conservative and the progressive, and this tension, when handled properly, serves to guide us in progressing in the right direction. It allows us to see multiple sides of an issue and leads us to a position that is more loving and Christ-like than our current one. I have no doubt that I am one of the more progressive voices in the Mennonite Church, and I embrace my role in moving the church forward into a more loving position, and I also embrace the role of those who oppose me in checking my progressive views, ensuring that we do not embrace progress for the sake of progress, but that we embrace it in an effort to be better tomorrow than we are today.
The Near Future:
Lastly, I propose a short-term solution to the issue. Allow this to be a decision for each congregation or each conference to handle on its own until such a time as an agreement can be reached across all of MC USA. We already do some of this with smaller issues. Women pastors are embraced by MC USA, but there are some congregations which I am sure would never hire a female minister. We allow that sort of autonomy. Similarly, we no longer believe that women must wear prayer coverings, but some still do. I understand that those who signed these letters in the Ohio Conference, Indiana-Michigan Conference, and East Coast Conferences are concerned with the unity of the church, and that the East Coast Conferences are particularly concerned with the way in which MSMC went about making their decision (that is, without church-wide support), but perhaps unity on this matter, like many others, is beyond us currently. Perhaps we should consider and inclusive definition of "Mennonite" rather than an exclusive one. Should the people of MSMC feel as though this was supported by God, who are you to demand that they conform to your rules or be expelled from the church? Yes, it is our responsibility to hold one another accountable, but haven't we moved past excommunication by now? Should we not work to reconcile our differences, rather than simply eradicating them? The face of the Mennonite church is changing, and so should our methods of dealing with that change.