The last few weeks have been tough in Mennonite Church USA. A lot of long-standing issues have reached a boiling point of contention, including the role of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bixsexual and transgendered) people in the church, biblical hermeneutics and the delicate balance of power between a national denomination, regional conferences, local congregations and individual consciences.
While some are calling for a way forward that keeps us all united (allowing space for the exercise of different understandings of conscience), there are other voices calling for division, by way of the exercise of power. Recent announcements by the leadership and members of some regional Mennonite conferences (Lancaster, Ohio, Franconia, Virginia, New York and others) seems to indicate that some of the regional conferences may leave the denomination unless changes are made to the polity, so that dissenting groups and individuals are thrown out.
I do think miracles are possible and that is not in vain to pray for a unity that right now seems impossible (one bit of encouraging news was the expressions of unity that arose a recent church-wide meeting). But I also think that we should be thoughtful in considering the issues at stake. Unity may be difficult if not impossible to achieve (absent of course divine intervention in the hearts of the women and men involved).
The big issue (or at least the one that is forcing all of the other issues) is that there are two camps of people who hold to strong convictions on the issue of LGBT inclusion. One camp believes that homosexuality is sinful and that the toleration of sin in the church is poisonous. For these folks the issue of inclusion is more than an issue of “life and death” but rather an issue with eternal consequences. This of course makes compromise nearly impossible.
The second camp (which I am, admittedly, a part of), believes that excluding our LGBT brothers and sisters from the church in sin, and that it is our call to prophetically speak out against this oppression, not only in society but also in the church. The issue is important because it goes to the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Selling out on this issue is unimaginable.
Speaking only for myself here (and not for all inclusion-minded folks) this is a tough spot to be in. While I want to find a way to promote unity in the church, I must say that I also do not want to be complicit in oppression. I don’t to be part of a church that actively promotes oppression (be it the exclusion of women from the pulpit, a teaching of the necessity of racial segregation, or the exclusion of LGBT folks from the full life of the church). The only way that I can imagine staying involved in such a church, would be if I were staying as part of a continued prophetic witness against that evil.
Considering both camps and our collective desire to both follow our consciences, there may only be three options left for us: (1) maintain the discomfort of the status quo (with both camps trying to persuade the other camp to change its position), (2) part disagreeably with lots of bitter conflict (something Anabaptists have a long history of doing), or (3) part amicably, seeking to find points of connection despite our institutional separation.
These three options are the same options that many struggling married couples find themselves in. After lots of bitter tears and attempts to make things work, couples can be left with the options of (1) “keeping up the front” of marriage to the outside world but growing further and further apart, (2) going through a bitter and ugly divorce, or (3) deciding to have an amicable divorce, with the intent of preserving some level of relationship for the sake of the children or another common purpose.
The third option is hard, but it can work. I have seen this option in action in the lives of my loved ones and friends, folks who were once married (and went through a lot of pain in their marriages), but now have decided to get along, to be kind to each other, and to work together to raise their kid as co-parents.
What would such a “divorce” look like for MCUSA? I would argue that we first have to ask “who are the children,” or to put it another way, what are the common causes that unite us and that transcend our differences? I think one obvious example is MCC (Mennonite Central Committee). Currently several denominations from across the Anabaptist perspectve (including the various branches of the Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, Brethren and Amish traditions) unite together to do the MCC relief sales and to do world relief work around the world. These groups disagree on many issues but they are united by their belief in the importance of feeding hungry people and caring for those on the margins.
There are other examples — Mennonite Disaster Services and Mennonite World Conference — both come to mind. The point is that we can work together in these areas without staying tied together as a single denomination.
Yet, by separating into separate denominations, both groups can maintain the integrity of their convictions. Each group can make their own collective decisions on issues like church polity, ordination and marriage.
I see merit with this approach but there would also be terrible costs. Existing institutions (colleges, seminaries, camps, denominational offices, mission efforts, etc.) would have to find ways to exist with possibly diminished funding or be shut down. Some congregations would be geographically isolated from other congregations of the same denomination. Arguably the witness to the world of Mennonites being a “people of peace” would be hindered by a split, a little over a decade after the two major Mennonite denominations merged. And most importantly, relationships would be hurt. Ideally individuals and congregations would find ways to stay connected but this won’t always happen. These costs are not ones to be paid lightly.
I don’t know if we are at the place of “no return” in the denominational marriage of MCUSA, and so I will keep praying for a way for us to stay united. But I also will now be praying for what might happen if we have to part ways, that we can find the heart and will to be loving in our parting, and to stay united in our “co-parenting” of the common causes of our churches, no matter what happens.