A letter to the MC USA Executive Board

Aug 1, 2014 by

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Author’s note: I did not write what follows intending it to be an open letter. Given the strong encouragement by a small circle with whom I shared it for feedback, however, I agreed to share it more widely within Mennonite Church USA.  I inserted in brackets [ ] two small changes from the original letter to help clarify two statements that have distracted some readers from my original intent. I offer it here in a spirit of mutual respect, with hope that more affirming options for MC USA response to the licensing of Theda Good may be considered.

Members of Mennonite Church USA Executive Board:

I write in response to your June 30 report. I cannot personally know the challenges you individually and collectively face, but neither are they totally foreign. I served as congregational delegate to Illinois Mennonite Conference in the 1990s during impassioned calls for expulsion and then discipline of two congregations with LGBT membership. I served on the board of Central District Conference during the past decade when two congregations — at (actual or potential) variance with other conferences regarding LGBT inclusion — joined Central District, and others withdrew from Central District membership in response.

Further, though raised in a Mennonite family, my commitment to the church was cemented through study of its Anabaptist traditions. Beyond studying and sometimes writing on the topic, I’ve served on different regional Mennonite historical committees over the decades, seeing in them opportunities to expand Mennonites’ awareness of their unique place in the larger church.

I share this personal background only to assure that, first, I view neither the passions elicited by LGBT questions nor your own challenges lightly, and second, like you, I care about the Church and about how it is expressed through MC USA.

Regarding your report, I commend many features, including the primacy of “read[ing] the Bible together in light of Jesus Christ,” recognition that Mountain States Mennonite Conference engaged a prayerful process that openly communicated its work, expressed need to improve how we face disagreements, and commitment to Christ-led responses in times of ferment. Beyond the report, I affirm your many efforts to address our diverse challenges.

But . . . I mainly write to share disappointment in other aspects of your report. This could be summarized around a few themes: 1) the nature of authority placed in denominational leadership and consensus documents; 2) narrowed readings of those documents (initially designed to welcome/merge Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church traditions); 3) narrowed views of what a conference “covenants” when it joins MC USA.

Some specifics:

1) Our bylaws state, “Each area conference shall establish provisions and procedures for credentialing ministers” [IV.3.c.]. Your report helpfully asserts that conferences must “continue to decide membership and leadership criteria.” But given this, how can the Executive Board decide that the “denomination” now fails to recognize area conference licenses and remain true to its own bylaws? Perhaps conferences can individually choose not to recognize credentials others grant, but how can the “denomination” do so within the framework under which it was formed? Board action as a “denominational” decision to disregard conference credentialing seems to contradict foundational documents and commitments more fundamentally than Mountain States’ action.

2) Regarding “stated requirements”:

  • A Mennonite Polity for Ministerial Leadership (1996), pages 7-8, states the manual is “for guidance and counsel. It should be used to discern direction. It should not be viewed as a legalistic code. . . .” Page 112 states that “Celibacy is the standard for single persons and monogamous heterosexual relationships for married persons.” [In the context of this document, then,] a “standard” is for “guidance,” and different than a formal “requirement.” I could not find (1) any use of the word “requirement” on this issue in the document; (2) a statement that failure to meet a standard would lead to non-recognition of credentials by the “denomination”; or (3) any statement that “the denomination as a whole” must agree to any specific actions that deviate from a standard in the document. Yet your report says the manual “spells out the requirements for ministry in Mennonite Church USA.”
  • The Confession of Faith (1995) describes itself as for “teaching and nurture in the life of the church” (p.9) with no reference to serving as a code of required practice.
  • As far as a “stated polity on same sex-marriage,” I have no idea what that refers to. “Polity” is about decision-making and organizational relationships and processes. I don’t understand what a “polity” on same-sex marriage is supposed to represent; if it is “stated” somewhere, it should be cross-referenced in your report.

3) The language of our documents is often (intentionally) imprecise and suggestive, which makes it entirely possible (even likely) that any given conference may sincerely view its “commitments” very differently than another conference. It seems disingenuous, then, to assert that one area conference failed its commitments based on what another conference may understand its own to be. I could not see exactly how Mountain States’ actions:

  • “Failed to honor the relational covenant that they made with the other area conferences” [Report item (2)] or
  • Compromised its commitment to “affirm foundational documents” when they joined MC USA (as phrased in The Mennonite TMail staff report and implied in your report’s request to “renew” their commitment to the documents). To “affirm and embrace” them, as stated in Mountain States’ 2005 statement, does not pledge undiscerning and narrowly literal allegiance, which seems to be what the report asks.

Quite the contrary, conferences that seek to assert authority over Mountain States’ credentialing seem to fail honoring that covenant more significantly than Mountain States might have. It seems within the Executive Board’s prerogative to ask that Mountain States take a particular action in deference to others’ concerns, but seeking leverage by framing their recent action as dishonoring covenants seems inaccurate and unfair.

I recognize that selective quotes offer incomplete pictures — whether by me or in the report — but that is in part my point. As these quotes show, MC USA documents do contain space within them to chart alternative courses. New movement of the Spirit rarely originates with majority consensus. Permitting minority “variance” offers windows to test the continued legitimacy, durability, truth of established practice. Deference to delegates is technically correct. Yet in practice, the Executive Board sets agenda for delegate discussions; rarely do delegates autonomously frame and generate decisions. The Board will ultimately chart whatever course delegates follow, whether by intent or default, and help determine whether MC USA permits space within it to test for God working new things in this church.

In closing, I empathize with your dilemma, and can only guess at the anxiety and pressure you must feel. But I also ask you to consider this from our Purposeful Plan: “We believe that God is calling our church to empower leaders in our midst to lead, not simply manage the affairs of the church” [829-830]. I believe Mountain States has taken a step of bold leadership in their local context.

Given the scope of horrendous challenges humanity now faces, it appalls me that we as Mennonites remain mired in squabbles over [sexual orientation] that impair our freedom to recognize and call upon the gifts of all who confess Jesus as Lord. Sexual orientation should not be used to rob the church of those gifts, especially when an area conference discerns them as valuable and needed in its midst.

As the conversation moves forward during the coming year, I encourage you to lead rather than manage. Name this conversation as one driven more by emotion, fear, anger than by documents, commitments or polity. Ask all MC USA conferences to honor the only organizational/relational covenants and commitments that can possibly see both denomination and Church through this time of ferment: respect for each other’s local, contextual, Spirit-led and biblical discernment, while remaining in full fellowship despite our fear. Doing otherwise risks the appearance of calculating who among us is most expendable.

I realize that this letter is only one of many replies you must wade through, and one that speaks only for myself rather than a particular constituent group. But I welcome any comments or clarifications any of you may be willing to share in response to these questions.

Gordon Oyer

Gordon Oyer lives in Champaign, Ill. and is a member of First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana. 

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