Lancaster Conference terminates retired pastor’s credentials

Pastor writes open letter after signing son's same-sex marriage certificate

Nov 10, 2014 by and

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Mennonite Church USA’s Lancaster Mennonite Conference has removed the ministerial credentials of a retired pastor for officiating a same-sex marriage.

Wenger

Wenger

Chester Wenger, a 96-year-old retired missionary and minister from Lancaster, Pa., signed the marriage certificate for his son, Philip Wenger, and his partner, Steve Dinnocenti, after Pennsylvania legalized same-sex marriage in May.

Lancaster Conference is the first area conference to terminate ministerial credentials for officiating a same-sex wedding. Other conferences have disciplined pastors in some way, without terminating credentials.

Keith Weaver, Lancaster Conference moderator, said the action was based on the conference’s commitment to the MC USA Membership Guidelines, which state, “Pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant.”

Weaver said the decision was made “following a review process that was experienced as mutually gracious and respectful.”

He said members of Lancas­ter’s credentialing commission shared the outcome with Wenger Oct. 8.

“I am at peace with their decision and understand their need to take this action,” Wenger wrote in an open letter to the church sent Oct. 30.

In an interview, Wenger said he believes the Bible dictates calling people to serve. He was called to Ethiopia with his family by Lancaster Conference and Eastern Mennonite Missions. Lancaster Conference requested that Virginia Mennonite Conference ordain him, which it did in 1949. EMM called him to direct Home Missions. He also pastored Blossom Hill Mennonite Church in Lancaster.

He said it is Lancaster’s right not to call him anymore.

“It doesn’t worry me,” he said. “I’m nearly at the end of life anyway.”

He married his son because “he’s my precious son.”

He believes his family can serve as an example of finding fellowship and love in the midst of differing perspectives.

So with the input of his wife, Sara Jane Wenger, and their son Philip, he wrote the open letter to share “the light the Lord has lit within me, under a bushel” — a call to inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in MC USA.

“We believe this is an opportune moment for the church to boldly proclaim a pastoral, grace-filled readiness to include both homosexuals and heterosexuals within the blessing of a marriage covenant designed to be wholesome and God-honoring,” it states.

Chester was reluctant to write the letter. He knows it will cause hurt.

“I have been living an acceptance of [gays and lesbians], but I have not been promoting it,” Chester said. “And that has been my basic stance.”

Deeply blessed

Philip, also of Lancaster, said Chester’s life has been a stellar example of gently living faith — a faith deeply blessed by Lancaster Conference.

“To this hour, he has such an intense and burning love for his conference and his church,” Philip said. “He understands where they’re coming from [by removing his credentials], but he wants them to understand where he’s coming from.”

Philip, the seventh of eight children, was born in Ethiopia. He came out to his father at age 15.

“I told him I thought he might grow out of it,” Chester said. “He came back a few years later and said, ‘Dad, I haven’t grown out of it.’ ”

Philip, now 57, said it took his dad about 10 years to accept his sexuality. He read books on sexuality and faith and then immersed himself in the Bible, seeking answers.

“My father at that point moved in his perspective, probably motivated by love, but definitely moved into being open and accepting,” he said.

Some of Philip’s siblings are not accepting of his sexuality, but Chester and Philip are quick to say it doesn’t affect the way they function together and love each other as a family.

It’s a model Chester wishes his church and conference could adopt.

“That’s exactly what my letter is about,” he said. “I wish we could reorganize in such a way to have latitude for people to fellowship even if they don’t agree on everything.”

An act of love

Philip and Dinnocenti have been together for 27 years. When the law allowed it, they wanted to be legally married.

“We planned a small little ceremony in our backyard with just two witnesses and our parents,” he said. “We just told stories about love and commitment.”

They had a marriage certificate and had someone from the Episcopal church where they are members who could have signed it. But they asked Chester if he wanted to officiate the June 21 ceremony.

He said the request was not an act of desire to create a ripple in the church.

“It was purely an act of love between a father and a son,” he said.

He didn’t actually consider that Chester would be disciplined.

“I was surprised that the church would do this to somebody of my father’s age and his length of service to the church,” he said. “I didn’t think they’d do it.”

He said if he could go back, he wouldn’t ask his father to sign the marriage certificate.

“But now Lancaster Conference has acted in the way that they did, and my father has a great deal of love for them, and I just have to end up respecting that he made the choice he did,” he said.

He believes the Mennonite church needs to go through its own journey on this issue.

“Maybe by the light of his life and his words, my dad may be able to touch a couple of hearts and minds,” he said.


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  • Forrest Moyer

    Wonderful report. Thank you, Kelli and MWR, for following up on this story of the Wenger family’s witness and the response of the church.

  • Patrick Leaman

    #AndA96YearOldShallLeadUs

  • Audrey Metz

    What possible sensible, loving reasoning can be behind terminating a 96-year-old’s ministerial credentials? a need for displaying conference power? I don’t know Chester Wenger, but after reading the MWR article about him, he is very high on the top of people to listen to and respect. And Lancaster Conference just took another nose-dive.

    • Merv Horst

      Audrey Metz, Homophobia pure and simple. Hidden behind the cloak of “being faithful to the Bible.” A spade is a spade.

      • Audrey Metz

        great metaphor, Merv. A spade, no matter what it’s called, is used for digging up, smashing with the flat bottom, chopping with the edge, destroying. But what it digs up can also be planted somewhere else – in richer soil, a place with more exposure to the sun (Son?), where it is nourished, cherished, fed with love and then joy in its growth. Hmmmm…….

      • Herbert Reed

        Merv, I do not support LMC’s action against Chester Wenger but I do not think it is fair to characterize it as “homophobic.” and I think we ought to quit using divisive language such as that as it cuts off dialogue.

        • Galen Kauffman

          Thanks, Herbert, for reminding us all to be careful with our language.

  • Rhoda M. Blough

    My heart is deeply saddened as I read this. To me, Chester exemplifies a life of service and commitment to the church and now to have his credentials terminated is just wrong.

  • Bruce Leichty

    First, I thank Chester for making it clear that he understands the difference between promotion of same-sex marriage and its normalcy, and acceptance of it — even as his own acts will now be used to further promote normalization of same-sex marriage. The Keystone State must be buzzing with the news that some of its most highly regarded beacons of morality, Die Stille Im Lande, are now squarely on the side of unnatural sexual coupling.

    Second, I wonder if any others had ever approached then-Pastor Wenger burdened with homosexual impulses, and whether he treated them the same. Are we a people of “law — or men?” Are we a people of Christ — or culture? Regardless of the apparent “beneficiaries,” I hope we can agree that it is bad policy for a church to change its doctrines and definition of sin when an influential leader suddenly discovers that a dear family member will be caught in the sweep, as is all too prevalent in today’s MCUSA (and the MCUSA of the last several decades). Perhaps Chester would disavow such all-too-human inclinations.

    Third, I hope all who are applauding Chester Wenger are also praying for Keith Weaver and those who have upheld the ministerial discipline of Lancaster Conference, since I would venture to say they have agonized over this. It is not easy to discipline a beloved brother who has had such high regard in the church.

    Fourth, a word to son Philip, a man of about my age, who is willing to be quoted for the record. This would be an opportunity for us to find out a bit more than just superficialities, indeed to hear you address a very important question. Did you experience as a child the crossing of sexual boundaries? Can we rule that out as a possible determiner of or influence on your sexual orientation and choice? If so, do you believe that adult-child boundary-crossing can fairly be ruled out among _all_ who now claim homosexual orientation? Has anyone ever talked with you about these difficult subjects? (I do not use the word “abuse” in raising these questions because I fear that some chlidren subjected to what I and most consider “abuse” may in fact not come to understand deviant sexual acts as abusive, but rather as “loving” in some twisted way.)

    Fifth, I would suggest that Philip is being disingenuous, or is not closely in touch with the Mennonite Church, when he expresses surprise that Lancaster Conference would terminate the credentials of his father. Which is it? Philip, can you also tell us a bit more about your spiritual orientation, not just your sexual orientation, and that of your new Pennsylvania-recognized “spouse”? Were there perhaps other reasons why Chester might have exercised restraint in solemnizing this “union”?

    Sixth, when the MWR reporter states that some of Philip’s siblings are “not accepting of his sexuality,” I have to wonder what that means. One can accept that a sibling feels attracted to members of the same sex without approving of it, and one can even accept that the sibling will not change or cannot change, without accepting that same-sex coupling should be normalized. One can also love the sinner while hating the sin. I perceive that too often persons with nuanced views of these phenomena are branded as “unaccepting.” We wouldn’t allow a reporter to say, “some of Levi’s siblings are not accepting of his anger,” or “some of Noah’s siblings are not accepting of his alcoholism,” precisely because of the uncertainty as to what exactly such expressions imply. .

    Seventh, just how much latitude do you think there ought to be in the church, Chester? Why would you deny, for instance, a polygamous brother the right to have two wives, if the wives are not expressing discontent? or a mistress and wife, if the same conditions pertain? Not only would the “love” ethic practiced by today’s Mennonites suggest such “acceptance,” but there is also Old Testament precedent for that! Again I ask all who are bent on changing — or those who like Chester who are actually changing — the church’s historic commitment to a marriage that joins one man and one woman: How do you guard against self-delusion?

    • Berry Friesen

      Good question, Bruce. But we routinely encounter the challenge you describe in church life. Why should we shrink from it here?

      Every Sunday, we worship with people who support terrorism with their tax dollars. (I am one who does so.) Of course, we don’t call it terrorism; we call it protecting liberty, but that’s self-delusion, to use your phrase.

      Yet we put up with it because the gospel of Messiah Jesus is spoken in our worship gatherings, and that gospel judges us to be sinners for our financial support of terrorism. In that judgment, there is hope, even if there is little obvious change in our behavior.

      I don’t perceive Rev. Wenger to be calling for a change in what we preach about human sexuality, only a change in our willingness to walk together as sinners, carrying our hypocrisy and our wounds and our brokenness and our scars with us, persistently submitting to the authority of the gospel.

    • Elaine Fehr

      Excellent points, Bruce. Thank you.

    • Charlie Kraybill

      I really do not understand why polygamy is always brought into this argument as if it’s obvious that it should be opposed as irregular or deviant or whatever. If we’re going to go to the bible for guidance on marriage, then of course we have to allow a polygamous brother the right to have two wives. It’s biblical, and there’s no denying it. Polygamy was the original biblical definition of marriage. I’m not aware of any point in history where God changed her mind on that issue. Of course, given our modern sensibilities, we would want to also allow women the same rights to multiple partners, so we should be willing to allow a polygamous sister the right to have two or more husbands. If one man and one woman want to marry, that’s great. But if more than one man and more than one woman want to commit to each other and marry, why not? The nature and workability of intimate relationships is much more flexible than most of us are willing to imagine. God is not a prude. She wants as many of us as possible to find our way to happy relationships. Heaven knows monogamous straight marriage isn’t working for most people. So if some of God’s children find happiness in non-traditional marriage arrangements, then God bless them!

      • Galen Kauffman

        I know of no argument for same sex marriage that does not apply with
        equal validity and more scriptural precedent to polygamous and even
        incestuous marriage. This often goes unacknowledged. I appreciate,
        Charlie, that you are honest about where this issue of inclusiveness is
        headed.

        • Charlie Kraybill

          You’re welcome, Galen. If I read you correctly, you agree with me that polygamous marriage is supportable from scripture. If that is so, then we are also in agreement that the one-man/one-woman definition of marriage is not the ONLY definition. Once we let go of the notion that God only approves of one type of marriage, it makes it more difficult to insist that gay marriage should be automatically excluded. Christians should abandon the mantra that the biblical definition of marriage is one man and one woman ONLY. Because clearly that’s not the case.

          • Galen Kauffman

            I agree with you that polygamous marriage is AS supportable as same-sex marriage. That is not to assume I support either one. :)

        • Herbert Reed

          Galen, you are deploying the “slippery slope” argument. It is a logical fallacy. We can and do draw lines. There are many arguments against both polygamy and incestuous relationships which have nothing to do with same-sex marriage. The typical argument against same-sex marriage based on the Bible (cited by Nate Showalter above) is itself a logical fallacy – the so-called Is/Ought fallacy (Hume’s Law). And of course, as Charlie Kraybill points out, you will not find much support in the Bible against polygamy, at least in the Old Testament.

          • Galen Kauffman

            The slippery slope argument is a logical fallacy only when used without a warrant (evidence). And yes, that is how I used it. I should have used a less definite verb, saying “…where the issue of inclusiveness could be headed.” Yes, I agree we can and do draw lines (restrictions). My point was that when we erase lines regarding one kind of marriage, THOSE PARTICULAR LINES no longer exist for other kinds of marriage either.

            Wasn’t Jesus using the Is/Ought “fallacy” when he quoted Genesis then said “Therefore what God has joined together (is), let no one separate (ought)?”

          • Herbert Reed

            No you are confused on the definition of the is/ought fallacy. Saying that God joined something together suggests a moral imperative for the joining. But saying God did something does not imply that God blesses only that and not something which is not mentioned. A crude example would be to say that because God did not create us with wings means that we should not fly in airplanes. But rather than me trying to explain it, I will give you a link. https://philosophynow.org/issues/83/Hume_on_Is_and_Ought

            Your restatement of the problem (slippery slope) does not help because we draw lines for different reasons, so erasing the lines in one area does not erase the lines in a different area. In other words, to use an old cliche, you are comparing apples and oranges.

          • Berry Friesen

            Herb, here’s another analogy that might help. I have a friend who is an electrician by trade. He showed me how to wire the room I’ve added to my basement. That’s well and good, but should not be taken to mean I shouldn’t wire the room another way. .There’s more than one way to skin a cat, as they say!

          • Elaine Fehr

            But let’s not forget…that “other way” could be deadly.

  • Nate Showalter

    “Haven’t you read,” Jesus said, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female? For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” (Jesus quoting Genesis in Matthew 19) This isn’t the first time the tide of history has seemed certain to undo the words of Jesus and the witness of the church. I love and respect Chester Wenger, and worked for him for several years. But he left me with the indelible impression that our loyalty must be to Christ rather than culture, to the church universal rather than the foibles of contemporary Western opinion.

  • Bob Wyble

    Congratulations to Chester Wenger for honoring his son Phil, and performing a ceremony in which he married Phil to his partner Steve Dinnocenti. A lot of comments are being written as to how to interpret the Bible on the issue of same gender marriage. Numerous people pontificate on what the Bible says, and debate how we read the Bible on the issue of sexuality. I wonder how many writers actually know a gay person, or have talked to a gay person. Do they know what it feels like to be gay and excluded from the church into which they were born. What it’s like to love a same gender partner and not be permitted to share the joys of that loving relationship with church, family and community.

    The love of a parent for a child is a very strong and powerful bond. The kind of bond in which parents support and do what they can to help their children experience rich and fulfilled lives. Chester Wenger, at the expense of losing his credentials as a pastor, performed an act of love and married his son. He honored his son as a faithful and loving father should do.

    I would question why a conference would take a pharisaic position of upholding the law and remove the credentials of a man who spent his whole life serving the church. I would submit that this soft spoken man, Chester Wenger, is being prophetic and showing us the way to treat our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters in the LGBT community. Congratulations to you, Chester, for marrying your son and having the courage to write a story and share with all of us what you did and why you did it. Also, congratulations to Phil Wenger and Steve Dinnocenti. May you have a long and happy married life.

  • Bob Wyble

    Congratulations to Chester Wenger for honoring his son Phil, and performing a ceremony in which he married Phil to his partner Steve Dinnocenti. A lot of comments are being written as to how to interpret the Bible on the issue of same gender marriage. Numerous people pontificate on what the Bible says, and debate how we read the Bible on the issue of sexuality. I wonder how many writers actually know a gay person, or have talked to a gay person. Do they know what it feels like to be gay and excluded from the church into which they were born. What it’s like to love a same gender partner and not be permitted to share the joys of that loving relationship with church, family and community.

    The love of a parent for a child is a very strong and powerful bond. The kind of bond in which parents support and do what they can to help their children experience rich and fulfilled lives. Chester Wenger, at the expense of losing his credentials as a pastor, performed an act of love and married his son. He honored his son as a faithful and loving father should do.

    I would question why a conference would take a pharisaic position of upholding the law and remove the credentials of a man who spent his whole life serving the church. I would submit that this soft spoken man, Chester Wenger, is being prophetic and showing us the way to treat our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters in the LGBT community. Congratulations to you, Chester, for marrying your son and having the courage to write a story and share with all of us what you did and why you did it. Also, congratulations to Phil Wenger and Steve Dinnocenti. May you have a long and happy married life.

    • Jeff Linthicum

      I find it interesting that it always comes back to experience. Do you even know a gay person? I do not think that my knowing or not knowing a gay person changes the agreed upon statements of the church or the word of God. I do know a gay person (a few actually, and I love them and they love me even though they know I don’t agree with their lifestyle. They even loved me when I was a severe drug addict, even though they didn’t agree with my lifestyle). The confession of faith states that scripture is authoritative for preaching, teaching, faith and life. Not culture or reason, or experience, or tradition, or political powers. We are at a point in time where experience and culture is trumping everything else.

  • John K. Stoner

    In my view, texts matter and Bible texts matter, because human wisdom and experience are stored in texts. And God works in the process. Having said that, I don’t think we know for sure that Jesus said everything attributed to him in the gospels; even less do I think that God said everything attributed to him/her in the Hebrew scriptures–as they say, God forbid!

    But let’s take seriously the claim that Jesus said basically all that’s attributed to him in the synoptic gospels. Then we have what he said about a man leaving his father and mother, and we also have what he said about eunuchs (Matthew 19.). He said that some are eunuchs from birth–he seems to have thought that sexual orientation/drive is given at birth, and not all have the gift of celibacy. He did not require celibacy of all people, why should we have a class of people of whom we legalistically require celibacy?

    I find it hard to see how interpreting Jesus and his words the way the pharisees interpreted their scriptures is a good way to honor Jesus. The way of a man who brought as much newness as Jesus did is hardly honored by refusing to learn anything new in 2000 years. Or maybe people think that if Jesus appeared in the flesh today, he would nave nothing new to say. (I actually think he does appear, as the Human One who appears in the Human Ones we meet every day, but leave that for another discussion).

    — John K. Stoner

  • Phil Schroeder

    80 years of leading gives no one the right to mislead. Each action shall stand on it’s own and the Lancaster Conference no doubt struggled get past this man’s life of ministry in dealing with the misuse of his credentials. This action by the conference was an act of faithfulness to God’s word, courage in the face of popular opinion, and love for their members in needing to hear the truth. We can demand our golden calf, but in the end, it will be nothing but a chunk of metal. God’s truth is eternal and the Lancaster Conference seems to understand this. Thank you for your example to our denomination.

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