Year in review: Sexuality issues test unity

Pastoral credentialing is latest point of contention in longstanding debate

Dec 22, 2014 by and

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Struggles in Mennonite Church USA over same-sex relationships entered uncharted territory in 2014. When one conference licensed a lesbian pastor in Colorado and another signaled its acceptance of a gay man called to pastoral ministry in Ohio, a new question was on the table.

Members of Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church lay their hands on Mark Rupp while Lois Johns Kaufmann, conference minister for Mennonite Church USA’s Central District, prays during a service to install Rupp as pastor of Christian formation. — Lois Maust

Members of Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church lay their hands on Mark Rupp while Lois Johns Kaufmann, conference minister for Mennonite Church USA’s Central District, prays during a service to install Rupp as pastor of Christian formation. — Lois Maust

Can a church already torn by conflict over homosexuality stick together when the dispute escalates to whether people in same-sex relationships can be pastors?

In the words of the MC USA Executive Board, the situation “frayed the fragile strands of accountability that hold our church together.”

The board denounced the action that ignited the concern. It refused to recognize Mountain States Conference’s licensing of Theda Good as a pastor at First Mennonite Church in Denver.

A few months later, Mountain States was not alone. Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio installed Mark Rupp as a pastor, and Central District Conference leaders indicated their intent to license him next summer.

Events some hailed as progress others decried as sinful. Opposition to gays and lesbians in ministry, and frustration over the issue of same-sex relationships in general, rumbled across the denomination. A letter from leaders of five area conferences — Franconia, Lancaster, Virginia, New York and Franklin — called Mountain States’ action “catastrophic for our constituencies.”

In Ohio Conference, a resolution asking MC USA to expel Mountain States if it did not rescind Good’s license fell 5 percent short of the two-thirds support needed to pass.

The bishops of Lancaster Conference called for re-evaluating Lancaster’s relationship to the denomination.

Gulf States Conference considered leaving MC USA, but its delegates’ 60 percent support for withdrawal fell short of the two-thirds needed.

The national constituent group Iglesia Menonita Hispana (Hispanic Mennonite Church) warned that “most, if not all,” its congregations would withdraw “if the present teaching of sexuality . . . is changed.”

Responding to the unrest, the Executive Board appointed a committee to explore new ways for conferences to relate.

Executive director Ervin Stutzman acknowledged the challenge.

“It will not be easy to find any structure in which all can happily flourish,” he said.

While several congregations withdrew from the denomination, two conferences sought to lead in seeking unity.

Central District delegates unanimously approved a resolution that stated: “We believe that the answers we seek are best found in dialogue and mutual discernment, rather than denunciation and separation.”

Western District began a study of sexuality in response to a request from one of its congregations to guarantee that pastors may officiate same-sex commitment ceremonies without fear of punishment.

A congregation where the pastor already does that is Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, which became independent more than a decade ago after being expelled by Franconia and Eastern District conferences. Germantown hosted two marriage ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples after a federal judge struck down Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage.

The end of Pennsylvania’s ban led to an event that drew attention across MC USA.

Lancaster Conference revoked the ministry credentials of Ches­ter Wenger, a 96-year-old retired missionary and pastor, for officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding.

Wenger defended his action in an open letter that called the church to “stake out new territory” by extending “the blessing of marriage to our homosexual children who desire to live in accountable, covenanted ways.”

A daughter and son-in-law of Wenger, Jewel and Richard Sho­walter, countered with an open letter opposing same-sex marriage. They called for “compassionate, embracing love” for gays and lesbians but said the church should not “bow our knees to an ethic of ‘kindness’ and ‘love’ outside the word of God.”

Religious freedom ruling

In a highly anticipated decision on conscience and contraception, the U.S. Su­preme court ruled in favor of a Mennonite-owned business, Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Lancaster County, Pa., firm run by a family of Weaverland Mennonite Conference, an Old Order group.

Conestoga Wood Specialties President and CEO Anthony Hahn reads a statement March 25 on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., after oral arguments concerning the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. — Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era

Old Order Mennonite Anthony Hahn, president and CEO of Conestoga Wood Specialties, reads a statement on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington on March 25 after lawyers for Conestoga and Hobby Lobby made oral arguments challenging the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. — Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era

Conestoga’s case was paired with a similar one by Hobby Lobby, a national chain of craft supply stores.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that the owners — the Hahn family of Conestoga and the Green family of Hobby Lobby — cannot be compelled by the Affordable Care Act to provide certain contraceptives in employee health plans.

The Hahns and Greens sought a religious exemption from the ACA’s requirement because they believe four specific contraceptives are equivalent to abortion.

Combining questions of religious rights, corporate rights, the ACA and abortion, the case was considered one of the most important on the Supreme Court docket this year.

Anthony Hahn, Conestoga’s president and CEO, read a statement on the Supreme Court steps: “Rather than sacrifice our obedience to God, my family and the Green family and many others have chosen to take a stand to defend life and freedom against government coercion.”

MB peace statement

U.S. Mennonite Brethren delegates revised their Confession of Faith’s article on peace at their national convention July 25-26 in Santa Clara, Calif.

The revision, which passed with 91 percent support, describes avoiding the military as a choice “many of us” make. This replaces a more explicit directive not to serve in the military.

The old article stated, “In times of national conscription or war, we believe we are called to give alternative service where possible.” The revision says, “As in other peace churches, many of us choose not to participate in the military but rather in alternative forms of service.”

Other parts of the article call for loving enemies and being “peacemakers and agents of reconciliation in families, churches, communities, in our nation and throughout the world.”

The national conference’s Board of Faith and Life wanted the article to more accurately reflect members’ beliefs and to promote unity. It hopes the revision will help revive the teaching of peacemaking.

“Because of the increased diversity and growth within our congregations, coupled with our longstanding ambivalence about our theological position, the issue of how we preach, teach and live as a peacemaking community has become the proverbial elephant in the room,” the board said in a letter to congregations.

Persecution in Nigeria

The Church of the Brethren in Nigeria endured persecution at the hands of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram. In an April attack that sparked outrage worldwide, militants kidnapped more than 270 girls from a school built by Brethren missionaries in the 1940s. Many of the girls are Christian; others are Muslim. None have been found.

In October, Nigerian Brethren President Samuel Dali reported that more than 3,000 people from Brethren churches had been killed by terrorist forces. He warned of genocide of Christians in northern Nigeria.

Dali said the Brethren church headquarters was overrun by insurgents; many churches were closed and 21 burned; eight pastors were killed and 180 members kidnapped; more than 2,200 houses of members were burned and 90,000 members displaced.

Dali said the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria — known by its Nigerian acronym, EYN — was “the greatest single denomination that [Boko Haram] has almost successfully wiped out of existence” in many areas.

“EYN is severely damaged by the terrorists in many ways,” Dali said. “The whole Lardin Gabas, the historical center of EYN, has been almost destroyed.”

The U.S. Church of the Breth­ren responded to the Nigerians’ call to prayer and fasting and committed $1.5 million to relief efforts.

Global connections

Mennonites from several countries built stronger connections. In one case, the link was inspired by one man: Sang-Min Lee, a 27-year-old Mennonite in South Korea serving an 18-month jail sentence for refusing military service.

When leaders of the Colombian Mennonite peace group Justapaz heard of Lee’s imprisonment, they shared his story with Colombian churches. Many people committed to sending him letters of encouragement.

Justapaz supports young men in Colombia whose faith leads them to object to the country’s military service requirement.

In other international links:

  • More than 120 people from 19 countries gathered in Guatemala for the Seventh Consultation of Anabaptists in Latin America. Participants described the event as a landmark moment for an emerging Latin American Mennonite identity.
  • A gathering of Anabaptists in Thailand drew about 70 people from Southeast Asia. Some shared stories of persecution because of their faith. Thai church leader Somjai Panta said the testimonies of perseverance and love of enemies “show that whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Jesus will find it.”
  • Forty-five French-speaking Mennonites from nine countries gathered in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country with by far the largest French-speaking Mennonite population. They focused on strengthening their network and promoting theological education.

Meeting many needs

Mennonite Central Committee led a disaster response effort after Typhoon Haiyan devastated large swaths of the Philippines in November 2013. MCC received $4.3 million in donations to fund projects such as employing Filipinos to build more than 4,000 disaster-resistant homes.

MCC’s work continued in the Middle East, aiding victims of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza and people displaced by violence in Iraq and the Syrian civil war. Since March 2011, when the Syrian crisis began, MCC has allocated more than $19.8 million in food, shelter, nonfood items, education, peacebuilding and disaster response training in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

MCC also provided $1.1 million in aid to people displaced by conflict in South Sudan.

Other top stories

Lydie Yougbaré emerges from her baptism and into the fellowship of the Bobo Dioulasso congregation of the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso. — Frank Nacanabo/MMN

Lydie Yougbaré emerges from her baptism and into the fellowship of the Bobo Dioulasso congregation of the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso. — Frank Nacanabo/MMN

  • The Free Christian Churches of Lithuania joined the International Community of Mennonite Brethren.
  • Beachy Amish Mennonite ministers adopted a statement of faith at a national meeting in Yoder, Kan.
  • Easter baptisms of 63 people increased the membership of the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso by 12 percent.
  • Mennonite Church Canada delegates approved questions on sexuality for congregational study over the next two years, including: “How shall we maintain our unity in Christ . . . while understanding matters of same-sex relationships differently?”
  • A 15-member MC USA delegation to Israel/Palestine marked the beginning of an initiative to send 100 Mennonite leaders to visit the region over five years.
  • The first national gathering of Theologically Trained Anabaptist Women in India was a milestone in India’s Anabaptist history, organizers said.
  • Chortitzer Mennonite Conference, a 1,500-member Canadian group, announced it would choose a new name. “We want to put our effort into explaining Christ to people, not explaining our name,” Bishop David Reimer said.
  • Police raided a gathering of the unregistered Evangelical Mennonite Church in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, detaining more than 70 people for several hours, beating some so severely they needed medical attention, and destroying property.
  • About 300 people attended the first gathering of Anabaptist Renewal Circles at Weaverland Mennonite Church in East Earl, Pa. The group seeks to mobilize Anabaptists to bear witness to Jesus’ transforming grace by the Holy Spirit’s power.
  • Mennonite Disaster Service completed two years of work in Staten Island, N.Y., in response to Hurricane Sandy.
  • The Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches, which includes Evangelical Mennonite Breth­ren congregations, amended its doctrinal statement to say the first 11 chapters of Genesis are literal history.
  • After two years as president of Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University, Pete C. Menjares resigned and was replaced by a former president, Richard Kriegbaum.
  • The Fellowship of Mennonite Churches in Taiwan celebrated its 60th anniversary, and the Mennonite Church of Trinidad and Tobago, a Caribbean island nation, observed its 40th.

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  • Tim Swartzendruber

    And I strongly commend the administration, faculty, students, and trustees of Eastern Mennonite University for devoting six months of 2014 to a listening process (centered on face-to-face circle process conversations) about its hiring policy related to LGBT employees.

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