Shifting toward inclusion

Acceptance of gays a dramatic change in MC USA

Jan 19, 2015 by

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There’s a dramatic moment in the mountain of data about Mennonite Church USA released Jan. 5: Credentialed leaders are much more accepting of gay and lesbian church members and leaders than they were eight years ago.

These are the numbers that survey director Conrad Kanagy describes as a dramatic shift:

  • From 2006 to 2014, the percentage of credentialed leaders who would reject a noncelibate gay person as a church member decreased from 66 percent to 47 percent. The majority shifted from non­acceptance to acceptance.
  • The percentage of credentialed leaders who would accept a noncelibate gay person as an ordained minister increased from 14 percent to 46 percent.
  • And one more number Kanagy didn’t highlight: Including the 39 percent who would accept gay Christians as church members only if they are celibate, the percentage of credentialed leaders today who would accept gay members under at least some conditions is 92 percent; only 8 percent would never allow a gay member.

These statistics document historic and positive change. They confirm that a large and growing segment of MC USA wants to treat gay Christians as valued and gifted members of the body of Christ. Diverse views on same-sex relationships are a fact of life among Christians. If members of MC USA do not accept this, their denomination will continue to splinter and shrink. Progressives, for the most part, are willing to stay with conservatives, though the church surely has lost many who find it unwelcoming to them or their gay friends. MC USA’s future size and character will depend mostly upon the answers to these questions: How many who support the traditional view of homosexuality will accept diversity? And how many will join the exodus, which tips the balance toward the progressive side with every conservative departure?

Some of the numbers are not encouraging for those who hope to preserve a church that unites conservatives and progressives. Respondents were asked what kind of church they want to be a part of:

  • Sixteen percent want a church that fully includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, even if doing so results in membership losses.
  • Forty-three percent want a church that prohibits same-sex relationships, even if doing so results in membership losses.
  • Forty-one percent value unity so much that they are willing to live with differences.

It looks bad for unity if only four in 10 are willing to live with differences. But the situation might not be that dire. Respondents could pick only one option, but in real life they don’t have to. It is possible to want to be part of a church that upholds the traditional view of marriage and, at the same time, to value unity so much that one is willing to live with differences. Advocates of unity hope there are many who wanted to check two boxes.

It is not hard to see why Kanagy describes the bonds that hold MC USA together as tenuous and fragile. The opinions that divide its members, he says, “are sociological, cultural and theological.” He strikes a pessimistic tone when describing the challenge of bridging the divides: “With differences so deep, it is exceptionally difficult to have productive conversations or dialogue about controversial issues. . . . By and large, respondents fail to understand or try to understand the particular standpoint from which the other sees the world.”

But the report offers signs of hope, especially in the samples of written comments. On the question of what God might want to teach the church in this troubled time, one respondent said: “As a peace church, our witness is thin because of the many divisions that have happened. . . . My hope is that we can be a witness to the world that Mennonite Church USA can find peaceful ways to value differences on many issues like women in leadership, abstaining from war and military service, LGBTQ — and hold to the centrality of Christ.”

The benefits of unity came out in answers to the question, “What, if anything, do you most appreciate about your congregation’s affiliation with Mennonite Church USA?” Respondents cited connections, community, identity, support and belonging as things they appreciated. Being part of the denomination “keeps us from becoming only focused on our own communities and our own views,” one said. Another said the “desire to be Christ-centered” is the bond that holds together “congregations from varied cultures and perspectives.”

The survey results don’t give a clear answer to how MC USA might organize itself differently to preserve unity. The most common answer (25 percent) to the question about a “preferred future” for denominational organization was “not sure.” Almost as many (23 percent) said the current structure is satisfactory. About the same number (25 percent) favored “reorganizing so that area conferences are fully the centers of authority for credentialing.” In fact, area conferences already hold this authority. This answer could be taken as a rejection of the Executive Board’s action last year to refuse to recognize Mountain States Mennonite Conference’s licensing of a pastor in a same-sex relationship. Only 11 percent want to give more authority to the Executive Board.

Differences among some area conferences are extreme. On church leadership by gays and lesbians, views range from nearly 80 percent support in Central District and Western District to 100 percent disapproval in New York and North Central. The only way to respect deeply rooted differences in culture and polity is to allow conferences to make their own decisions without forcing them to conform.

If one were to place MC USA on a liberal-to-conservative spectrum, it would be center-right. Some conferences are farther toward one end or the other, but the survey supports the perception that the denomination, on average, is moderately conservative. This means it is a diverse coalition, and any decisions about structural change in pursuit of unity will require compromise based on tolerance and generosity.

Submitting to the authority of Christ and Scripture, Christians are called to place humility and compassion above self-interest. A vision for unity will only come from a humble willingness to let go of our own agendas and consider others better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). We must heed Jesus’ words that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

Members of MC USA need to take note of Kanagy’s warning that they have failed to understand how others see the world. Maybe, he says, they have failed even to try to understand. Hope for healing divisions lies in trying harder to understand each other than to persuade. Resolving to do as much listening as talking opens our hearts to others, to the Spirit’s leading and to solutions not yet seen.

When the church is polarized, it is time to pray that God’s will, not ours, be done and that a Christ-centered faith will unite us even when dramatic shifts are happening.


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