The future of unity

Tide of change tests strength of merger’s vision

Feb 16, 2015 by

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Uniting the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church seemed like a good idea 20 years ago. And it still does, though the shine has tarnished. Losses have been greater than expected. The hope of proving that Mennonites could, for once, reverse their history of schisms ran up against a tide of change on acceptance of same-sex relationships — an issue that has frustrated attempts to preserve the bond of peace among Christians of all stripes.

In 1995, when MC and GC delegates at Wichita started the merger process that was completed at Nashville in 2001, conflicts over homosexuality already were nothing new. But they couldn’t have foreseen how intractable the issues would become. No one anticipated the speed of change leading to acceptance of same-sex marriage that has occurred in North American society and among Christians. But now it is virtually impossible to imagine a future in which those who affirm same-sex relationships do not constitute a growing segment of North American Christians, Mennonites included.

The future that needs to be imagined — and that members of Mennonite Church USA should not give up on making a reality — is a denomination in which people with different views on homosexuality can serve God together.

In the past few months it has become clear that such a denomination will be smaller than advocates of unity had hoped.

Departures from MC USA may accelerate after the expected formation this fall of a network of churches calling for spiritual renewal and upholding traditional views on same-sex relationships.

Especially since this network is emerging, MC USA leaders are right to abandon the idea of major structural change. The network is a new structure that disaffected congregations are making on their own.

The search for the key to unity now turns to polity, or church governance. A root of the conflict is differing views of authority and accountability. The Executive Board’s structure committee observes: “Within our denomination, diverse understandings exist regarding what was agreed upon when the Old Mennonite Church and the General Conference merged, and about the binding nature of our existing agreements.”

This phrase — “the binding nature of our agreements” — cuts to the heart of the issues. MC USA includes differing conference cultures: Former MCs tend to view the Membership Guidelines as binding; former GCs tend to consider them guides rather than rules. These cultural assumptions may never be reconciled, except by individual congregations and conferences deciding whether traditional and progressive views of homosexuality can coexist in one denomination.

Among the many questions that might be asked: When should one Christian defer to another and refrain from an action because another says it is sinful? When should the church say, “Though you believe you are right, it is a sin and we forbid it”? When should the church say, “Though our theology says you are wrong, we allow you to follow your conscience”?

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