Board’s resolution ‘tests’ Membership Guidelines

May 4, 2015 by and

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Announcing a new resolution for delegates May 4, the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board says it is “testing the status” of the denomination’s Membership Guidelines.

The resolution asks delegates at the June 30-July 5 convention in Kansas City to reaffirm the Guidelines and the Confession of Faith as the “guiding documents” for questions regarding membership and same-sex relationships.

PRAYER FOR DENOMINATION — Participants pray for Mennonite Church USA during a prayer retreat May 3 at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains in Hesston, Kan. About 25 people attended the two-hour event, the first of its kind preceding the denomination’s June 30-July 5 convention in Kansas City. Organizers expect similar retreats will take place in other parts of the country. Hosts for the Kansas retreat were Katherine Goerzen, coordinator of the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Kansas Center, and John Murray, pastor of Hess­ton Mennonite Church. Resources for hosting a prayer retreat are online at ambs.edu/news-events/prayer-gathering.cfm. — Paul Schrag/MWR

PRAYER FOR DENOMINATION — Participants pray for Mennonite Church USA during a prayer retreat May 3 at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains in Hesston, Kan. About 25 people attended the two-hour event, the first of its kind preceding the denomination’s June 30-July 5 convention in Kansas City. Organizers expect similar retreats will take place in other parts of the country. Hosts for the Kansas retreat were Katherine Goerzen, coordinator of the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Kansas Center, and John Murray, pastor of Hess­ton Mennonite Church. Resources for hosting a prayer retreat are online at ambs.edu/news-events/prayer-gathering.cfm. — Paul Schrag/MWR

The Confession says God intends marriage to be for a man and a woman for life. The Guidelines say pastors may not perform a same-sex covenant ceremony.

Delegates will consider the new resolution, along with one that urges “forbearance” among those who disagree “on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.”

In a statement giving background on the new resolution, the board wrote: “Our interactions show that the church is divided on understandings of human sexuality and same-sex marriage. That is why we also support the resolution calling for grace, love and forbearance in the midst of our differences.

“We think it best to restate our commitment to the agreements made by delegates in 2001, while exercising Christian forbearance with those who differ in their understanding and application of those agreements.”

The board drafted the resolution as part of its 2013 commitment to allow delegates to address the substance of the Membership Guidelines and also to clarify the implications of the resolution on forbearance developed by Chicago Community Mennonite Church, North Baltimore Mennonite Church and Reba Place Church in Evanston, Ill.

“The board is supportive of the resolution on forbearance but felt like there was a need to describe our understanding of what forbearance means,” said Patricia Shelly of North Newton, Kan., moderator-elect. “We know we are living with different interpretations of what it means to follow Jesus, and we have to give some latitude for that. At the same time, forbearance doesn’t mean that we suspend all the agreements we’ve made in the past about how we will work together.”

Read the full text of the new resolution here.

Four-year commitment

Specific actions included in the resolution are:

  • A commitment not to re-examine the Membership Guidelines again for four years.
  • An assumption (stated as “we presume”) that area conferences will grant ministerial credentials in keeping with the newly developed Mennonite Church USA polity manual, A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership, as interpreted in their contexts. This manual includes the prohibition of same-sex covenant ceremonies.
  • A call to the Constituency Leaders Council to exercise its role as “elders” for MC USA. The resolution calls on the CLC “to exercise mutual accountability by engaging in conference-to-conference peer review when area conferences make decisions that are not aligned with the documents named above, and to make recommendations to the Executive Board if necessary.”
  • A commitment to “join hands for the work that binds us together — proclaiming Jesus’ gospel of peace, evangelizing the world and growing as missional Mennonite communities.”

Other things to do

The background to the resolution includes a description of the controversy that followed Mountain States Mennonite Conference’s grant­ing of a ministerial license to a pastor in a same-sex marriage. After “a number of conferences appealed to the Executive Board,” the board said it would not recognize the licensing.

Regarding the new resolution, Shelly said: “Undergirding this resolution is a sense that, in spite of our disagreements, we have other things that we want to do together. We want to focus in a new way on the common mission we feel a passion and calling for.”

On April 30, the Executive Board sent a pastoral letter outlining its hopes for the delegate assembly. It states: “We have been given a holy calling: to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” In a section that begins, “We write in a spirit of confession,” the board says: “We confess the sin of placing too much trust in organizational structures and polity to reconcile our disagreements.”

The forbearance resolution observes that there is no consensus about how gay and lesbian people are included in the church and calls for “grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.”

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  • Joseph Penner

    I’m trying to understand…is this a resolution intended to compete with
    the “forbearance resolution” or to be passed along with it? Are
    delegations choosing to reaffirm the confession of faith *while*
    exercising forbearance or are they choosing *between* forbearance and a
    doubling down on the confession?

    • Ellen Fox

      Joseph, this resolution will be on the slate alongside the Chicago/Reba resolution. I too have been puzzling over the language and whether the language is completely consistent with the Chicago/Reba resolution.

  • Berry Friesen

    Those who have imagined authority within the denomination is tidily centralized in either the Executive Board or delegate assemblies will be disappointed by this resolution. After all MCUSA has been through over the past 18 months, couldn’t the Executive Board have suggested something new?

    Instead, it appears the Executive Board has responded to the denomination as the confederacy of district conferences it is and said, “You-all made this denomination when you came together, and you-all will have to work this out (or not) among yourselves.”

    Following this approach, each congregation will need to make peace with its area conference (or not) about accepting gay and lesbian couples into membership, or calling gay or lesbian individuals into leadership. And each district conference will need to make peace with other district conferences (or not) about the exercise of credentialing authority and the disciplining of credentialed individuals who fail to follow the MCUSA teaching position and Membership Guidelines.

    Yet the teaching position of the broader church will remain (provided the delegates approve this resolution) as a point of accountability.

    Isn’t this how the early church operated (most of the time): its leaders declared the truth boldly and thus prompted each local/regional group to deal with variances from that truth?

    • Bruce Leichty

      Maybe I missed the part where the church’s leaders are proclaiming the truth boldly?

      Or the part where there is any “point of accountability” — as distinct from historical reference point — left after each congregation and conference are given leadership’s blessing to do their own thing?

      • Berry Friesen

        Bruce, “proclaiming the truth boldly” is the phrase I used to describe how the Apostle Paul related to the very diverse assemblies in his circle of influence. I agree it’s a stretch to use that language to describe this MCUSA resolution.

        Yet I do maintain my other point. If this resolution passes, our Confession of Faith will remain our teaching position and point of accountability for the next four years. All those not teaching what it teaches will need to explain themselves–both why they do not teach it and why they nevertheless remain in a body whose teaching they do not follow. This is how accountability happens within my congregation, and apparently this is how the Executive Board imagines accountability will happen in our denomination.

        This may not seem like a strong position to people accustomed to coercive power, but it can be an effective kind of soft accountability, especially if district conference leaders act like engaged elders one to the other.

        Of course, there will be a strong effort to amend this resolution to make it more palatable to those advocating for change. But that’s another subject.

  • Jeremy Martin

    How is this not more of the same? The executive board is saying they have no power to do anything about a conference who ordains pastors contrary to the membership guidelines or confession of faith. They note that there is “no consensus on how LGBT people are to be included in the church”. How is there any accountability when we are to offer “grace, love and forbearance” to conferences who intentionally violate the membership guidelines? What if a church ordained a 4 star general, or a convicted and unrepentant pedophile and it was approved by a conference? Could they claim that there are different ways to interpret church documents? How is the authority of scripture a central part of collective discernment when NO Bible verses endorse homosexuality as an acceptable part of following God? Are we to believe that the Christian church has misunderstood Jesus teachings for 2,000 years and just now we are discovering that homosexuality is not part of the sin nature, but is instead part of God’s design?

  • Myron Bontreger

    Jeremy, did you read the following part of the statement?

    We also call on the CLC to exercise mutual accountability by engaging in conference-to-conference peer review when area conferences make decisions that are not aligned with the documents named above, and to make recommendations to the Executive Board if necessary.

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