In Lancaster proposal, some look for options

All bishops agreed to propose leaving MC USA, but some want to stay

Aug 12, 2015 by and

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Although Lancaster Mennonite Conference bishops last month unanimously proposed that Lancaster withdraw from Mennonite Church USA, they do not all agree the conference should leave.

One who wants MC USA’s largest conference to stay is Clair Good, Lancaster’s assistant moderator and a bishop representing Elizabethtown and York districts.

“I have a deep desire to see the spectrum of people working together and being the kingdom of God, even if we disagree on some things, and that is really difficult if we cut relationships completely,” he said.

Some Lancaster pastors and congregations hope they will not have to choose between the conference and the denomination. It is unclear whether that will be possible.

Good said the July 17 vote by bishops on a withdrawal proposal was unanimous because they thought congregations would have the option to remain fully engaged with the denomination even if the conference withdrew.

Conference leaders met with MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman before their vote, but there was a misunderstanding about what kinds of connections would be possible.

According to MC USA’s bylaws, a congregation cannot belong to the denomination if its area conference does not belong. Efforts are being mounted to imagine alternative relationships.

About two dozen pastors who want to stay connected to MC USA met Aug. 7 to discuss creative responses and what sort of affiliation structures could develop. While that does not necessarily reflect how many churches wish to remain with MC USA, Good said districts and even congregations are divided.

“You have families with the same split. How in the world do you deal with that?” Good said. “There are good people on the whole spectrum.”

Bishop Richard Mininger has represented the Harrisburg District since 2011 and agrees with Good that Christians are called to walk together even in disagreements.

However, he questions whether it makes sense to expect someone to stay in a relationship they believe is intolerable.

“In the Bible we see God allowing for divorce as a concession,” Mininger said, noting a majority of the conference desires separation from the denomination. “In LMC we have a significant number of congregations that are adamant about wanting no relationship with MC USA.”

Not just sexuality

Though many people view same-sex sexuality issues as the reason for Lancaster’s potential withdrawal, bishops say other theological and sociological factors also are at play.

Studies of Mennonite Church USA by Elizabethtown (Pa.) College sociology professor Conrad Kanagy illustrated divergent understandings of Christology.

“We can’t even agree on who Jesus is, or what Jesus does or does not do,” said Stephen Weaver, a bishop representing LanChester, New Danville and Willow Street-Strasburg districts. “Many observers I have talked to on both sides of the sexuality difference agree that these are critical differences that cannot be papered over with appeals to unity in diversity.”

Good said those differences can also be found within LMC.

“Even if you leave MC USA, those issues are very present,” he said.

A spirit of schism?

Weaver said discussions about withdrawal began when Mountain States Mennonite Conference licensed a Colorado pastor, Theda Good, in a committed same-sex relationship Feb. 2, 2014.

“These discussions grew in gravity and seriousness at all levels up until the Kansas City convention” in July, he said. “We were aware that they had especially reached a critical point in African-American and Latino congregations.”

He said the conference also relates to about 60 Anabaptist groups around the world.

“Their voice and appeal has been uniform and steady. Compared to them, diverse Anglo voices in the West hold little weight,” Weaver said. “At Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, many of these leaders pressed us and made their appeal to us personally. . . .

“We in LMC are often charged with parochialism and a spirit of schism. As we see it, it is the small skiff of MC USA that is pushing away from the broad landing of the church universal.”

Freedom to relate

Lancaster’s leadership has stated a desire for congregations to have the freedom to relate to other organizations, such as MC USA or the Evana Network.

But to be an MC USA member congregation, according to the denomination’s bylaws, a congregation must belong to an MC USA member conference.

“I don’t know of any conversations that are currently taking place that would change the Membership Guidelines or the bylaws,” said Terry Shue, MC USA director of leadership development.

The MC USA Executive Board plans to discuss different possibilities for congregations to relate to the denomination this fall.

Lancaster congregations are allowed to “opt out” of MC USA — to be part of the conference but not the denomination.

“I know there are other conversations happening in other conferences to pursue that possibility,” Shue said. “As far as I know, it’s not a privilege granted only to Lancaster Conference.”

Fraternal relations

Weaver said the best compromise he sees is for congregations that value a connection to MC USA “to do so through some kind of fraternal representative without being denominational congregations.”

“The few congregations that prefer their MC USA affiliation as over and against LMC affiliation would be encouraged to affiliate with an existing area conference of MC USA,” he said.

After seeking input at regional gatherings through Sept. 8, a final withdrawal proposal requires at least 80 percent approval by the Bishop Board before seeking at least a two-thirds majority of credentialed leaders.

New Holland (Pa.) Mennonite Church Pastor Dawn Ranck Hower sees potential for things to change between now and then.

“My hope is that the feedback gathered from the Lancaster Mennonite Conference constituency in the eight upcoming meetings leads to a proposal from the Bishop Board to stay with MC USA,” she said.

Pain of unorthodoxy

For Weaver, preserving unity within Lancaster is paramount, and he laments that some congregations have left already.

“From the voices I hear at various venues, there is clear sentiment to withdraw as an area conference of MC USA,” Weaver said. “The leaders in LMC have already expressed to the bishops in our September 2014 meeting, ‘Find a way to keep [Lancaster Conference] together. We value our vision and mission together!’

“Since that meeting, unfortunately, some have not waited around to find out what course we will take. Their pain of exclusion from being identified with something less than orthodoxy was too much.”

See also: “MC USA leaders respond to area conferences considering departure

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