WDC: Same-sex marriage won’t bring censure

Nov 2, 2015 by and

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NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — Western District Conference delegates on Oct. 31 gave pastors the freedom to perform same-sex marriages if their congregations approve.

Western District Conference

A decorated cross stands at the back of Memorial Hall at Bethel College during the Western District Conference annual assembly Oct. 30-31. — Paul Schrag/MWR

The unprecedented action conflicts with Mennonite Church USA’s Membership Guidelines, which forbid pastors to officiate same-sex marriages, and Confession of Faith, which affirms traditional marriage only.

The resolution allows pastors to officiate, or refuse to officiate, same-sex marriages “without fear of censure” if their congregations affirm this action.

The statement, brought by Rainbow Mennonite Church of Kansas City, passed by a vote of 185 to 72, or 72 percent in favor.

During their annual meeting at Bethel College, Western District delegates debated the resolution and its potential impact in the conference and the denomination, which is experiencing conflict over how to relate to LGBT people.

“One of the strengths of this resolution is that it allows us to follow our conscience as God has led us without imposing that same requirement on other churches that are led to different missional priorities,” said Tom Harder, co-pastor of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita. He said his congregation invites LGBT people to full participation.

Leon Heidebrecht of Inman warned of unintended consequences. “We are going down a different stream now,” he said. “Does that mean we need to jump on the politically correct bandwagon? How far do we need to run from our roots?”

Stan Epp of Newton cited Matt. 7:13-14, which says the wide path leads to destruction, and said it is easy to take the path of least resistance and go along with the culture rather than stand up for morality. “This will lead to destruction as a church,” he said.

Several delegates spoke of their desire for the church to extend greater welcome to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Annette Voth of Zion Mennonite Church in Elbing said: “In some ways I think of variance as a really good thing. While I am strongly in support of the resolution, I am also strongly in support of hearing the voices that strongly disagree with me.”

Delegates wondered whether the conference would face consequences for being “at variance” — differing from a denominational stance. Moderator Richard Gehring of Manhattan reported on a recent meeting of the Constituency Leaders Council, a nationwide advisory group that is assigned to conduct a “peer-to-peer review” when a conference action differs from denominational positions.

Gehring said the CLC would not conduct any reviews until after its next meeting in March.

“I did not hear an interest in the CLC becoming a group that looks for punitive actions against others in the church,” he said.

The denomination’s Membership Guidelines — reaffirmed by delegates at this summer’s national convention — do not require a conference to discipline a pastor who officiates a same-sex marriage. But they do require a review process. In 2011, the Western District Ministerial Leadership Commission did not discipline a pastor who conducted a same-sex covenant ceremony.

Gehring said the conference would still review the credentials of a pastor who officiates a same-sex marriage, as the Membership Guidelines require, but the focus would change. Rather than deciding whether to discipline the pastor, the review would examine whether the pastor acted in consultation with the congregation. The fact that the pastor officiated a same-sex marriage would be noted in his or her personnel file.

Action on the resolution came after a year of study. Delegates first received the resolution in July 2014. Since then, conference leaders conducted a survey of members and held two conference-wide meetings to discuss the matter.

Gehring said the conference, which has 57 congregations, was seeing the resolution’s effects already. A few congregations have withdrawn, and others might reconsider their participation, he said.

In a question-and-answer session after the delegate meeting, MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman was asked what ripple effect the resolution might have across the denomination. He said: “We are on a path right now where more conservative conferences and congregations are feeling [the denomination] is not home for them any more, and this will just exacerbate that sense.”


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