Franconia sets its sights on a more united future

Delegates affirm existing statements on sexuality, call for developing relationships with those on the margins

Nov 30, 2015 by and

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Franconia Mennonite Conference addressed fractious times within Mennonite Church USA by focusing its annual assembly on being the church together.

Delegates talk around tables at the assembly business session of Franconia Mennonite Conference in Souderton, Pa. — Bam Tribuwono/Philadelphia Praise Center

Delegates talk around tables at the assembly business session of Franconia Mennonite Conference in Souderton, Pa. — Bam Tribuwono/Philadelphia Praise Center

In a series of statements submitted by congregations, refined by a committee and passed by delegates Nov. 13-14 at Penn View Christian School in Souderton, Pa., FMC acknowledged differences but affirmed staying together as a conference and with MC USA.

FMC board member Angela Moyer, co-chair of the Church Together Statement Committee, said the board wanted to address anxieties that followed the July MC USA convention in Kansas City.

“From the get-go, it was about ‘What are the things and ways that we can be and work together?’ ” said Moyer, a co-pastor at Ripple in Allentown.

Executive conference minister Ertell Whigham said the effort builds on a two-year emphasis to strengthen relationships.

A “Grace and Truth” statement explains how FMC will live out an MC USA “Forbearance” resolution passed in Kansas City that calls on congregations to extend grace and love to those who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.

The statement confesses FMC churches haven’t always been safe spaces for LGBTQ people and that discussions of sexuality have neglected topics such as premarital sex, extramarital sex, lust, pornography and abuse.

At the same time, the statement affirms the MC USA Confession of Faith’s definition of marriage between one man and one woman for life and affirms the 1986 Saskatoon and 1987 Purdue statements describing “homosexual, extramarital and premarital activity as sin.” It upholds the policy that FMC pastors may not perform same-sex ceremonies and the policy not to hire or credential people living in same-sex relationships.

“In order to stay together, we aren’t going to get out ahead of the denomination,” Moyer said. “We aren’t going to get more progressive than the denomination is, although there definitely is a significant group who would prefer that. We definitely said we’re going to sit tight with the denomination at this point.”

The “Grace and Truth” statement passed with a 73 percent vote.

Another statement, “Going to the Margins,” advocates that FMC identify those on the margins and provide resources for mutual transformation in Christ.

“Today, marginalized people groups include but are not limited to individuals and families experiencing mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, physical and intellectual disabilities, incarceration, racism, poverty, war, oppression and exclusion,” said the statement, which received 87 percent support. Delegates in both camps noted the lack of mention of LGBTQ people and women.

Faith and life

A “Faith and Life” statement noted FMC is divided on sexuality and on how the Confession of Faith is to be used. Still, there is a strong desire “to focus on mission and fulfilling the Great Commission.”

The statement confesses failure to discern and talk about sexuality in a way that honors Christ. It acknowledges harm done in conversations in 1997, when Germantown Mennonite Church was expelled for granting membership to gays and lesbians in covenanted relationships.

The statement affirms FMC’s stances on credentialing and marriage and also affirms “pastors and congregations who seek to offer pastoral care to LGBTQ individuals and their families as they have been marginalized from our communities.”

That statement received 71 percent affirmation. Delegates asked for clarity on what “pastoral care” would encompass.

Whigham said there are several groups within churches that could be marginalized in some way, from single people to those who have experienced divorce, and in some cases, racial-ethnic or LGBTQ people.

“It would not be appropriate to say pastoral care is focused on any particular people group,” he said. “LGBTQ is the conversation now, but there are more areas where pastoral care can be considered. . . . I really wasn’t comfortable having us name any particular group.”

The statement also calls on the conference to re-establish its Faith and Life Commission — quarterly gatherings for pastors to discern and study Scripture together. The impetus comes partly from the realization that churches of differing opinions had ceased talking to each other.

“We have probably been more heavily influenced by our culture than on Scripture and prayer,” Moyer said. “So, quarterly, this will get pastors together for prayer and Scripture together, as well as other resources. . . .

“The intention from the committee when we put this together is that this wouldn’t be limited to sexuality. Women in leadership is still an issue here.”

Just as important

In total, FMC passed five statements. Moyer said other statements were passed to form task forces to continue education within the conference on conflict in the Middle East and to implement training, education and support groups to address abuse.

“We think they are just as important, but we didn’t need to spend time on them at conference assembly because there was strong agreement,” she said. “Those are two things that people feel really strongly about.”

The assembly — held in conjunction with Eastern District Conference but with separate business sessions — opened with a time of celebratory worship.

“It was full, standing room only, and it was intercultural,” said Whigham, noting it wasn’t simply a matter of including all ethnicities and cultures but also children and genders. “It was the churches that were celebrating; it was incredible. That was all part of our two-year process saying, ‘We are in this together.’ ”

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