MC Canada: respectfully recognize differences

Delegates will be asked to affirm Confession of Faith, allow testing of other views

Jan 18, 2016 by and

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Members and congregations of Mennonite Church Canada may be on the verge of getting more deliberate about respecting each other when they disagree.

The denomination’s Being a Faithful Church task force has processed seven years of questions and responses into a set of four recommendations for the MC Canada Assembly July 6-10 in Saskatoon, Sask.

The recommendations acknowledge that people and churches — compelled by careful study of Scripture — have come to differing conclusions about same-sex marriage and other sexuality matters.

The task force’s suggested way forward is based on respectfully acknowledging different perspectives while creating space for testing how the Holy Spirit may guide congregations that implement their varying understandings.

The four points recommend:
– Affirming that the Confession of Faith continues to serve MC Canada;
– Respectfully acknowledging that some have come to a different understanding of same-sex relationships than is commonly assumed by readings of the Confession’s Article 19, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman for life;
– “Creating space/leaving room” to test other understandings, to see if they are a prophetic nudging by the Spirit of God; and
– Developing a way to monitor implementation, since continuing discernment will be needed.

“When we first set out on this, there were a number of issues that needed to be talked about,” said task force co-chair and former MC Canada Faith and Life Committee chair Rudy Baergen. The Being a Faithful Church seven-year process initially included topics like peace, unity and diversity, ecology and pluralism.

“We faced that in a general way and then got specific about same-sex relationships,” he said.

MC Canada has about 225 congregations in five area churches — known as conferences south of the border. Starting in 2009, the MC Canada General Board-appointed task force developed questions and papers for individuals and congregations to consider and then respond. Year by year, the task force analyzed cycles of questions and responses from 145 congregations, culminating in the recommendations.

Similar to forbearance?

While they bear some similarities to the “Forbearance Resolution” that Mennonite Church USA delegates passed last summer, task force co-chair Andrew Reesor-McDowell said there are differences. The BFC process revealed a majority opinion holding to a traditional view of marriage and relationships, while other congregations need respectful acknowledgment and a space to test different understandings.

“From a personal point of view, forbearance takes us along a path of you doing what you want to do and I what I want to do,” he said. “Some of the things attached to forbearance, like tolerance, are not what we’re talking about here.”

Both stressed that the concept of creating space goes both directions but should not lead to using the Confession for discipline.

“There are congregations that want to be much more inclusive and want to make statements in that direction,” Baergen said. “They are being asked to pay attention to respectfully acknowledge that there are voices that want to have a more traditional understanding.”

The task force’s mandate concludes this summer, when congregations and area churches will pick up implementation of working together to see what happens and report their findings.

Losses in Manitoba

MC Canada includes wide spans of geography and theology. Mennonite Church Manitoba, with a history of voluntary association and independent congregationalism, exemplifies the spectrum.

In 2015, two congregations in the Winkler area withdrew from MC Manitoba over concerns of tolerance for same-sex weddings. One took place at Fort Garry Mennonite Fellowship on Dec. 31 in Winnipeg.

Amid such diversity, MC Manitoba executive director Ken Warkentin believes the BFC’s recommendations are intended to draw people together.

“The goal is that we will find some unity of perspective, that we will continue to uphold each other in prayer, that we will continue to hold the Confession of Faith as ours, even though we understand it differently and live by it differently,” he said.

Creating such a space open to such a variety of views requires an intentional process, but Warkentin believes it isn’t entirely new territory. He said each of MC Manitoba’s 47 congregations has a certain sense of unity, despite divergent viewpoints.

“We’ll start with prayer, add grace to the list, and trusting each other with the good news that we are the people of God, that we together are best suited under the power of the Holy Spirit through Scripture to our communities,” Warkentin said. “We believe that very seriously.

“At times there are communities that can’t agree with other communities. In Manitoba, we have had two communities that have said they can’t remain in fellowship with the rest of the churches as long as they are committed to same-sex marriages. And I find that very sad.”

MC Manitoba is a bit ahead of this summer’s recommendations. Over the last year, it has developed its own guidelines for upholding the meaning of the Confession when congregations and people don’t agree. The guidelines will be presented this spring for ratification.

Warkentin recalled a story in Acts 5 about testing and studying results to understand whether an idea comes from God. The BFC’s recommendation for monitoring implementation of the plan fills this role.

“The mechanism for testing this is to find some feedback [from] congregations who have discerned that they want to be more inclusive, that they want to perform same-sex marriages,” he said. “ ‘Are you more unified? Less unified? Are you finding this is a blessing to your congregation or not?’ ”

Back in Saskatoon

The upcoming assembly will have a profound setting. Thirty years ago, General Conference Mennonite Church delegates in Saskatoon affirmed marriage as between one man and one woman for life. As a minority of MC Canada individuals and congregations have moved to a different definition, the task force co-chairs emphasized God isn’t the one who has changed.

“Canadian Mennonites have changed. . . . This discussion is at a different place than it was even five years ago,” Baergen said. “God doesn’t change, but we come to understand [some things differently] because of cultural differences and realties.”

McDowell said another way Canadian Mennonites can change is to move away from an Anabaptist legacy of schism. He said the idea of respectfully making room to test different understandings is a significant turning point for MC Canada.

“Over Anabaptist-Mennonite history, the temptation is to fairly quickly say you have a different understanding, therefore I will not be with you organizationally or in worship,” he said. “So we tend to divide. Then it seems in a few years we think we shouldn’t have divided; we should have worked together.”

Regardless of the outcome, McDowell said if the recommendations can help MC Canada work on sexuality issues, they can be used for other topics.

“With the church, if it’s not one thing it’s another,” he said. “I think BFC has brought forth some pretty good recommendations to work on issues and keep our focus on following Jesus and being missional.”

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