Opinion: Faith-inspired, culture-bound

Lancaster Conference’s return to its tradition of independence shows how history and culture shape our faith and actions

Jul 4, 2016 by

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We Mennonites often worry about compromises we make with secular culture. But just as often we are unaware of, or choose to ignore, the compromises we make by adhering to our religious cultures. Openness to the Spirit’s leading must contend with the influence of history and habit.

I believe it is instructive to understand, from a historical and cultural perspective, Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s recent decision to withdraw from Mennonite Church USA. I also believe we must all see our own struggle in the following observations.

When any church entity simply does what comes naturally, as determined by its history and culture, we perceive a common dilemma from which none of us is immune.

A predictable outcome

Lancaster Conference’s withdrawal from MC USA was predictable because it is consistent with its historic self-understanding as an independent church body — indeed, as a denomination in its own right.

For almost half a century, Lancaster has experimented with something new. It has traveled on an alternate road of identity and relationship — a road that diverges from the rest of its 300-year history but that is the main avenue for some other Mennonite groups.

Looking back on how Lancas­ter has traveled this road, it appears to me that the conference achieved at least a veneer of mutual accountability, first with the (Old) Mennonite Church beginning in 1971 and next with MC USA, with whom it affiliated in 2004.

These connections were not primarily the result of Lancas­ter’s own desires and efforts. They came at the invitation and courting by others who wanted Lancaster to share its history, its numbers and its resources for the benefit of other groups of Mennonites.

Removing the veneer

This may help to explain why Lancaster never achieved a sense of comfort in traveling on this alternate road with other Mennonites. In its recent action, Lancaster is removing the veneer of mutual accountability that it maintained for 45 years.

This began in 1971 at the reorganization of the Mennonite Church, when Lancaster accepted the invitation to be represented on the new MC General Board without the requirement that it proactively join the larger body. Later, in 2004, its action to affiliate with MC USA was wrapped in the proviso that Lancaster retained all “spiritual authority” for itself.

Lancaster also declared that all its congregations “are considered first and foremost members of LMC.” Thus its congregations were not required to accept affiliation with MC USA. Accordingly, many congregations shunned the new connection.

It now appears that Lancaster leaders accepted a connection with MC USA for the sake of retaining relationship with their congregations that desired this broader affiliation. Congregations that wanted to affiliate with MC USA were required to declare that intention. Those that chose not to affiliate required no declaration. The default position was nonaffiliation.

Courting favor

The merger process of 1999-2001, which added the now-contested Part III of the Membership Guidelines, came about primarily to pave the way for Lancaster and a few other sympathizing conferences to join MC USA.

In those years it became unthinkable not to court Lancas­ter’s favor. The effort was productive: For the only time in its 300-year history, Lancaster opted into a Mennonite body beyond itself. (In 1971, Lancaster had merely refrained from opting out of the reorganized Mennonite Church.)

Now in 2016, as Lancaster prepares to move back to its own main road, all groups in MC USA would do well to observe in Lancaster the often-unacknowledged power of religious culture.

I believe Lancaster’s withdrawal is motivated by much more than disagreement with other conferences about biblical interpretation concerning LGBTQ people. I do not suggest that biblical interpretation counts for nothing in explaining the separation. But it does not count for everything. The deeply rooted historical and cultural influence that makes Lancaster value its independence so highly may have more to do with its withdrawal than any other single factor.

To each their own?

It is easy to let our culture and history determine our mission. Due to the powerful influence of religious culture in Lancaster, the rest of MC USA must now reluctantly accept a tragic loss of depth and breadth in the denomination.

I hope the relationship might continue in new forms. Lancas­ter may now desire to be recognized as an equal partner denomination with both MC USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Can we still relate to each other, but on a different level?

To answer this question, we must also answer another: What is the nature of mutual accountability between the denomination, the area conferences and the congregations? Does not each deserve the others’ respect?

Among these three expressions of the church — denomination, conferences, congregations — only congregations can exist apart from the other two.

I have observed that all congregations become “congregational” — that is, autonomous — when they believe their convictions or religious culture are threatened.

Thus every conference is controlled by the accumulated weight of the fears, desires, gifts and cultures of its congregations. Each congregation retains the option to go it alone.

Given this extraordinary power, congregations are in the best position to create unity (by their spiritual generosity) or disunity (by attending to their own self-interest). More than anyone else, pastors and other local leaders have the power to determine if the body of Christ is to be a myriad of individual voices or a choir singing the heavenly harmonies of God’s reign.

Is this “Good News Choir” still God’s desire for the church? Or have we found something better by preserving our individual religious cultures?

A new chapter

Ironically, Lancaster’s action presents MC USA with a unique opportunity for growth. As the remaining conferences make peace with Lancaster’s return to independence, God still calls MC USA to minister as a corresponding “historical prediction” represented in a new configuration of congregations, conferences, agencies and schools.

The positive side of these unfortunate circumstances may be found in an expanded freedom for the remaining conferences of MC USA to move into a new phase of unrestricted witness, focusing on congregations and on developing the foundations of a new unity that has not yet been possible.

I pray and hope we will not miss the opportunities of this new chapter, which I believe is being inspired by a deepening understanding of an eternal faith interpreted to us by the Holy Spirit. But we must also cultivate a knowledge of the interplay of this faith, for good or for ill, with our historic religious cultures.

Jim Schrag, of Newton, Kan., is a retired pastor and church executive who served in the former General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church USA.


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