Impossible dream?

Two actions chart course for dealing with diversity

Sep 12, 2016 by

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Are Mennonites trying to do the impossible? Maybe, but we shouldn’t give up. We are just beginning to test new ways to live with disagreement on sexuality and to build unity.

A couple of positive new directions — one nationally in Canada, the other regionally in the United States — gained approval in the past few months. In different ways, these have the potential to make the church more accepting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians and to redirect members’ energy away from conflict and toward unity around shared spiritual practices.

– At the national level, Mennonite Church Canada delegates approved a resolution to “create space/leave room . . . to test alternative understandings . . . to see if they are a nudging of the Spirit of God.” The “understandings” are of committed same-sex relationships.

While similar in some ways to Mennonite Church USA’s 2015 “forbearance” resolution, the MC Canada document goes further and therefore is the most friendly statement yet by a Mennonite denomination in regard to sexual minorities. It says those who dissent from traditional understandings deserve not only acknowledgement but respect. Their views will not merely be tolerated but seriously examined as possibly Spirit-led. Creating space is an act of welcome that far exceeds a grudging admission that someone is hanging around and causing trouble. MC Canada delegates have signaled a willingness not only to live with differences but to see diversity as positive and to grow in faith as a result of it.

– Central Plains Mennonite Conference of MC USA broke new ground in a different way. Delegates approved a covenant that commits them to shared spiritual practices. These include worship, prayer, Bible study with each other and with “neighbors and strangers,” practicing hospitality and making peace. The covenant describes how to “work together in response to differences of belief” and to “hold congregations together in healthy accountability.”

In one act of accountability, a congregation whose beliefs differ from commonly held positions will be asked to engage in Bible study with a congregation that supports traditional beliefs. But there is no coercion: “Congregations will have to surrender the claim to control the decisions of other congregations.” When a congregation persists in variance of belief, the conference “will apply the reasoning of Gama­liel,” the teacher who said in Acts 5:38-39 that an activity of human origin will fail but a movement of God cannot be stopped.

The Central Plains covenant (and a similar one that Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference is working on) sets an example of stepping away from the battle over sexuality that is tearing so many religious communities apart. It calls for “letting go of our need to control the outcome [of a disagreement] so that we can seek the movement of God’s Spirit and abandon ourselves to it.”

In a culture of winning and losing, this advice is radical. It requires “self-emptying,” as the document says, and it applies equally to progressives and traditionalists. It doesn’t rule out believing that one occupies the moral high ground, but it does mean granting one’s neighbor the right to occupy a different spot.

With MC Canada’s example of making room for differences and Central Plains’ model of focusing on spiritual practices that unite us, the church might yet find that with God all things are possible.

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