History: Bethlehem ’83: coming together and apart

Jul 17, 2017 by

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When the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church met in Bethlehem, Pa., in 1983 for their first joint convention, MC moderator Ross Bender and his GC counterpart, Jacob Tilitzky, placed their podiums next to each other to symbolize their denominations’ growing closeness.

They, of course, continued to come together, eventually merging to form Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. But they’ve also been coming apart over the past several decades. In both cases, Bethlehem ’83 was not only an important catalyst, it’s made an impact on the North American Mennonite environment that is unsurpassed.

Having moved their two pulpits into closer proximity to symbolize a growing togetherness, General Conference president Jake Tilitzky, left, and Mennonite Church moderator Ross Bender place two stones, representing their churches, atop a foundation stone. — Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College

Having moved their two pulpits into closer proximity to symbolize a growing togetherness, General Conference president Jake Tilitzky, left, and Mennonite Church moderator Ross Bender place two stones, representing their churches, atop a foundation stone. — Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College

The convention reflected a culture transitioning from the often-violent upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s into an era of staunch social, political and religious conservatism. Like much of the rest of the public, Mennonites were dogged by issues of sexuality, activism, women’s rights and more.

On the positive side, however, the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church had been enjoying increasingly closer relations since World War II. Cooperative seminary education, joint publishing initiatives and dual-conference congregations had even raised the prospect of the two denominations officially uniting.

At Bethlehem ’83, GC and MC delegates bodies each approved formally exploring those possibilities. But that would be, in the long term, jeopardized by another agenda item.

Two years earlier, the two denominations established a joint committee to study sexuality and faith, and a preliminary statement was presented at the convention. Delegates accepted the statement, but discussions heralded coming turbulence.

While the document addressed many facets of sexuality, both GC and MC delegates focused on its references to “homosexuality” (the use of LGBTQ would come years later). A conventiongoer from Grace Mennonite Church, a GC congregation in Dallas, Ore., warned that many members would pull out unless “we will remain true to our historic position” that same-sex sexual relations were wrong.

True to his promise, Grace withdrew in the late 1990s, one of hundreds that have left in the past several decades.

The conflict threatened to thwart the MC-GC merger and has undermined both MC Canada and MC USA. In its wake, the bulk of MC USA’s convention this month in Orlando, Fla., was devoted to intensive discernment about the denomination’s purpose.

Meanwhile, many of the congregations that have left MC USA, MC Canada or its predecessors have found other affiliations, either with existing groups such as the Conservative Mennonite Conference and the Missionary Church, or created new organizations, such as Evana Network.

Bethlehem ’83 unwittingly contributed to another division. The premise had been that a merger would create one body of Mennonites in Canada and the United States. Instead, the result was two national denominations.

Canadian GC members for years had to deal with a three-level structure: provincial conferences, a national body (Conference of Mennonites in Canada) and a binational denomination. The CMC was founded in 1903, with provincial conferences emerging in the following years. Subsequently, the CMC functioned in many ways as both a full-fledged denomination and a GC area conference. The General Conference Mennonite Church didn’t recognize the provincial bodies as on par with its Eastern, Central, Northern, Western and Pacific districts in the United States.

Americans, meanwhile, had only area conferences and the denomination. Not only were the Canadians burdened with a more cumbersome system, they had to endure business that didn’t pertain to them, since the absence of an American conference meant U.S.-specific agenda had to be conducted at the denominational level.

To try to rectify the situation, GC delegates at Bethlehem approved the formation of a U.S. assembly. But it never became a workable solution. So during the process of forging a structure for the new, merged church, the Canadians successfully pushed for two separate national denominations. In effect, the CMC, with the addition of the country’s smaller number of MC members, became Mennonite Church Canada.

The legacy of Bethlehem ’83 included yet another separation, one that cemented the breach between the mainstream Mennonite Church and fundamentalist-influenced traditionalists.

Starting in the 1960s, cultural and theological conservatives forcefully responded to the Mennonite Church’s growing acculturation such as more social activism, dropping plain attire and accepting divorce and remarriage and women in leadership. In a parallel to today’s church, many members withdrew from the denomination, with two groups forming new conferences. Those who remained in the Mennonite Church increasingly distanced themselves from the main body.

A leading figure for the movement was George R. Brunk II, the legendary revivalist and dramatically harsh church critic. At Bethlehem, he convened a meeting of like-minded people, which led the following year to the formation of the Fellowship of Concerned Mennonites. Given its relatively small number of participants, FCM had little practical effect on the Mennonite Church and none on the General Conference Mennonite Church. Nevertheless, it was an important event, giving traditionalists an organizational framework and an intellectual home to advance their cause.

All these developments made Bethlehem ’83 a watershed event for North American Mennonites.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.

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