Comfortable in their skin

Convention showed Anabaptism is alive and well

Jul 17, 2017 by

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From 2015 to 2017, Mennonite Church USA conventions changed drastically. Two years ago at Kansas City, debates over how to handle diverse views about LGBTQ people in the church cast a cloud of tension over the convention. This year at Orlando, delegates didn’t have to make any decisions on that contentious topic, but the amicable mood was due to more than the agenda. Judging from the comments in plenary sessions during the Future Church Summit, those in attendance came mostly from the denomination’s liberal wing.

It is certain that there were conservatives among the 660 summit participants, but few made their voices heard at the microphones. One who did said he had not felt safe to express the traditional view of sexuality. In contrast, words of support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people in the church were common. One could conclude that a historic change had occurred, at least among people who speak up at conventions. Those who once were shunted away to off-site hotel meeting rooms now had places at the decision-making table reserved for them.

The affirmation of LGBTQ Christians voiced frequently by summit participants was a positive development hard to imagine a decade ago. It would be better if this progress for a marginalized group were not accompanied by another part of the body apparently feeling silenced.

LGBTQ inclusion was only one desire for the denomination expressed often during the summit. Another was racial diversity, which the summit conversation made abundantly clear is highly valued but far short of what everyone hopes for.

One comment in the summit report asserted that “we haven’t totally merged as MC USA.” As if to prove this, a presentation on denominational history never mentioned the General Conference Mennonite Church. Half of the denomination’s roots were ignored. The merger was forgotten. Had the smaller denomination been swallowed by the larger one?

No. In fact, the GC tradition has contributed much to strengthen the denomination. To appreciate the GC legacy, one need only look at the delegate body of an MC USA convention and notice the large number of women, young people and laypeople, many appointed by congregations, which was the GC way. Today’s MC USA delegate body is much more representative of the whole people of God than the “Old” Mennonite Church assemblies were, with delegates appointed by conferences. As the summit report said: Diversity “gives us access to a spectrum of God’s gifts.”

The summit may not have set specific and measurable goals, but it did shed light on the beliefs held by more than 600 people who care enough about the supposedly dying concept of a denomination to give the body they belong to five days of their time. We can see what they’re passionate about. This tells us something important about the character of this church. It leads us to conclude that Anabaptism is alive and well in MC USA.

The summit’s report is inspiring. It’s sobering, too. These people are intensely aware of their shortcomings. Their church has gotten smaller, and they’re sorry but not discouraged about that. They’re going to try to be the best peace-seeking, Bible-studying, creation-caring, truth-telling, LGBTQ-affirming, simple-living, marginalized-embracing, refugee-welcoming, enemy-loving, diversity-accepting, racism-rejecting, gender-equalizing, patriarchy-breaking, empire-nonconforming, potluck-eating, believer-baptizing, quirkiness-admitting bunch of Jesus followers who don’t seem to mind being named after a 16th-century Dutch evangelist that they can be.

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