My denomination continues to swing left

Jul 19, 2017 by

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We delegates at the 2017 Mennonite Church USA Convention in Orlando met for an initial four-hour session and then a concluding one-hour session. In between those sessions, a number of non-delegates joined us for an intensive Future Church Summit. For 14 hours, 97 tables of six to eight persons sought to imagine our denomination’s future.

Each table used a tablet computer to submit responses on topics such as:

• What draws us to this faith?
• What do we want to affirm and take forward [from our past]?
• What do we need to lament, transform and/or let go?
• What can we take action on in response to the world’s needs?
• What does it mean for us to follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century?
• What do we gain with MC USA?
• How do we relate within a shared denomination?
• What are important things we do together?

A “Theme Team” received all the responses, working to summarize the common themes they heard. Only minutes after the tables stopped submitting responses, the team could present a PowerPoint listing the themes that we gave them.

As one looks at the responses as summarized by the Theme Team, it is evident that progressives were the majority and spoke freely and that conservative viewpoints were largely left unspoken. For instance, the Future Church Summit’s laments over our past were:

white identity; boundaries that exclude; colonialistic approach to mission; patterns of splitting; not all stories being honored; assimilation to dominate culture; passive-aggressive avoidance of issues; abuse of power; marginalization of people of color, women, LGBTQ people; we haven’t totally merged as MC USA; silence about process, systems and structures that cause harm; declining focus on spiritual vitality and formation.

Note how many of the items on that list are distinctively progressive and how few are distinctively conservative. Persons who are theologically conservative can (or at least should!) find much to affirm in virtually all those items — we as a church have much that we can learn from the progressive mindset. But, by and large, the conservative voice was overshadowed by progressive ones. Again this is to the church’s loss — we can also learn much from the conservative mindset!

When the Future Church Summit finished its work, the delegates reconvened to act on a resolution on what MC USA will do with the summary material. Initial drafts of the resolution had us calling the church to implement the FCS Theme Team’s report or to use it as the direction of our national body.

However, there was a strong call to change the wording.

Many delegates expressed a need to discuss the report with their sending body (their congregation or conference) before affirming it as the general direction of our church.

Other delegates were unsure that the report was representative of the church. Sandra Montes Martinez, moderator for Iglesia Menonita Hispana, spoke for many conservatives when she said, “We [IMH] are concerned about the word ‘direction.’ We need to qualify the word ‘diversity’: Ethnic and theological diversity are different.”

The FCS was not a body discerning a direction. Even at our tables we did little discerning together but were instructed to simply register our individual preferences on the various topics. We were essentially a brain-storming group producing raw material to be used by some other discerning body. Surely a collation of individual preferences does not give us a direction.

So the resolution was revised to speak of the FCS report as a “document that is offered to the church to guide further discernment.” That version passed overwhelmingly.

A few concluding reflections:

● In the revision of the resolution at the end, some conservatives found their voice, much to the dismay of persons on Pink Menno social media. Melissa Florer-Bixler, pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church, hoped the FCS report would “be directive” to the MC USA Executive Board: “We needed to give them a mandate and hold them accountable. Once traditionalists heard the results overwhelmingly affirming the voices that were not their voice, they cried foul. … So they needed ‘more time,’ required ‘more conversation.’” Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, wrote that the revision was “the desperation of white heteronormative power” as such persons fear “the end of their control over their institution.” (Both Raleigh and Chapel Hill are in the process of leaving Virginia Mennonite Conference and becoming members of Central District Conference.)

● Nonetheless, it was clear to all present at the FCS that a stance of fully welcoming LGBTQ persons (i.e., affirming same-sex covenants and affirming persons in such covenants as pastoral leaders) has become a strongly held value in our denomination — so strong that those who do not share that value were not tending to speak out during the summit. In an open mic time during the ending delegate session, a pastor of a large congregation shared that “as a person who holds the traditional view of sexuality, I have not felt safe to express that.”

● The sentiments of the FCS (seen in the comments during open mic times as well as in the Theme Team’s summary report) were much more progressive than the denomination actually is. (Conservatives tend to not attend our churchwide assemblies. And my sense is that the non-delegate participants of the summit tended to be even more progressive than the delegates.) Nonetheless, there is nothing that will stop our denomination from moving in the direction suggested by the FCS report. The revision of the resolution only slowed the movement.

● Recognizing that many of our congregations and some of our conferences are conservative, half of the summary of our responses to the topic “How do we relate within a shared denomination?” are about us moving toward a “federation of conferences.” If conservatives no longer feel at home and safe in their denomination, perhaps they can look to their conference for that. I personally feel good about my conference and its leadership and about the stance we have taken as Virginia Mennonite Conference. However, many in VMC (according to the 2015 survey by Conrad Kanagy) want to be part of a church that fully includes LGBTQ individuals even if losses occur. The struggle we see in the denomination is strongly present in the conference.

● Why can’t we who are conservatives, in humility, rejoice that new voices are being heard? Most of us are able to tolerate diversity on issues like women in leadership; why, when it comes to same-sex marriage (two persons committing to love each other!), do we have a hard time tolerating voices of diversity?

My answer is that, for us, trust in Scripture (seeing its broad themes and trajectories as a primary source of discernment) is an essential — part of our center. We worry that those making inclusivist arguments are mainly echoing our culture. We who are conservatives don’t see them carefully grappling with the strongest biblical arguments that support the church’s historic stance against same-sex relations (for instance, the fact that Jesus and the early church chose not to lessen the Old Testament prohibitions on various forms of what they understood to be sexual immorality but rather to tighten those prohibitions).

We want our church to love and welcome LGBTQ folks with open arms and hearts full of love. But loving people doesn’t mean blessing all their choices. It means gently nudging them toward our Creator’s design for life. For those of us who see the Bible showing male-female covenantal relationships as central to God’s purposes in creation, something huge is at stake. Will we be a church who follows our culture? Or be those our Confession of Faith describes: people who let culture and other sources of discernment “be tested and corrected by the light of Holy Scripture,” ones who delight in the wisdom of God?

Harold N. Miller is pastor of Trissels Mennonite Church, Broadway, Va. He blogs at Interacting With Jesus, where this post first appeared.


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