Future Church Summit: Be honest, and mourn

Aug 2, 2017 by

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As the days have passed since the Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, Fla., I get more and more frustrated. As usual, I was happy to see old friends and make new connections, but as the glow of those interactions fades I am confronted with the deep-seated disappointment that has been simmering below the surface since I left Orlando.

We didn’t talk honestly during our week in Florida.

We addressed some important issues during the Future Church Summit, certainly. The work on the Doctrine of Discovery reduced me to tears multiple times, and I was humbled by the graciousness and openness of our Native American brothers and sisters that confronted our historic and continuing complicity in horrifying treatment of Native Peoples. The Step Up program began working to more fully include young people at the table during our most important discussions. The FCS as a whole helped the denomination get a pulse on a wide range of issues regarding where churches are as we journey forward together.

But we left some things out entirely. Never once did we mention sin during the summit. Never once did we mention baptism, footwashing or global poverty, nor did we prioritize nonviolence and service in the name of Jesus anywhere near as highly as we should have. The massive budget and identity crises at our Mennonite colleges — and even more urgently, seminaries — wasn’t ever brought up. Climate change wasn’t discussed meaningfully, and neither were immigration issues, things desperately in need of prioritization in our current political climate.

And, the actual issue that prompted the unprecedented summit — division over LGBTQ inclusion — was never addressed directly by the moderator, and discussion of it only occurred at my table during a brief time when we finished a different discussion early. During more than 10 hours of table work, the “big issue” currently facing our church was discussed head on for less than an hour. That, simply, is a problem.

And here is where we need some honesty. We can’t solve LGBTQ inclusion without hurting people, and it’s time we stop pretending otherwise. I am tired of people on the right pretending this can be ignored, and I am even more tired of people on the left pretending that nothing and no one will be hurt by this change. This was — and is — divisive as hell, pardon the pun.

Let’s be honest: Pink Menno and other LGBTQ allies have won. The denomination will be theirs if they want it to be, when — not if — the remaining conservative voices walk away or shut up. The liberal side has won a nasty fight. And as we Mennonites have believed, stated and taught for so long, violence hurts the winner as much, if not more, than the loser. LGBTQ people and their allies may have been correct to fight, but in having to fight this way, everyone has lost. Liberals have lost the chance to be the prophetic voice they have longed to be by pushing out the very people they most desperately want to reach. Conservatives have lost the chance to be the anchor in scripture and tradition that they desire to be. MC USA has weakened its ability to be an organization devoid of partisan politics devoted to bringing a little bit of God’s kingdom to Earth.

We are now a church broken. The good God is able to do in the world via our tiny denomination is being diminished because we are fighting each other. If we are the body of Christ, the hand is so worried about cutting off the foot that it is not binding up and healing the sick. If we are Peter, we are too busy arguing with John to hear that the Lord is calling us onto the water. It’s nice to pretend to not be concerned about denominational death — Rachel Held Evans’ statement that “death is something empires worry about; we are resurrection people” was a staggering and memorable one — but, honestly, I am worried.

I am worried about the death of children in a country where Mennonite Central Committee formerly worked but had to leave because of budget issues. I am worried about youth who don’t have the chance to attend a Mennonite educational institution and deepen their understanding of the gospel and the world. I worried about declining participation in service projects and organization. I am worried about the people who never hear the gospel because we aren’t sending missionaries. I am worried about congregations accepting poor theology because we haven’t trained enough pastors. I am worried about people leaving church behind because of the political tactics used to prove points.

So, conservatives, stop pretending that your actions aren’t putting these things in jeopardy. They are.

So, liberals, stop pretending that your actions aren’t putting these things in jeopardy. They are.

There is plenty of guilt and grief to go around. Rather than ignoring it, as we are currently, let’s embrace it, mourn our losses and work toward a reconciliation that allows us to work together to do God’s work. How can we do that? Focus on what binds us together.

Since the very beginning the church has been an increasingly diverse body: ethnically, linguistically, geographically. But it has also been bound together by one thing: theology. Theology pulls us together, and that alone is revolutionary.

There is something binding us together tightly: belief in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We have understood him as Lord, as Messiah and as peacemaker. If we all believe that, we should be willing to sacrifice to keep God’s work alive. It cannot be too much to ask to have a set of convictions that we agree upon, as a denomination, laid out. The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective may pass away, but the Apostles Creed, the Sermon on the Mount and True Evangelical Faith never will.

Something resonated deeply with me during and after convention — the phrase “the unruliness of the Spirit.” What a good statement! The Spirit truly is unruly. But what if the Spirit is with both “sides” of this debate? When Peter baptized Cornelius’ family in Acts 10, and they received the Holy Spirit, that didn’t take the Spirit away from the traditionalists in Jerusalem, did it? Implying that one side is the only side with the Spirit is incredibly haughty. As Christians we are called to identify the goodness and the shortcomings in all of us, not to claim a monopoly of the understanding of God over our brothers and sisters.

An example of a failure on this front: One man stood up during the Saturday morning delegate session and said he didn’t feel safe sharing his conservative theological viewpoint at this convention. Some of the people I was sitting with laughed. I was disappointed, to say the least. He has valid feelings, even as a straight white male. The fact that his desire to share his opinion was viewed as funny or ironic is not a victory.

The FCS, viewed honestly, was not a place of voiced theological diversity, a goal we highlighted for our church. The paper-thin unity we felt was a result of silence and departure, not of genuine consensus.

Certainly, we need safe spaces for LGBTQ people and their allies. But we also need places where theological discussion reigns and all directions are considered as possible valid movings of the Spirit. A debate with no willingness to move is no debate. And, as the dust settles, if we were to move the route of a confederation-style denomination — as I think we will — the question remains: Will conservative conferences value liberal ones? And will liberal ones tolerate conservative ones? Judging from the vehemence with which this man’s statements have been critiqued, and from the speed at which churches and conferences have jumped ship since the forbearance resolution, moving to a confederation format without clear guidelines for mutual toleration will only perpetuate tension.

Another big red flag I felt at the FCS was the lumping together of two issues that should never have been bundled: racial inclusion and sexual inclusion. I, and the rest of the summit, heard from several African-American voices how this bothered them. I didn’t hear it from any Hispanic members, partially due to the fact that half of our Latinx brothers and sisters left with Lancaster Conference. It’s clear that LGBTQ inclusion will push away ethnic minority churches and conferences and distance us from the global church. Maybe it should be done, if it is truly the prompting of the Spirit and of concrete theological work, but what if this decision is actually rooted in the Eurocentric exceptionalism we are trying so hard to avoid? If we took the counsel of our Mennonite brothers and sisters in Ethiopia, in Nigeria, in Honduras, in Indonesia or from our ethnically diverse Anabaptist brothers and sisters here in the U.S., we would be having a totally different discussion right now. How ironic to critique the Doctrine of Discovery while completely disregarding the theological positions of our brothers and sisters with roots outside Europe! (A notable exception should be made here: Erica Littlewolf shared briefly about the history of sexual diversity in Native American societies. This perspective should certainly be heard as well.)

As we continue to go through this tumultuous time as a nation, world and denomination, let’s be honest about this time of division, about our own motivations, and about our failures. Mourn. Pray. Don’t rejoice that brothers and sisters are leaving, or that they are being turned away. Don’t rejoice that you have won, because in winning you have lost. Be honest, mourn, and weep.

To all of you that I’ve offended, both knowingly and unknowingly, I apologize. I pray my thoughts stimulate conversation for the good of the church and the world, though I am certain I often fall short. Please attempt to forgive me if it is possible.

Caleb Schrock-Hurst is a student at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va, and a member of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg. He has written for EMU’s student newspaper, The WeatherVane, and Hesston (Kan.) College’s student newspaper, the Hesston College Horizon. He blogs at Thoughts and Thinks, where this post first appeared.

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