A common struggle

What can Mennonites learn from Methodists?

Mar 18, 2019 by

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Few of us dive eagerly into issues of sexuality and church governance, but the Mennonite Church USA Constituency Leaders Council knows it is necessary. Any denomination with traditional and progressive wings pulling in opposite directions can’t duck the hard issues.

The timing of the CLC meeting highlighted the fact that MC USA is not alone in struggling with issues of sexuality and inclusion. Two days before the CLC convened, the United Methodist Church upheld its ban on LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage. For MC USA, the pressing need is to review its Membership Guidelines, whose ban on same-sex marriage is not being enforced in some conferences.

What can Mennonites learn from Meth­odists? How are the situations similar or different?

One difference: The United Methodist delegate body is international. More than 40 percent came from outside the United States. Conservative Africans, to cite a prominent example, played a big role in setting the rules for North America. U.S. progressives were no happier about the outcome than African conservatives would have been if the tables had been turned. Cultural differences are too great to make a worldwide decision fit everyone.

One similarity: Traditionalists tend to leave when the climate becomes too liberal for them; progressives tend to stay and push back against policies they don’t like. Before the United Methodist vote, a large conservative group was poised to withdraw if the decision went against them. But when conservatives won, progressives vowed to stay and resist.

MC USA has seen a similar trend. In 2015, delegates passed two resolutions — one favored by liberals (Forbearance in the Midst of Differences), the other by conservatives (reaffirming the Membership Guidelines). Since that time, four predominantly conservative conferences have withdrawn. Meanwhile, progressives have stayed, and some have pushed back against the rules. Same-sex marriages have been met with disciplinary action or tolerance, depending on the conference.

MC USA has tried a compromise (the two resolutions of 2015) and found it did not keep everyone together. Is the only other option a vote with a winning and a losing side?

MC USA could try another compromise: Let each conference choose whether to allow same-sex marriages and LGBTQ pastors. This is essentially what is happening already. It is similar to one of the options the United Meth­odist Church rejected. Many would call this a victory for progressives rather than a compromise. But how else can both wings of the church be freed to live out their convictions within the same body? Or should we have learned by now that this is not possible?

Theologically diverse denominations are hard to hold together, especially as LGBTQ- affirming Christians gain a stronger voice. It appears that the United Methodists, rather than splitting, will continue to live with the tension over sexuality and inclusion. For MC USA, which is already less diverse due to conservative withdrawals, reviewing the Membership Guidelines is the next step in defining its identity.

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