Cross-posted from As of Yet Untitled
The Mennonite Church USA executive board meetings in Harrisonburg wrapped up yesterday. It’s been an intense two weeks. On Feb. 4, the Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) website posted Ervin Stutzman’s response to the “Rule of Love” letter from 150 pastors calling for MC USA “make space for congregations and pastors who welcome and bless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Jesus-followers.”
As one of those responsible for managing Pink Menno’s social media presence, I’ve watched over the last few days as the community has responded to Stutzman in anticipation of the MC USA Executive Board meetings next week. This post curates different voices and perspectives from those who participate in the Pink Menno community. This is not an official Pink Menno statement.
As the MC USA Executive Board met, I hope they considered these voices.
Shift in tone and wording
A number of people appreciated the shift in tone they saw in Stutzman’s letter. The most obvious was his use of the term “people on the LGBTQ spectrum” rather than “gays” or “same sex attraction.” His use of this term acknowledges the existence of transgendered people (the T in LGBTQ). “He is naming that there is a problem with how we relate,” says Cynthia Lapp. “He is naming the pain. Small steps and yet coming from Ervin it is an important shift.”
“Well, he uses peoples’ actual names now, as opposed to writing about faceless gay objects who ‘stir up tension,'” says Stephanie Krehbiel. “Stutzman is very interested in rhetoric. I think everything that he writes is very conscientiously assembled to appease the broadest range of people possible.”
“In my reading, he goes surprisingly far in articulating in quite a bit of detail the perspective of the 150 pastors in their letter, taking more space to describe their concerns in empathetic language than in restating the conservative side,” says Gerald Mast. “Moreover, when he calls for listening, he is specifically asking the church to ‘listen to fellow Christians on the LGBTQ spectrum.’ He’s addressing the conservatives, in other words, in his call to listen.”
Separate but equal?
Commenters also pointed out the problem with treating the two perspective on this issue as positions on equal footing when it comes to access and power in the church.
“Unfortunately, I continue to see a strong tendency for our Mennonite leadership to see this as a struggle between equal and opposing groups with strong conscience about theological beliefs with our leaders caught in a morally neutral middle ground trying desperately to hold on to our supposed unity and searching for a magical third way,” says Katie Hochstedler.
The suggestion that the two sites are roughly equal positions was particularly angering for some. “The conservatives aren’t being oppressed. They’re not committing suicide over this or leaving church or becoming atheists,” says Becky Murphy, “I truly see the conservative Mennonites who think being gay is a sin as being no different than ‘Christians’ who used the Bible to justify not only slavery of black people, but the abuse and mistreatment of them if they ‘misbehave.'”
For many, the call for dialogue felt hollow after many years of similar messages. “Each time I read over his letter I get more offended,” says Wilma Harder. “Oh, but I must be patient and think of a ‘third way.’ Yes. Maybe ‘dialogue’ for another 27 years.”
Crissie Buckwalter asked whether any of the member of the Mennonite Church Executive board identified as LGBTQ. “If [there are] not, this whole conversation thing is a farce, since ‘they’ will always be talking about ‘them’ who are never present in their midst,” Buckwalter says. “That is not dialogue. The voices of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers need to be present and heard.”
“Compromise always comes at the expense of those already disempowered, otherwise it would have never even been brought up,” says Eduardo Andrés Vargas.
Jennifer Yoder wrote a letter in response to Stutzman’s letter that mirrors his form and structure. “Those in positions of power are disregarding our denomination’s beginning as a group of believers in opposition to many practices of those in positions of church authority, believing that their positions call them to idolize a man-made set of Mennonite documents over love for socially-marginalized members of the LGBTQ community, and indeed all humans who are made in God’s image.”
In a comment on Stutzman’s initial call to prayer, Luke Yoder pointed out that tension and conflict is simply visualizing the pain that has been there for LGBTQ folks all along: “We like to pretend that our decisions to marginalize our LGBTQ brothers and sisters does not, in itself, stir up tension on a daily basis. We like to pretend that if the Mennonite news media isn’t reporting on it in that issue of The Mennonite or MWR, then the tension isn’t there any longer. Clearly, this is not the case.”
Looking deeper at the decision in Nashville in 2001
In his letter, Stutzman observes that “the consensus forged on the Membership Guidelines in 2001 during the church merger processes is fraying.” He is referring to merger of the “Old” Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church completed in 2001. While this may feel like an arcane and confusing piece of Mennonite history, understanding what happened there is important in finding a way forward together. In particular, we need to understand the story of section 3 of the “Membership Guidelines for the formation of Mennonite Church USA” which was titled “Clarification on some issues related to homosexuality [sic] and membership.”
An Associated Press article on the merger vote points out that the way the vote to merge was inextricably linked to approval of this section glossed over a lack of consensus on this issue at the time. “Many delegates expressed mixed feelings about the new membership guidelines, under which the church will not recognize same-sex marriages,” writes AP reporter Amy Green, “Some delegates said they voted ‘yes’ despite disagreeing on the issue, saying they didn’t want the merger to fail because of one issue.”
“I would argue there never was real consensus but rather an agreement to go along with what most people could go along with on the backs of the LGBTQ community who did not consent,” says Hochstedler. “I would agree with Stutzman that the lack of consensus is growing more evident.”
In a comment on this blog a few years ago, Lin Garber introduced me to more details about the politics that were going on behind the scenes at the time in regards to section 3. He said:
Within the 2001 document (a/k/a “Membership Guidelines for the formation of Mennonite Church USA”) is a section that was submitted, with the rest of the document, to congregations for discernment prior to the assemblies that would be considering it. My recollection is that most then-General Conference congregations voted that it be deleted, but a majority of those in the much larger Mennonite Church favored it, so the document was presented to the Nashville assembly for a vote with section 3 included.
Some of us who were against its inclusion were told by denominational leaders that we should nevertheless vote for the whole document, because otherwise the “transformation” of the two denominations into, uh, what turned out to be two other denominations divided along a national boundary, could not take place. In any event, we were assured, that section to which we objected would not be included in the bylaws of the new denomination (the one on the U.S. side of the border; the one on the other side of the border had already pretty much decided to ignore the whole thing). It was further pointed out the objectionable section internally stipulated that the whole document was to be reviewed in 2007, some six years after its adoption.
In his August 2013 article Pink Menno’s Pauline Rhetoric of Reconciliation, Gerald J. Mast unveils this political maneuvering as one of the oldest nasty practices in the human playbook: scapegoating one group to solidify the bonds between who remain:
Here’s the challenge. Mennonite Church USA was founded in what René Girard might call an act of collective violence: the official exclusion of LGBTQ people from full participation in the church. At the time the denomination was formed, LGBTQ activism was seen as one of the greatest strategic threats to the church’s viability; hence, an entire separate section of the membership guidelines was devoted to “clarification of some issues related to homosexuality and membership,” a clarification that concluded by forbidding Mennonite Church USA pastors from performing same sex covenant ceremonies. This section in the membership guidelines appears to have been offered as a concession to conservative area conferences and constituencies that were regarded as necessary to the formation of the denomination. Hence, the denomination at its founding made LGBTQ people and communities a kind of sacrificial scapegoat for all of the fears about denominational faithlessness and decline that threatened to thwart support for the new denomination. “We’ll show that we are morally serious by forbidding same-sex ceremonies,” the leadership seemed to be saying in the membership guidelines.
This rhetoric of scapegoating, once unleashed, proved ubiquitous. In recent years, church leaders and members have been urged to show moral seriousness about such sins as racism and xenophobia by continuing to exclude LGBTQ people and communities from full participation.
I continue to find Mast’s analysis (read it in full here) to be most illuminating in understanding what has happened in our church over the last two decades.
“We will be closer to the unity we seek when we realize we may not all have to believe the same thing about same sex marriage but we do have to commit to treat each other humanely so we can stay in communion even when we don’t agree,” Hochstedler says.
A hopeful moment for me came when a friend shared with me by a model that might be useful in developing the “new covenant arrangement” that Stutzman suggests as an alternative to the membership guidelines. Our sisters and brothers in Canada developed a Partnership Covenant among their conferences in 2008. We would do well to prayerfully study this covenant.
On Feb. 8, Joanna Harader wrote on her blog: “And I’ll step just a bit further out onto that limb and say that they way forward is not to try to make everyone happy. Being church isn’t about being happy; it’s not even about being right; it’s about being faithful. I do believe that most of us are trying to be faithful. So may the Holy Spirit guide our feet … and our mouths … and our letter-writing.”
Amen, Joanna. Amen.