The GC/MC dance of authority and autonomy: An interview with Lin Garber

Cross-posted from As of Yet Untitled (with different introduction)

Dancing at Living Water

Over the years here on YAR, discussions about the differences between the approach of the (Old) Mennonite Conference (MC) and General Conference (GC) have cropped up now and again. This comment from AlanS from 2010 is probably one of the most insightful. For non-Mennonites or those who have joined in the last 12 years, these reference are mysterious. Nevertheless, for those of of us working for change in the Mennonite church, understanding these differences are critical. To that end, here is my interview with Lin Garber, the convener of Mennoneighbors and a writer and editor. Lin graduated from Goshen College in 1957 and is a member of The Mennonite Congregation of Boston.

Tim: Lin, in a comment on The Mennonite website* you discussed the differering approaches of General Conference (GC) and the “Old” Mennonite Church (MC) to Section III (“Clarification on some issues related to homosexuality and membership”) of Membership Guidelines for the formation of Mennonite Church USA (2001). For those who have never heard of the terms GC and MC, can you briefly explain some of the history?

Lin: Today’s Mennonite Church Canada (MC Canada) and Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) took their present forms around 2000 in what was termed a “transformation” (as opposed to discarded language like merger and integration). What had been the Mennonite Church, often informally and unofficially referred to as the “Old” Mennonites (MC), stemmed largely from 18th-century immigrants to North America with Swiss and south German origins. It had conferences in both the United States and Canada, a few of which had congregations on both sides of the border, but the bulk of its membership was in the United States.

What had been the General Conference Mennonite Church came out of a movement within the “Old” Mennonites of southeastern Pennsylvania in 1847 that in 1860 organized as the General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America. A main stated goal of the group was to unite all Mennonites into one body. It grew slowly over the next dozen years as a few congregations decided to join it, but starting in 1874 its membership exploded with the influx of immigrants from central Europe and especially from southern Russia, mostly the Ukraine. The bulk of these immigrants were of Dutch-Prussian (i.e., north German) descent, and those cultural influences came to dominate. At the time of the “transformation” around 2000, the membership of the GC was roughly balanced between the United States and Canada, with the United States having a slight edge.

The GC heritage, then, weighs heavily in MC Canada, where it is shared by roughly two-thirds of the membership, whereas in MC USA it applies to barely more than a quarter of members.

Tim: Can you talk about how you’ve seen historic differences between Old Mennonite Church and General conference polity and their approach to “authoritative statements” continue to play out in Mennonite Church USA today?

Lin: It is important to add one more significant historic ingredient to the stew: the Amish. The Amish division of 1693, in Switzerland and south Germany (which at the time included Alsace) was long ago healed in Europe, but it has persisted in North America to this day, manifested most conspicuously by the Old Order Amish, but also in numerous splinter groups such as the Beachy Amish and their many offshoots.

Often forgotten by today’s “mainstream” or “progressive” Mennonite adherents is just exactly how many of them have an Amish heritage as well, and that extends throughout both the GC and MC heritages. The c.2000 “transformation” was preceded, beginning in 1917, by the mergers of three “Amish Mennonite” conferences with their “Old” Mennonite counterparts. The Central District of today’s MC USA, once an independent body that joined the GC and soon merged with that group’s Middle District, began, in part, as the liberal Stuckey Amish group in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. It epitomizes the unexpected characteristic that it has often been those of Amish heritage who are leaders in adopting innovative ideas and methods. The Amish Mennonite conference in Ontario did not finally cede its separate identity until 1987, when it became part of the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada (although it had dropped “Amish” from its name in 1963).

The ideal of congregational autonomy, often ascribed to GC heritage, actually comes just as much from the Amish heritage. What I see as the critical divide on polity and adherence to “authoritative statements” is less that between GC and MC heritage than it is between the old line traditional conferences of southeastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, and the rest of MC USA, including not only those conferences that were formed by mergers between MC and GC conferences (e.g., Pacific Southwest and Pacific Northwest from the old Pacific District of the GC and the old Southwest and Pacific Coast Conferences of the MC), but also some conferences, both MC and GC, that have not yet accomplished such mergers (Western District vis-a-vis South Central, or Illinois, Indiana-Michigan, and Ohio vis-a-vis Central District).

One reason this history is so difficult to “briefly explain” is that for every pattern that seems to be valid, there are exceptions. So, in southeastern Pennsylvania, we have the relatively liberal Atlantic Coast Conference of MC (and very significantly, of Amish Mennonite heritage) sharing geography with what remains the most authoritarian of MC heritage conferences, Lancaster (the only MC USA conference still to have a “board of bishops”). But we also have Eastern District, where the whole idea of the GC was born, with an odd little historic quirk that they welcomed the formation of MC USA because for the first time it gave them a mechanism by which to expel congregations. Contrariwise, at least one of the newly formed merged conferences has declared that, along with exclusively GC heritage conferences elsewhere, it does not recognize any such mechanism.

Tim: Can you describe what you mean by “authoritarian”?

Lin: Reliance on external agencies to govern one’s response to circumstances, vesting in those agencies an immunity from any kind of questioning based on new information or new circumstances. Dogma, received tradition, hierarchical structures–and inability or refusal to recognize how selective one’s application of those mechanisms must always be given that no mortal has ever known everything that ever happened or can ever happen, and why.

Tim: Thanks for your insights and thoughts on this history, Lin.

For more background on the “Membership Guidelines for the Formation of the Mennonite Church USA” (2001) and the earlier documents it refers to, Lin recommends The Logic of the Mennonite Church USA “Teaching Position” on Homosexuality by Ted Grimsrud


*Lin’s comment is not currently available on this site because commenting is turned off, so I am quoting it here in its entirety because it is important context for the interview above. Note that the first sentence (in quotes) is a quote from an earlier comment in the same thread by someone named Harold:

“Can you join me in saying it’s okay for the current discernment of the gathered church (expressed in 1986-86 and 1995 and 2001) to impact and shape our Assembly?”

Harold, you probably remember some of the extended exchanges you and I (with some others) had on MennoLink back in the last century. Now, as someone who was baptized 12 years before you were born, who finally became fully aware of and grateful for the sexual orientation with which God gifted him when you were two years old and met his life partner when you were seven years old, I will gladly welcome you into my church as soon as you stop minding that I am in it.

Further, as someone who was present at two of those gatherings you cite as if they had the weight of Nicene Councils (1995 and 2001), my perspective on how that “discernment” has actually played out is quite different from yours. In brief, the leadership has not honored key understandings contained in those statements.

For now I offer just one example to support that contention. 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 amajority 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 anational 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 6 years after its adoption.

What happened in 2007? Again, prior to the gathering in San Jose some of us called attention to this approaching deadline and asked that we be allowed to provide input into the process of review. We were first told that the matter would not be raised until after the convention was over. Then we were told that it would be dealt with at a joint session of the Executive Board and the Constituency Leaders Council. That date came and went, and all that came out of denominational headquarters was the sound of crickets chirping.

On later probing, I was told that the gathered hierarchy had approached the whole issue with fear and trembling and had decided that no changes needed to be made. I have no knowledge that this decision was ever so much as communicated to the delegate body two years later, let alone presented for ratification. Since then, I have had further assurances that the matter would be brought up at subsequent meetings, and again nothing has been reported about it. I do hope this gives you some insight into why my trust in how MC USA does discernment is not all that robust.

There may be one tiny sign of hope: among the topics to be given an hour and a half of time in the “conversation room” at Pittsburgh is this: “The Church, the Role of Teaching Positions, Dialogue and Discernment.” I expect that to be a lively exchange, albeit within the envisioned tightly controlled parameters of the venue.

Photo of celebration at Living Water Community Church, by Tim Nafziger, May 2011.

Comment (1)

  1. Scott Coulter

    Thanks for posting this. It was informative reading.

Comments are closed.