By Ervin Stutzman
Over a week ago I received a copy of a letter signed by 150 people serving as pastors or with credentials in Mennonite Church USA. The letter was also published by The Mennonite via TMail on January 27. Since the letter addresses issues of national scope, it seems appropriate for me to acknowledge receipt of the letter on behalf of the Executive Board, and to make an initial response to the hopes voiced there.
First of all, I receive the letter as a voice of compassion and lament for the pain which people on the LGBTQ spectrum face in our church and society. The letter makes reference to a quotation by Pastor Ron Adams [p. 8, The Mennonite, November 2013], whose brother Jim took his own life because of depression after years of internalizing the theology of a church which condemned him for being born as gay.
Partly as a result of this tragedy, Adams believes our denomination’s guidelines on same-sex marriage dehumanize our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Adams declares that “If I am being asked to choose between adhering to those [guidelines] and welcoming and blessing someone, anyone, seeking to follow Jesus, I will welcome and bless.” The signers of the letter empathize with Adams’ pain, as well as that of many who feel marginalized by our church.
Secondly, I received the letter as a plea to the church to find a better way of addressing our differences. Adams longs for a “rule of love” to take precedence over the rule of law in the church. I lament that our church reflects the polarities of our society, and too often mirrors its unhealthy ways of dealing with differences.
I know many of the signers of the letter; all are committed disciples of Jesus Christ with a call to compassionate pastoral ministry. In that vein, I receive the letter as a form of counsel to the Executive Board, asking for a change of guidelines at the national level. Although no specific guidelines are named, the following statements from denominational documents come to mind:
“We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” P. 72, Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective
“Pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant ceremony.” p. 4, Membership Guidelines
Thirdly, I receive the letter as growing evidence that the consensus forged on the Membership Guidelines in 2001 during the church merger processes is fraying. I lament that the individuals and groups at opposite ends of the spectrum of concerns related to sexual identity and orientation are no longer willing to be in patient forbearance with each other. Those who most want change are disregarding the church’s written guidelines, believing that conscience calls them to pursue a higher law of love for socially-marginalized LGBTQ individuals made in God’s image.
In contrast, those who are most strongly opposed to same-sex relationships have left or are threatening to leave our denomination, believing that conscience forbids them to be in the same denomination with congregations who bless same-sex unions.
I pray that God will help us find a third way that demonstrates our unity under the Lordship of Christ, the authority of the scriptures, and the written covenants that we have made with each other.
As Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA, I am committed to the Confession of Faith and the Membership Guidelines adopted by the delegates at the Nashville convention in 2001, as part of the agreement for forming our new denomination. Although we have considerable diversity of views on the Executive Board, we recently wrote an administrative update to the document. We’ve also explored the development of a new covenant arrangement which might better capture the commitments than the Membership Guidelines presently do.
For the sake of right relationships in the church and our witness to the world, we must find a way to have respectful conversation with those who differ with our convictions, particularly ardent followers of Jesus who feel marginalized by the church.
In this vein, I have sat at the table and listened to disciples of Jesus who identify themselves on the LGBTQ spectrum—some celibate, some who have left non-heterosexual relationships to become celibate, some in committed heterosexual relationships, some in committed same-sex relationships, some in the stages of exploration of what their sexual orientation means. I have found that even among the closest family members of individuals with LGBTQ identity, there is no consensus on the moral and theological implications. Our differences of conviction run right through families, congregations, conferences and denominations.
In the midst of these differences, I call the church to a renewed commitment to Jesus Christ, to ongoing study of the scriptures, to a thoughtful acknowledgement of our Confession of Faith, to a love that is filled with knowledge and insight, to deep listening to fellow Christians on the LGBTQ spectrum, to compassionate welcoming and discipling for all who are marginalized, to respectful conversation with those who differ with our own stance, and to prayerful, Spirit-led discernment in communities of faith committed to God’s mission in the world.
As part of their regular meeting in mid-February, the Executive Board will consider the letter from the 150 pastors along with two other recent actions—the announcement at Eastern Mennonite University launching a listening process regarding a hiring policy change for folks in same-sex covenants, and the ministerial licensing of Theda Good, a woman in a same-sex covenant, by Mountain States Mennonite Conference. Pray that God may grant us wisdom beyond our human limitations. The board intends to issue a statement shortly after the meeting.