Mennonites Divide Over Sexuality

 

By Thomas Lambrecht-

The Lancaster Mennonite Conference, largest of the Mennonite Church’s 25 conferences, has ended its 46-year affiliation with America’s top Anabaptist denomination. According to stories in Christianity Today and Mennonite World Review, this decision was more than two years in the making.

In 2015 the Lancaster Conference’s churches were encouraged to enter into a time of discernment about whether or not to remain with the Mennonite Church. About ten percent of the conference’s 179 churches engaged in an extended discernment process, with eight of the 17 churches deciding to remain within the Mennonite Church. Those congregations joined the nearby Atlantic Coast Conference.

At the same time, about 29 congregations from outside the Lancaster Conference joined the conference, from as far away as Oregon and Hawaii. The congregations leaving the Mennonite Church represent about one-sixth of the denomination’s membership.

The split was sparked by the licensing for ministry of Theda Good, a lesbian pastor in a committed relationship, by the Mountain States Mennonite Conference in 2014. That licensing was not recognized by the national Mennonite Church, but neither was the Mountain States Conference disciplined by the national church. The Mennonite Confession of Faith says that marriage is “a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”

In response, conservative Mennonites set up a new network called Evana to promote traditional values and spiritual renewal. At the time, they hoped 100 churches would join the movement. Two years later, nearly 180 congregations have decided to withdraw.

Mennonite church polity is different from United Methodist polity, in that it is congregational in government and there is no denominational trust clause holding the property with the denomination. So it was relatively easy for churches to withdraw, once they had made that decision.

Some have pointed to the Mennonite Church as a denomination that was not consumed with battles over same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing LGBTQ persons. But just like the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and United Church of Christ, the Mennonites have experienced division, as well.

It is interesting to note the parallels with United Methodism. For over 25 years, there have been isolated examples of UM annual conferences that ordained openly homosexual persons to ministry. Sometimes, those ordinations were overturned by the church’s judicial process. More times than not, there was no discipline for the wayward annual conference, and the ordination was allowed to stand. Since 2012 the emphasis has been on clergy performing same-sex marriages or unions. A few resulted in the clergy being disciplined (none severely), but in most cases the offense was either ignored or celebrated by the annual conferences involved. The disobedience of our church order reached a culmination in 2016 with the election of a married lesbian clergy, Karen Oliveto, as bishop in the Western Jurisdiction.

In addition to the long-standing renewal groups (Good News, Confessing Movement, UMAction), evangelical United Methodists in 2016 formed a new network (the Wesleyan Covenant Association) designed to promote traditional values and spiritual renewal.

The Mennonite experience also shows what might happen as a result of the proposals coming from the Council of Bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward. Some of those proposals involve expanded jurisdictions or branches with more fluid geographical boundaries, which would allow evangelical congregations from across the country to band together in a common framework of ministry. Other proposals envision parts of The United Methodist Church departing from the denomination and forming new independent bodies to promote ministry from a particular perspective. We know these approaches are indeed possible because they have been done by other denominations, most recently now by the Mennonites.

The Mennonite experience illustrates once again that organizational church unity is threatened by the widely divergent perspectives on homosexuality. There are many United Methodists who value organizational unity more than theological agreement. But there is a significant number of United Methodists for whom a certain level of theological agreement is a necessary precondition for organizational unity. For those United Methodists, the disagreement over marriage and sexuality, as well as the denomination’s inability to enforce its standards, have made organizational unity nearly impossible to sustain.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.

Comments

  1. I actually find this shocking. I never expected the Mennonite church with its very conservative stance to be infected with this issue. It just goes to show how deep the problem goes. The only solution is some type of split, hopefully with the amicability of the Mennonites and not with the divisive legal battles of the Episcopalian church. They have wasted millions of God’s money trying to force churches to be what they don’t want to be. This should be a lesson for us all. Make it simple, end the trust clause and let the laity decide what to do with their church.

  2. Gary Bebop says:

    It’s not “simple” to end the trust clause. Properties are owned by annual conferences. They will not give these up. The “way forward” is an exodus out and no turning back, longing for the leeks, the melons, the flesh pots of Egypt. Traditionalists must stop indemnifying the tangle of conflicted agendas and relationships that comprise the United Methodist Church.

    That is, unless they have no greater vision and courage.

      • A Retired Pastor says:

        Thank you William for directing us to what the General Council on Finance and Administration Legal Department has to say about the Trust Clause. It appears to me that a good case can be made that the trust clause has been broken in any Annual Conference where the Book of Discipline has been ignored, and where pastors are not appointed to churches because there are not enough pastors to go around. The Trust Clause seems to be seen as something that only individual congregations must adhere to. Apparently it also holds valid from the other side of the equation: if the larger church, on a District, Annual Conference, or General Conference level, fails to make it possible for an individual congregation to survive, by not providing enforceable rules, or by not appointing pastors who will come to lead worship, then the trust clause has been violated. The individual congregation should have full legal right to look elsewhere for capable leadership to ensure that they remain a church.

        • Gary Bebop says:

          The GCFA document makes clear that the Trust Clause has withstood challenges in court, with rare exceptions, for more than a hundred years. There is no facile way for a local congregation to succeed in taking property away from an annual conference. In theory this may be possible, but “exceptional cases do not prove the rule,” and local congregations who attempt this face long odds in a lengthy, costly legal battle. This is not something that can be decided by fiat of local congregations or by obiter dictum on the part of a friendly magistrate. (Witness PCUSA, ECUSA, e.g.)

          • Dillon Staas says:

            Let’s look at the issue of the Trust Clause from a practical standpoint. If congregations walk away, leaving empty buildings to the annual conference, what would be the result? Those buildings must be insured by someone, the heat must be maintained in order to preserve the building, if no religious activity is going on in the building (parsonages) then property taxes must be paid. If many congregations abandoned their properties, how would an annual conference pay for these and other expenses involved for all those churches? A massive exodus by conservatives would leave the annual conferences with massive headaches. Wouldn’t it be far better for them to work out a just resolution to the Trust Clause issue.

  3. Celestia Long says:

    In our small rural church many of our grandparents dirt farmed to provide money for churches. What does the conference give you anyway. It’s hard so see your family work so hard for 100 years, only to have the conference say it’s mine. Personally, lightening could strike it. I hope thee is a mass exodus. Methodist are luke warm and the Bible is clear on that. God will spit you out.

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