Sex and the Splitting Church: What Just Happened?

Talking to several people about Mennonite church Executive Board meeting Jan. 29-31, the conversation went like this: Wait, what happened? This week, Alabama became the 37th state to allow gay marriage–meanwhile, the Executive Board recommended maintaining the definition of traditional marriage through 2017. Wait, what happened?

I’m not on EB, but I am in the business of offering biased interpretations of church politics. And, this [expletive] backwards decision is actually a move forward. I’m an optimist. But stick with me. Here’s a few ways to look at what happened:

1. EB went back to the drawing board.
For the last 8 months or so, EB has been talking about a “structural solution” to our GLBTQ debates. Most of the objections to inclusion have been voices coming to be and saying, “He hit me; put him in time out.” EB has responded by saying, “I’m not your mom.” EB spent several months working toward a Not Your Mom Resolution–a resolution that would codify more clearly the power structure of MC USA and try to appease the conservative churches by maintaining a doctrinal stance that they could agree with, but allowing liberal churches to do their gay marriage thing, more or less without repercussion. Both liberals and conservatives called this bullshit, and at this meeting, EB admitted that a “structural solution” was, in fact, bullshit.

2. The conservative church dropped its spine.
Actually, it’s in good health, but its spine has left to provide a backbone for a new network of Anabaptist churches defined largely, as much as I can gather, by their commitment to opposing LGBTQ inclusion. The group is still deciding how they feel about “the roles of women,” and that’s all I have to say about that.

However, since the conservative church slammed the door on the way out, EB is finally realizing the ones who want to leave are already walking, and the MC USA solution can no longer expect to hold everybody together. The pressure to keep ALL the conservatives is off.

3. EB did a solid 360, with the possibility if doing a 180 in two more years.
As one inclusive pastor assessed the situation: we surveyed credentialed leaders, found that over half (and in increasing numbers) support LGBTQ members, and then decided to maintain 10+-year-old policies that prohibit Mennonite pastors from officiating same-sex weddings and conferences from credentialing LGBTQ candidates. We went in a big circle, only to end up back where we started: pastors can’t officiate same-sex weddings and gay people can’t be ordained.

The flaw in this plan is that EB approved laws that we’ve already broken, and broken repeatedly. Central District Conference has made it quite public that they plan to license a gay pastor in Ohio after Kansas City’s convention, regardless of what happens at convention. Pastors have made it quite clear that they are going to keep on doing ceremonies. And there are still GLBTQ people–out and closeted–in our churches. EB leans conservative, and won’t shift until we pass the tipping point. Delaying approval of A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership (the title almost abbreviates smoothly to ASS, which as you know is what happens when you assume, but to maintain some propriety, I’ll call it SU) means we can wait until 2017 convention to decide whether or not we really share this understanding.

Remember your church polity lesson? Yeah, me neither, but this is more or less how I understand the leadership structure of MC USA.

Remember your church polity lesson? This is more or less how MC USA works. Or fails to work. More on this later.

So EB approved SU as valid-until-proven-absolutely-useless. HOWEVER. Remember your church polity lesson–decisions are made by the delegate body. EB approved a statement, knowing that conservative expect them to act authoritative, and liberals expect them to let the majority rule. But EB built their own loophole–Shared Understanding has not been approved–was never approved–by the delegate body, and will not have an opportunity to be approved until 2017. EB has left room for inclusive churches to go about their business unpunished by their conferences, while also leaving open the possibility for conservatives that this SU is still viable.

We just went full circle, but it seems EB is leaving room to do a 180 turn in two more years. If not a full about face, at least they’re prepared to move at an obtuse angle toward inclusion.

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