Did we get gay-er?: What the Lancaster and Western District Ideologies Mean for the Rest of Us

It certainly appears that the church’s extremes got more extreme this weekend, as it concerns LGBTQ participation. I don’t think this is the case, though–no one has gotten more extreme, they’ve just finally shaken off the paralysis of conflict and are becoming courageous enough to be who they wish to be. Lancaster Conference is making good on their threat to leave the denomination, while Western District Conference has agreed not to punish credentialed leaders who preside at same-sex ceremonies, as long as they have congregational approval.

Have we really become more polarized since Kansas City? Doubtful. How much do these two decisions change things? Not terribly much. What’s happening is a clarity of vision, an emerging from the molasses of conflict mentality.

Molasses is delicious. But no one wants to BE molasses.

Molasses is delicious. But no one wants to BE molasses.

Lancaster’s Decision

An important note about Lancaster is that the decision to leave was recommended by the Conference’s Board of Bishops. Nobody in MC USA takes the idea of Bishopry as seriously as Lancaster. In a decade of working in three different conferences, I never met any layperson who was concerned about bishops. Recently, someone said to me, “What is Lancaster Conference about? Bishops are not a Mennonite thing; they’re an Amish thing.” This is hair-splitting, but the point is well-taken: Lancaster has always been sailing their own boat, and it’s been sailing further for a long time.

Lancaster Conference does things the way Lancaster Conference wishes to. After all, women aren’t allowed to be bishops. What this decision means is that a non-representative group has recommended that everyone follow their lead. [Aside: I’ve met some of the bishops. They’re good guys. They’re also guys who have priorities different from MC USA.]

Lancaster has a leadership model that is already different from–one might even say at variance with–Mennonite Church USA. And Lancaster has been foot-dragging since the before the merger was approved. The original membership guidelines, developed during the merger process, were largely created to appease Lancaster Conference.

At this point, Lancaster Conference–at least the majority of it–is better off going to sit in a corner and think deeply about who its friends are, and who it thinks it is as a Mennonite body in 2015 that still does not allow women full participation in leadership. Growing up as a West Coast Mennonite, I always had a small sense that Lancaster has thought it is and ought to be the center of the Mennonite world, and Lancaster has always held its own opinion in high esteem. This is not a wrong thing, but it is an opinion that often puts it at odds with the denomination.

I don’t disparage the many good, hard-working pastors and leaders in Lancaster Conference, or the many heartsick people who have searched for every possible alternative. But I am sick of every article on the subject noting that “Lancaster is MC USA’s largest conference, with 13,838 members.” Being the biggest does not entitle you to throw the biggest fit. The probable exit of Lancaster means they get to stop throwing the biggest fit and instead become a force of positive change. Lancaster–or at least, some of its congregations–has become a bitter spouse who begrudges its spouse everything. Lancaster is trying to be a little less gloomy. It is, in that sense, good news for everyone.

Western District’s Decision

Meanwhile, in Kansas of all places, Western District Conference decided this week to allow pastors to perform same-sex ceremonies “without fear of censure.” The vote passed with 72% support.

At its mildest, this is a vote for less paperwork. All regional conferences in MC USA are required to “review the credentials” of pastors who perform same-sex marriages. Several conferences, including Western District, have followed this rule in the past  years and concluded “the pastor’s credentials are in order.” Rather than beginning with the assumption that pastors need investigating and monitoring, Western District will begin with the assumption that pastors are rational people and do what they do within a particular context.

The question is no longer “How much of the rules did you break and how shall we punish you?” but “Are you in mutual discernment with the priesthood of all believers and are you acting within a theological framework?” It’s a codification of what Western District–and several other conferences–were already doing.

It’s also a move to clarify congregational polity, that the power of a conference is balanced by a congregation’s own sense of call. Yes, it’s a slippery slope toward nullifying the review of credentials. Yes, that puts it at variance with MC USA. At its most extreme, it undermines the spirit of the clergy guidelines. But many pastors, in many conferences, have already done that. And what is forbearance if not trusting the discernment of a congregation? What is forbearance if not choosing to begin with patience instead of suspicion? Western District is making a baby step. It will take other conferences a couple of years to catch up, and in the meantime, there is time for dialogue. Not everyone in Western District agreed with the resolution, but they saw it as a way to live out the call to forbearance.

Western District has not done anything novel. The only new part is that they admit it’s what they’re doing. It won’t be the breaking point for anybody. Those who have stuck around this long are staying in dialogue. Those who will go out the door are already on their way out.

Did we get gay-er?

Doubtful. If we did, not much. My congregation still looks pretty much the same as last week. Yours probably does, too. On each extreme, we’ve done things we can’t take back. But we haven’t passed the point of dialogue. We haven’t passed the point of collaboration. And we haven’t passed the tipping point of change. We’re still moving slow, which may be the best pace for us to move at. But the pendulum is swinging.

Lancaster has set itself on a two-year timeline. It may not even collect the votes of credentialed leaders (the next step in the process) until 2016.

For me, it’s hard to get stirred up about either of these decisions. They are pieces in a puzzle, and there is much more to work out which is better worked out with patience and sensibility (or if you prefer, fear and trembling), rather than passion and self-righteousness. There is also much space for standing in the middle. For sympathizing with the struggle of both conferences. For affirming both conferences. For wishing both conferences well.

This weekend’s reports don’t mean much for the rest of us. It means we are still called to be who we are. We still must do our own work, in our own congregations and conferences, to get through this mess without becoming more spiteful people. If we are truly invested in the forbearance resolution we passed in July, then we had best begin by wishing both conferences well.

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