As usual, the report of Executive Board’s meeting brings up the question: What the — did you actually do? After this weekend’s meeting, today brought another convoluted and dysfunctional report from our most centralized leadership body.
Most Mennonites aren’t terribly interested in Executive Board, and for good reason. In a healthy organization, EB has little to do: their primary job is to manage the finances and administration of MC USA, the organization. CLC (the Constituency Leaders Council) is responsible for keeping a high-concentration of theology in that cocktail of worldly tasks. When we get mired in conflict–like our present debate over GLBTQ inclusion–EB is, in a way, called upon to overextend their original mandate. That’s important–a crisis requires additional leadership, management, and discernment. EB isn’t violating their original mandate; they’re stretching their responsibilities because questions about theological vision necessarily impact administration, finance, and structure of the organization.
This weekend’s meetings, however, seem to highlight EB’s total incapacity articulate a future-tense vision of any kind; what they can articulate is a past-tense, backward-looking vision. The statement to clarify the two self-contradicting resolutions passed in Kansas City is, predictably, self-contradicting. EB affirms that all national staff and EB members will adhere to the controversial Membership Guidelines (ie., the don’t be gay clause), while also affirming that congregations and individuals who violate the Membership Guidelines (ie., GLBT and allies) won’t be punished because EB lacks both the authority and the political force to do so. As far as I could find, the full statement hasn’t been widely released yet, so I will limit my commentary of it. In short, it seems that depending where you are in the church, being gay may or may not have repercussions. (This is new word, I guess, from EB.)
The other major topic EB considered was adding a constituency group (who would have representatives on CLC) for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender interests. In short: 300 GLBT people and allies volunteered to become more involved in church and EB said “we don’t really want more volunteers.”
Let it be noted that other key agenda items included brainstorming how to create a more missional church and consulting for the 2017 convention, themed “Love is a Verb.” Let it be noted (and expounded upon in a later post) that BMC is much more equipped for dialogue with conservative perspectives than the Mennonite LGBTQ group, Pink Menno.
The official reason given for rejecting the proposal was that the it was facilitated by BMC, an Anabaptist support network for LGBTQ persons and their families. This rationale is absurd for a number of reasons, including:
1. A missional church is necessarily engaged across its theological spectrum (Anabaptism), and if EB stipulated that GLBT representatives must attend Mennonite congregations, the problem is easily solved.
2. This rationale sidesteps genuine dialogue; instead of confronting the tensions and being transparent about their concerns, EB chooses to hide behind technicalities in order to avoid any genuine, substantive conversation between disagreeing voices. (Aside: one of the things Milennials value most is authenticity–see also Bernie Sanders–a church excited about growth doesn’t ignore the ideological starting place of its biggest potential growth demographic.)
3. The 143 congregations who left the denomination since July 2015 are largely conservative–meaning that necessarily, MC USA now has a higher percentage of LGBT members and allies; the 300 voices on this petition carry even greater weight now than they did this summer when they signed.
4. A church excited about growth doesn’t reject volunteers who want to engage in bureaucracy.
EB caveated this comprehensively useless vote with a “motion… to find spaces for dialogue with LGBTQ members of the church.” If EB genuinely wanted to engage in dialogue, they would offer substantive, detailed suggestions about acceptable venues for these conversations, rather than rejecting every proposal that invites them to a conversation table.
The loss of membership in MC USA does not mean we are evolving into a gay-friendly, flag-flying UCC-wanna-be denomination. That’s not who we are. The loss of membership means we can refocus on the Sermon on the Mount, peace theology, and Anabaptist theological history–which will place GLBTQ conversations firmly on the outskirts of our main theological affirmations.
The Mennonite Church has to make peace with gay Christians. We don’t have to give them a full blessing in all of our congregations; we don’t have to appoint all-gay leadership; we don’t need to make an unequivocal affirmation of ambiguous sexual ethics. But we have to face the reality that gay people also have spiritual needs; that gay people also experience the Holy Spirit and the presence of God; that some gay people are deeply interested in peacemaking and Menno Simons and they also like zwieback. That, we do have to make space for in our churches. If we can’t share communion with GLBT people, we need to share our zwieback.
But EB seems intent on saying there simply isn’t enough zwieback to go around, even though the wish there was. That doesn’t make EB wrong. It makes them irrelevant. The more a committee cannot acknowledge present reality, the more irrelevant they become. They can go on meeting and resolving, but we’re already finding space for dialogue in our congregations–through Bible studies, through Ted & Co.’s “Listening for Grace,” through the complicated reality that gay members are slowly coming out to their church communities. EB can chose to speak into this reality–or it can speak into a delusional dream borne by self-defense.
EB’s decision actually makes me more hopeful about the church. If they’ve thrown down their cards in favor of archaic obstructionism, let us continue our own conversations with the courage and humility–and listening, dear Jesus, the listening–that we can do on our own.
The daily life of Mennonites will keep stumbling toward some solution that brings the margins–the conservative margins and the liberal margins–toward the center, toward Jesus, who can facilitate a better dialogue than any committee.