In the last year, two Mennonite churches licensed or hired LGBT pastors, sparking a flurry of vigorous debate over sexuality, and triggering the withdrawal of several congregations from the denomination. In this post, I want to reflect on ongoing conflicts over sexuality within Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA), using theories of worldview conflict, paradoxical curiosity, and narrative. I personally support full inclusion of LGBT Christians within the church, but I feel it is important for each of us explore other perspectives and reflect on how we relate together.
First, a little background for context. In 2002, MCUSA formed out of the merger of General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM) and Mennonite Church (MC), two denominations with distinct religious cultures and structures. According to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, GCM was regarded as less conservative and more assimilated into mainstream culture, with more autonomy for local congregations.1 MC was generally regarded as more conservative and nonconformist, with a more hierarchical authority structure as a denomination.2
Mennonites have traditionally been conservative about sexual issues, but both denominations have debated sexual orientation issues since the 1970’s. In recent decades, a growing number of congregations have welcomed LGBT members in committed relationships, and several have hired LGBT pastors. Several of these churches were censured or expelled by their area conferences, but other conferences are willing to accept divergent practices and views.3 In recent months, a few congregations withdrew their membership and others are exploring whether to leave MCUSA, because they feel it is too permissive of immoral sexual conduct and unscriptural teachings.4
Worldview and narratives
This is not simply a disagreement over sexuality, or a question to be solved through ‘rational’ debate; it reflects a deeper division over identity and ways of viewing the world, as illustrated by models in Jayne Docherty’s Learning Lessons from Waco. She suggests that groups define meaning through “worldmaking stories” about themselves and the world, which influence how they name conflicts, attribute blame, and frame desired outcomes.5
Those who want to welcome LGBT people as church members and clergy without restrictions and those who support the current teaching position that restricts membership of non-celibate LGBT people tell different stories about this conflict. Many supporters of LGBT inclusion describe it as a conflict about inclusion and equality; many supporters of the current position describe this as a conflict about faithfulness to scriptural/church teachings and moral purity.6
The symbolic and identity language used in this conflict offers light on defining narratives and ways of viewing the world. Many supporters of LGBT inclusion, including Pink Menno, emphasize a narrative that views the church as a diverse body that welcomes all people through grace, and lives in solidarity with the struggle of marginalized people.7 It is also a narrative of rejection and oppression that expresses hope for a more welcoming community.
Supporters of the current teaching position, such as Matt Hamsher8 and Jewel and Richard Showalter,9 express a narrative that stresses the church’s identity as a unified body committed to scriptural faithfulness and righteous living, in spite of pressure from worldly influences. It is a story of self-sacrifice and obedience to God, with the looming risk of moral erosion.
Both groups claim a legacy of victimhood, appealing to shared cultural narratives of religious persecution in Europe and North America. This victimhood mentality often leads to mistrust and self-righteousness. This fundamental disagreement about nature of the conflict creates a need to negotiate meaning, rather than just issues.
Values and sources of meaning
By comparing writings by advocates on both sides, including Jewel and Richard Showalter, Chester Wenger,10 Matt Hamsher, pastors from Ohio,11 and Pink Menno contributors, we can see different axiologies (values of what is important) and epistemologies (ways of discerning knowledge).
According to a recent survey by Conrad Kanagy, supporters of the current position tend to favor more denominational authority and want to uphold the historic teaching position as a denomination, even if it means losing congregations.12 Supporters of LGBT inclusion tend to support more local authority and are more willing accept divergent practices in MCUSA.
Supporters of the current position appeal to literal views of scripture and church tradition as sources of knowledge, along with church bylaws, experience, and occasionally social science. In addition, they privilege theological and ethical unity, deference to scriptural and church authority, sexual morality, and respect for tradition as important values.
In contrast, many supporters of LGBT membership appeal to personal experience as a source of knowledge, along with contextual views of scripture, church tradition, and social science. They often place more emphasis on diversity, personal discernment, being a welcoming community, and a balance between tradition and experience. There is considerable overlap and agreement between the two camps, but a difference in priorities.
So how do we begin to engage this conflict in a way that recognizes these complex worldviews? In John Paul Lederach’s book The Moral Imagination, he describes paradoxical curiosity as an attitude toward conflict that has “an abiding respect for complexity, a refusal to fall prey to the pressures of forced dualistic categories of truth, and an inquisitiveness about what may hold together seemingly contradictory social energies into a greater whole.”13 By suspending judgement and embracing an imaginative curiosity while still holding on to core values, Mennonites might discover deeper shared truths about conflict and church identity that engage seemingly contradictory truths. This inquisitive engagement could create opportunities for new patterns and relationships, moving beyond mistrust and bitterness. Moral imagination transcends coercive power, and embraces the power of people working together and the power to create.
Embracing paradoxical curiosity and acknowledging different meaning-making narratives could lead to opportunities for reframing narratives among Mennonite churches and groups. In When Stories Clash: Addressing Conflict with Narrative Mediation, Gerald Monk and John Winslow describe this process as “focused on building relational narratives of increased understanding, respect and cooperation,” in addition to agreements.14
This path recognizes power dynamics and cultural forces, but believes that “Complexity is an ally .. because it always provides other possible pathways of response.”15 Perhaps dialogue and reframing could eventually lead to new insights about shared core values, mutual accountability, Biblical interpretation, sexual ethics, the role of diversity, and healthy ways of dealing with conflict.
We have an opportunity for imagination. What might this look like in practice?
1 Kaufman, Edmund G.and Henry Poettcker. (2009, November). General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=General_Conference_Mennonite_Church_(GCM)&oldid=121630.
2 Bender, Harold S.and Beulah Stauffer Hostetler. (2013, January). Mennonite Church (MC). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_Church_(MC)&oldid=120422.
4 Yoder, Kelly. (2014, December 22). MC USA churches move in 2014. Mennonite World Review. Retrieved from http://mennoworld.org/2014/12/22/mc-usa-churches-move-in-2014/
5 Docherty, Jayne Seminare. (2001). Learning Lessons from Waco: When Parties Bring Their Gods to the Negotiation Table. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, p 62-64.
6 Harr, James, et al. (2014, February 5). Letter to Ohio Conference of Mennonite Church USA Leaders. Retreived from http://mennoworld.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Ohio-letter.pdf
8 Hamsher, Matt. (2015, January 14). Survey results discouraging. The Mennonite. https://themennonite.org/opinion/survey-results-discouraging/
9 Showalter, Jewel and Showalter, Richard. (2014, November 14). An open letter to the Mennonite Church. Mennonite World Review. Retrieved from http://mennoworld.org/2014/11/14/to-our-beloved-mennonite-family/
10 Wenger, Chester. (2014, November 10). An open letter to my beloved Mennonite Church. Mennonite World Review.Retrieved from http://mennoworld.org/2014/11/10/an-open-letter-to-my-beloved-mennonite-church/
11 Harr, James, et al.
13 Lederach, John Paul. (2005). The Moral Imagination: The art and soul of building peace. Oxford University Press, p 36.
14 Monk, Gerald and John Winslade. (2013). When stories clash: Addressing conflict with narrative mediation. A Focus Book. Taos Institute Publications.