My joy is the joy of a convert, and my tears are bittersweet. One might assume, wrongly, that as someone who became a Mennonite as an adult, without historical or ethnic ties to the denomination, I might not follow polity very closely. In my experience, people do not expect me to be invested in the Mennonite church as a whole, when my primary reasons for becoming Mennonite in the first place were very local. One might think that, as this decision forces a conversation that many Mennonites have been avoiding because of the fear of division it might cause, that I might be less worried about conference splits, churches leaving, pastors who worry about having their credentials revoked, and so on. Faithfulness over unity.
Yet I value unity so much my heart hurts, and when I look at what is happening, what I hope is that it will be a move toward greater unity. I hope that those who have been cut off from the church because of their sexual orientation will be welcomed.
I’m a polity nerd. I’ve only been a member of a Mennonite church for about three years, and it took me two years attending one before I was ready to take that plunge. The reason I wavered was the line in our -- our, for it is mine too, even if I disagree with parts of it -- confession of faith that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Could I claim a community that claimed that? Was I willing to be claimed by them? This question haunts me still. What I know is that I found so much good in the Mennonite church that I committed myself to faithful conversation, from the inside. I became a member of a church. I served as a deacon. I went all in.
This past summer, as a delegate in Phoenix, I was blessed to sit at a table with other Mennonites from around the country and discuss the issues facing our church. I learned more about how we make decisions, and about what is going on in other conferences. I felt out of place at times as a young woman, yet I also felt welcomed, and (mostly) heard. I was grateful to be Mennonite, to say that these are my people.
Yet precisely because these are my people, I needed to act with Pink Menno when they demonstrated during the delegate session on the last day of the convention. Because I love this church, I needed to be part of that silent witness, calling us to conversation. I don’t see myself as positioned against the church; I am in it, I am part of it, as we all are. Arms, legs, fingers, toes -- one body, many members -- and it breaks my heart to see division. But the division that I refer to is that which exists already, not that which might result from finally having to cope with the questions of same-sex marriage, membership of those who identify as LGBTQ, and yes, a lesbian woman whom God and the church have called to be a pastor.
What sense does it make to remain silent because we fear division? We are divided already. We have chosen to exclude.
As Joanna Harader put it so well in a recent article for the Christian Century about her own experiences after officiating a same-sex marriage:
...the disunity so evident at our gatherings did not spring fully formed out of the wedding at which I officiated. The things people said—in public and private—were not things they came up with when they read the news reports. People’s beliefs were long held, slowly formed, deeply etched. The disunity had been there all along, hiding in the dark corners. And it seems to me that the one who turns on the light is not necessarily responsible for the mess that light reveals.She goes on to point out the difference between a warm, fuzzy, non-boat-rocking form of unity and supposed peace -- a peace that is really a mask for the disagreements we’re refusing to air. “I’m gradually understanding,” she writes, “that the Spirit’s unity isn’t so much about keeping everyone inside happy with each other as it is about tearing down walls so more people can get in. It’s about the faithful path, not the warm and fuzzy path; about making us hear one another, not necessarily agree.” In avoiding conversation about sexuality, we’re not preserving unity. We’re avoiding our own disunity. The Lancaster news may say, “a tradition known for peacemaking faces conflict in its midst,” but the conflict isn’t new. It’s just that we’re finally being forced to talk about it. We finally have to do the hard work of making peace, instead of silently keeping with tradition.
Again and again the Mennonite church has taught me patience. My first encounter with consensus building was in a congregational life meeting mere weeks after I first walked through the doors of the church, and I now tell new attenders that if they want to really understand what we’re about, they should attend these -- sometimes boring -- meetings. We talk in circles. We go off on tangents. Just when you think we’re going to make a decision, someone pipes up with a new concern. Even when we’re on the verge of consensus, there’s a nervousness, an ever-present worry that we may not have made room for every voice to be heard. We want to make that space; we’re trying to do better. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like the topic at hand is worth all this effort. Sometimes we’re discussing things that seem so simple. Yet the way we approach those simple things is the way we will approach the theologically heavy things. Or maybe it’s just that the simple things matter, too.
I have always thought of myself as a patient person. I thought I was a good, sympathetic listener. You would think that I, feminist that I am, would be completely on board with the need to hear every voice. Yet a consensus model of decision making reminds me, no matter what the topic on the table on a given day, that it is easy to get carried away with my own vision of the truth, and to forget to listen. When I see an honorable goal in front of us, I want us to reach out and grab it, now.
I have been very open about my personal position about LGBTQ inclusion, even before I became a member of a Mennonite church. I’ve preached about marching in the Pride parade, about inclusion and exclusion. I’ve never intentionally hidden my views. But my position is only that: mine. Unless I bring it into conversation with others, unless I learn to speak with honesty and trust, unless I learn to really hear the voices of others.
The thing is, the voices that we haven’t been listening to are the voices of our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers. A unity that does not welcome these voices is no unity at all, but a broken and fractured body. There is still much I don’t understand about the dynamics of different districts and conferences and how we relate on a national level as part of MCUSA. But I know we need to commit to listening to one another, and that means -- among other things -- that the voice that has dominated the conversation, the voice that has been the norm, the voice that speaks from a place of power and leadership, even in a “flat” structure such as ours, needs to listen to the voice of dissent.
Stop beating your bibles, and allow the Word to speak through unexpected people. Open your ears, as well as your arms. My prayer is that we would seek a unity that goes beyond appearances, and that we would work together to make peace, as beloved children of God.