The idea that major structural change might help Mennonite Church USA resolve its conflicts has been tested and dropped.
Instead, delegates at this summer’s convention will turn their attention to polity, or church governance, as they deal with issues of sexuality and authority.
“We concluded that there is not a structural change that would resolve the current tensions,” a structure committee reported to the MC USA Executive Board, which met Jan. 29-31 in Kansas City, Mo.
After four months of work, the committee recommended the current structure be maintained.
“We decided this is not a structural issue,” said Joy Sutter of East Norriton, Pa., the committee chair, in a phone interview after the meeting. “This is more about our polity.”
Conflict over polity flared in the past year when one area conference licensed a pastor in a same-sex relationship and another said it would do so in 2015.
This led to several congregations leaving the denomination and to the emergence of a new network of churches that expects to attract some that withdraw.
Polity changes remain open for discussion and potential delegate action at the Kansas City convention, said Sutter and Ervin Stutzman, MC USA executive director.
A survey of delegates will go out this month asking for input on such topics as how ministerial credentials function and how the Executive Board exercises its leadership. The structure committee recommended that the board clarify these points in consultation with delegates.
The survey will test an Executive Board recommendation that says the denomination’s 2001 Membership Guidelines should remain unchanged. The guidelines include a rule that prohibits pastors from officiating same-sex covenant ceremonies. This has sparked conflict over whether pastors who break the rule should be disciplined.
Based on the guidelines and other documents, the Executive Board said in June that the denomination will not recognize the licenses of pastors in same-sex relationships. Mountain States Mennonite Conference has licensed a lesbian pastor in Colorado, and Central District Conference has announced its intent to license a gay pastor in Ohio.
Delegates will be able to give their opinions on whether the board has authority over area conferences and what to do when area conferences disagree with each other.
“The board is asking for feedback on the nature and authority of the Membership Guidelines and how they are to be interpreted and administrated,” Stutzman said.
In another polity decision at its January meeting, the board approved a new ministerial handbook, A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership. The book replaces a 1995 document. It includes the Membership Guidelines’ ban on same-sex covenant ceremonies — the first time such a ban has been placed in a ministerial handbook.
The Executive Board decided not to ask delegates to approve the book. Stutzman said this was based on two precedents: the 1995 document was not approved by delegates, and Mennonite Church Canada has implemented the book without asking delegates for approval.
However, the Executive Board is inviting delegates to review the book and give counsel on it during the assembly this summer. If delegates want changes, it could be revised, in consultation with MC Canada, by 2017.
An important moment
Stutzman called these decisions an unusual and important moment in the life of the church.
“We haven’t had something like this since the merger,” he said, referring to the joining of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church in 2001.
“The board believes that this is a moment for delegates to step up and speak. There is considerable difference of opinion on what the decisions meant at the time of the merger. We need to give an opportunity to say what we mean now.”
The survey will be sent to all delegates who register in February and March for the Kansas City convention. It will include questions about polity; inclusion of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer; and resolutions that the Executive Board is considering bringing to the assembly.
The board also commended a new statement on sexual abuse, written by a discernment group on sexual violence and the late theologian John Howard Yoder’s abuses of power, for consideration by the delegate assembly.
Relating to a network
Board members met with two representatives of Anabaptist Renewal Circles, a group committed to renewal and revival in MC USA, and two representatives of a new network composed largely of congregations who have left or are considering leaving MC USA.
The board had conversations about what types of fraternal relationships, if any, to pursue with groups that leave MC USA, but did not reach a conclusion.
“It was important to hear and think about how we can best stay in connection and relate to one another,” Sutter said. “There’s a lot of sentiment that we care deeply about each other and want to find a two-way bridge.”
Stutzman noted that some who join the network may want to stay closely connected to MC USA or be affiliated with both.
Contributing: MC USA staff.
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