WINNIPEG, Man. — A Mennonite Church Manitoba meeting at Fort Garry Mennonite Fellowship took a confrontational turn on Jan. 12, opening the floodgates of debate on just what it means for local congregations to “create space” for one another based on the Being a Faithful Church 7 resolution passed at last summer’s general assembly in Saskatoon.
To distinguish the conversation at hand from any previous theological debates on same-sex unions, moderator Peter Rempel outlined three core areas for discussion:
- What principles and values will MC Manitoba use to define the “space” it is trying to make?
- What constitutes “substantial agreement” with the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective?
- How can the area church support mutual accountability between levels of church leadership and between congregations at variance on the issues throughout the process?
Participants addressed these questions first in small groups, compiling notes for formal feedback through a paper survey. An open-mic session gave members a chance to further the conversation.
Generally, people affirmed the decision to preserve unity by making room for disagreement but also raised concerns. Members reinforced the need for boundaries around the church’s discernment, to keep it from becoming subject to the caprice of fashionable morality. Some questioned whether leadership is paying more attention to the alleged LGBTQ church exodus than to congregations leaving the area church.
Stephanie Wenger of Winnipeg’s North Kildonan Mennonite Church remarked that “there is a lot of healing and reconciling relationships that needs to happen on both sides” of the controversy, before the resolution can proceed effectively.
Her case was made in point shortly thereafter, when a conflict derailed productive debate.
Toward the end of the open-mic session, Garry Fehr of Blumenort Mennonite Church took the floor and said, “I’m not sure why LGBTQ folks are leaving the church. I don’t know what their reasons are.”
To which an unidentified person called out, “Ask us.”
Without appearing to notice, Fehr continued: “Is it possible that members of the gay community, whether lesbian or homosexual, are being convicted that the lifestyle they are living is wrong, and that because they don’t want to deal with it they are choosing to walk away from the church instead? Even from a spiritual warfare perspective —”
At this point, David Driedger, associate minister of First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, interrupted Fehr, begging a point of order with the moderator on the grounds that “the discussion points for tonight have already been set.”
Rempel attempted to return the floor to Fehr, who had continued speaking over the interruption, asking rhetorically whether “Satan [was] using the gay community as his puppet in an attempt to totally tear apart Mennonite Church Canada.”
Adding to the commotion, several crowd members called out, “Let him speak,” but Driedger persisted. Before order could be restored, Fehr left the microphone and the building.
Rempel formally admonished the gathering, stated his regrets about the incident, which he described as “sinful,” and closed discussion for the evening.
Colleen Edmund concluded the gathering by leading a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
Directly after the meeting, Driedger gave the following defense of his actions: “I interrupted those gentlemen from the floor because the statements being made transgressed the boundaries of our conversation. ‘Creating space’ must mean something. . . . Because the comments were not only out of line for the meeting, but continued longstanding and harmful church practices towards LGTBQ folk, it seemed important to interrupt.”
Contacted later, Fehr made no change to his speech from the floor but did offer some clarifying comments: “My desire for God’s church is that we would walk beside and with the gay community in their struggle with same-sex attraction. . . . The gay community is not allowing the church to do this. They are requesting that we accept their way of life and nothing else. [People] cannot experience the love and acceptance of the church without also accepting . . . the rules of God according to Scripture.”
A lesbian participant at the meeting also spoke to Canadian Mennonite afterward. Solene Stockwell of Winnipeg, a regular churchgoer along with her long-time partner, said: “In some ways, I see how the interruption is shutting down and shutting out the ones who are afraid of being unfaithful to God by changing their stance, who are afraid of welcoming sin into their churches.
“To the man speaking, [it] supports his view that, because of us, through our welcome into Mennonite churches, Mennonite churches are being pulled apart. At the same time, [he] was saying horrible things about me and about people that I love.
“I wasn’t sure how much longer I could stand to be hated openly without knowledge of who I was, knowledge of where I come from, what my experience has been, why I’ve had a bumpy relationship with my home church.
“I don’t think I had heard anything to that degree of fear and hate of the LGBTQ in person before. In some ways, I wish the interruption had been done with more kindness, more patience and more love.”