In the midst of questions about Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s affiliation with Mennonite Church USA, a document calling for unity is gaining traction.
The document, “Radical Center,” was born out of conversations among Landisville Manor District leaders.
“Our discussions lead us to believe that the current ‘crisis’ within Mennonite Church USA is, in fact, an opportunity,” it states.
It calls Lancaster Conference “to practice unity in diversity in a way that brings hope and healing to other conferences navigating disagreements.”
Landisville Manor District represents a wide range of theological views, according to its bishop, Sam Thomas. And still they want to remain together.
“Lancaster Conference has a history of allowing diversity to take place and remaining united,” Thomas said. Congregations have come out at different places on issues like divorce and remarriage and women in ministry.
“I think on this one our district is saying, ‘We are not interested in having a particular issue defining whether or not we can coexist together,’ ” he said.
At a meeting in January, the district’s leaders discussed the results of a conference survey that showed polarization on certain theological issues related to same-sex sexuality.
They thought, “There’s got to be another way than simply making our congregations decide one way or the other,” Thomas said.
At the end of the meeting, he asked whether they felt called to continue this conversation. The answer was a resounding “yes.”
They appointed a team of writers and, after releasing a working document, held a meeting in April to discuss it. About 50 people attended. As of June 8, Thomas had a list of 70 people who want to be updated as conversations continue.
Both he and Beth Good, the head of the writing team, emphasize Radical Center is a working document, to be held loosely.
They aren’t sure where it will go next.
Good, co-pastor of Vision Columbia (Pa.), said the document has greatly improved with the input of a wide range of people.
“It feels so lifegiving to have a diverse group of people that are speaking together,” she said.
In the April meeting, after discussions in table groups and a conference update from Lancaster moderator Keith Weaver, the group voted on the ideas that most spoke to them.
Good said the most popular idea was, “We need all the voices. We need the traditional voice, the progressive voice and all the voices in between in order for the church to be the church.”
And second was: “What are those theological nuggets that hold us together? Let’s focus on those,” she said.
Radical Center supporters haven’t intentionally promoted the document, beyond telling congregations in the district to use it as they see fit. Yet more contact them about it each day.
Good hears feedback such as: “This is refreshing to think I don’t have to choose a side. I don’t have to defend my position.”
She says people are energized to think of turning their focus to a vision they can all share, with Christ’s love as the center.
“We have a commission that we want to carry out,” Good said. “We’re not doing that right now. I think the Radical Center is a call back to that.”
Both Thomas and Good have also fielded negative reactions.
“It’s been tough; we have been accused of causing a split,” Good said. Some people think Radical Center is a response to the formation of Evana, an Anabaptist church network launching this fall.
Thomas said he sees “in Lancaster Conference a pretty clear move toward Evana.”
Lancaster Conference began a process in early 2014 to reconsider its affiliation with MC USA.
“I think within Lancaster Conference there’s a bit of concern about the extent to which the Radical Center gains interest,” Thomas said. “It could threaten a vote for Evana.”
But he said the document wasn’t made out of a reaction to Evana. He believes Evana will be a “very good landing place” for those who feel unable to remain in MC USA.
Good said she understands why people might see the document as divisive.
“They read it through the eyes of the current issue,” she said.
But she wants to be clear: “We’re not anti-Evana. But we’re also not anti-MC USA. If we’re anti-anything, it’s walking away from each other,” she said.
Despite the context it was born out of, Radical Center advocates don’t want the document to speak only to the debate surrounding sexuality.
“In five years this isn’t going to be the issue; it’s going to be something else,” Good said.
They wanted to demonstrate a different approach than the divisions that have taken place repeatedly in church history.
“I look at this and I think, what would happen if we were able to find a way to do it differently this time?” she said.
Shared with leaders
The document has been shared with conference leaders, including the task force considering Lancaster’s affiliation.
Weaver said Radical Center is on the task force’s agenda as a model to consider.
“I think pieces of that vision will connect well with whatever emerges, but we have not reached any kind of a recommendation in that task force,” he said.
Thomas said his deepest hope is for Lancaster Conference to stay with MC USA.
“I just don’t see value in pulling away over this issue,” he said. “I think we can focus on a common mission and we can learn from one another and each side can grow stronger in the process.”