Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s decision to withdraw from Mennonite Church USA by the end of 2017 is a major loss, and not just because Lancaster is the denomination’s largest conference. Lancaster announced the decision, by an 82 percent vote of credentialed leaders, Nov. 19.
Some have said the 2001-02 merger that created MC USA was actually a union of three entities: the General Conference Mennonite Church, the Mennonite Church and Lancaster Conference. Lancaster has a history of independence; it became part of the Mennonite Church denominational structure only 44 years ago.
Perhaps especially in the minds of former General Conference Mennonites, Lancaster symbolizes what many used to call the Old Mennonite Church — a place where women wore head coverings (which mostly disappeared decades ago) and where an all-male Board of Bishops held authority (and still does).
Lancaster has occupied a special place in MC USA’s historic experiment in Mennonite unity. More than any other conference, its presence was a powerful expression that diverse traditions had joined together and that old differences were being overcome.
But last month, Lancaster’s credentialed leaders decided to abandon the experiment. When tested by an emotionally charged question — how to relate to people with varying sexual identities, including gay and lesbian Christians — the bonds that held Lancaster to the rest of the body were not strong enough.
Now, according to Lancaster’s Shalom News, the conference will go “back to what it was for 300 years” — an independent entity that “maintained collaborative, collegial relationships with other area conferences in the Mennonite Church.”
This is the Mennonite way — to split. To say we have a good relationship, but not good enough to be in the same church. It is the easy way out — to react to a disagreement by saying, “We must draw a line between us so that your sin will stay far away from me.” Mennonites typically are comfortable in smaller, “purer” groups. We can see that this has not changed.
MC USA stands out in history as a rare example that it is possible for Mennonites to draw together rather than split apart. It is an effort to define a church more by its center — the core tenets of our faith in Jesus Christ — than by its boundaries. It is an attempt to say, “I do not have to agree with all of your interpretations of Scripture in order to accept your right to do God’s will as you see it and to stay in fellowship with you.” That posture of grace and respect is diminished each time a congregation or conference chooses purity over tolerance.
In the end, we have no choice but to accept that each of us is bound to follow our conscience. It is disappointing that once again some have decided the best way to do this is by keeping each other at a safe distance.