For long decades now I’ve dreamed of a setting in which we could learn how — offering each other the tenderness for which every human so longs — to pull out chairs for every single one of us who wish to do so to sit at Christ’s banquet table. I’ve dreamed of Jesus our host and we as his body, with the courtesy such a momentous moment so deserves, together pulling out each other’s chairs and helping each one of us be seated.
In my circle of innermost loved ones, including family and dear friends, are those who, as soon as same-sex marriage became legal in their respective states, married long-time partners. Others in that same circle are against this and have been troubled that, for instance, my employer Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., opened a hiring policy review and listening process to discern whether to hire persons in same-sex relationships. I wish for all of these dear ones to be at the banquet table. I wish for the table to groan with such amazingly nurturing and varied foods that all can eat with joy.
I speak of this dream now because I’m deeply moved to see confirmed a context for extending such tenderness and for continuing to test and learn how it’s done in ways that honor all at the table. On July 16, the EMU Board of Trustees voted to pass this action:
Eastern Mennonite University does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or any legally protected status. As a religious institution, Eastern Mennonite University expressly reserves its rights, its understandings of, and its commitments to the historic Anabaptist identity and the teachings of Mennonite Church USA, and reserves the legal right to hire and employ individuals who support the values of the college.
In speaking to the EMU community, Board Chair Kay Nussbaum and President Loren Swartzendruber indicated that:
Therefore — as we affirm the goodness of singleness, celibacy, and sexual intimacy within the context of a covenanted relationship (marriage) — our hiring practices and benefits will now expand to include employees in same-sex marriages. The Board of Trustees and EMU leadership believe this is the right decision for Eastern Mennonite University as an institution at this time.
I’m moved because through such action I do hear EMU — along with Goshen (Ind.) College, whose board made the same decision — inviting persons and entities like these to that wobbly version of Christ’s table which is the best we know how to offer each other on earth: my own divided loved ones, students who wrestle with each other’s differing understandings, those holding multiple perspectives within EMU, those pained by fractures within MC USA and the range of denominations an ecumenical EMU serves, persons forming the Evana Network as a network of Mennonite congregations both intersecting with but also sometimes providing alternatives to MC USA perspectives, and so many more.
It’s right about at this point that things get complicated: Some brothers and sisters in Christ have already had a table setting. A question they’re wrestling with is whether, if they view others as violating faithfulness to Scripture, they can still experience nurture at the table with them.
This is a riddle I don’t fully know how to solve. That’s why I’ve basically said God, I don’t know how this can be done, or if it can be done, give us a Pentecost miracle.
I think Nussbaum and Swartzendruber address the riddle when they say that:
We are keenly aware of the deep divide within our denomination — as well as the broader Christian Church — regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals. We mourn the broken relationships and pain for people with differing understandings of Scripture and what it means to live as Christ called us to live. We remain deeply committed to Mennonite Church USA and Anabaptist values as an institution.
They don’t offer a magic wand. But I draw hope from their recognition of the riddle and from their closing invitation calling:
for respect and care in our community as people from a variety of perspectives hear about this decision. Thank you for extending grace and compassion as we move forward living and learning in community together.
As dean of the seminary division of an EMU now operating within our new hiring policy, I know there is much journeying to be done. We’ll need, at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and EMU, to learn more of what it means to experience our new banquet table. We’ll need to discern how to share what we learn in a wider church still wrestling with who belongs at the table and how.
We’ll need to continue to benefit from insights of those who, whether internally or externally, disagree with our new non-discrimination commitments. In fact, I believe we’ll have succeeded in honoring the spirit of our new policy precisely to the extent we’re able to invite persons who disagree to be among those who experience themselves as part of an “us” tenderly pulling out for them their banquet chair.
And so I am daring to dream toward learning more about Pentecost through this EMU/EMS laboratory within which I’m privileged to serve. During that first wild Pentecost, winds gusting and flames falling, those gathered so trembled in the Holy Spirit that they were thought drunk with wine as a miracle unfolded: tribes from countless nations understood each other across so many divisions in culture and thought and language. Might the winds and flames similarly fall on us as we invite all to Christ’s table?
I don’t want to claim we at EMU and EMS already fully know how to embody Pentecost. Even as, starting in 1917, the shapers of EMU have fervently sought the guidance of the Spirit all along, as frail humans we’ve still only begun to grasp how large the Spirit’s work among us might be. But I do view us as committed to seeking, together, to invite the Spirit to use us as a laboratory for testing how we all take chairs at the table.
Through the EMU Board decision, I see us as making two critical, historic moves:
First, we’re saying not, as we so often have, that all must hold the same LGBTQ-related theology to be at the table; rather, we’re saying that we’ll start with all at the table. Then we’ll continue to wrestle carefully and discerningly — attending to Jesus, Scripture, the core Anabaptist-Mennonite values of MC USA, and insights of the church universal — with how God is speaking amid our varying and sometimes opposing perspectives.
Second, we’re saying that from now on at EMU, those who identify as LGBTQ will not be persons the rest of us talk about and whose presence or absence at the table others make decisions about. From now on persons who identify as LGBTQ will be part of the new EMU “us” we can all now jointly and gently and tenderly form. Even as disagreements in our community will continue and indeed — as befits an institution of higher learning — be treasured, we’ll find our way together into the future of EMU and of EMS within EMU.
I pray that we’ll experience a few more chapters of a Story in which, as Jesus puts it in Luke 14, those who feel most welcome at the table take the lowest place, and those who feel least welcome at the table are in fact invited first.
Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS and EMU, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, a division of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.; vice-president, EMU; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.