As someone who wants to be part of a denomination that remains publicly and essentially committed to only affirming marriage as the union between a man and a woman for life, I am interested in hearing more from those who are advocating unity amidst diversity around our understanding of marriage. There are significant hurdles to overcome for that kind of unity.
I grew up in an Amish Mennonite home. When I became an adult, I was the most “liberal” of my siblings. If my siblings and I had decided to do the kinds of things together that denominations do, our relationships would have been fractured and broken. However, we did not. We had great family gatherings and I had to make a decision if I wanted to maintain these relationships. I chose to respect my siblings and not impose my perspective on their children. We remained family even as we had separate households and different views about living the Christian life. I knew the damage it would do to the relationship if I decided to go on the offensive to try to convert them to my perspective. There were also times I spoke up because of what I consider justice issues, but I recognized and accepted that the relationship would be affected and gave space accordingly.
In Mennonite Church USA, there are a number of ways we are quite far apart. At the same time, we need not try to stop each other from taking different paths if these differences cannot be overcome.
Opposing views of justice. Our opposing views of the nature of God’s shalom pull us in very different directions. One perspective gives greater weight to internal desire and orientation, the other places greater emphasis on costly discipleship and openness to transformation. These are not just about a disagreement about how grace should be given, it is about what the church blesses and affirms as good and holy.
The use of subterfuge and protest. With the embrace of social activism within the church, the way we do church together has significantly changed. As I understand it from those who affirm same-sex marriage, they believe that damage is done to those who identify as LGBTQ by the official teaching of the church and that certain actions are morally necessary to aid in the rescue of young people from their more conservative parents and churches. This includes the presence of quiet allies who use their positions of leadership in churches and institutions to subvert the values the organization claims to hold. It means that official church events are marked by demonstrations and sing-ins and protests. It means that church leaders on the left publicly use labels like ignorant, homophobic, extremist, and hate-filled to describe those who disagree. And as I've said before, it means that there are professors in our colleges that are committed to creating classroom and campus environments that are openly hostile to the church’s perspective on marriage. While I understand the impetus and the beliefs that drive this perspective, I also see the damage it does to relationships. I recognize that those who affirm gay marriage have also experienced harmful ways of relating from people who disagree with them. Without resorting to blaming or deciding which side has done the most wrong, the point is that relationships have been characterized by actions that do not convey a commitment to integrity, honesty, and true dialogue.
The need for well-defined leaders. Edwin Friedman, in A Failure of Nerve, articulates the nature of the challenge we are facing in our culture and leadership. The culture wars have made taking a well-defined stand something that comes at great cost. As a result, leaders can easily focus on the managing competing interests rather helping clarify and even amplify the perspective of the organization. From a systems perspective, the abandonment of this role enlarges the voices on the edge and provides no opportunity for the community to rally around the voice of the gathered community. As Mennonites, we hold tightly to the ideal that we can regulate toxic voices through reasonableness and consensus, but are less willing to face the reality that sometimes things will still break apart anyway. We try to hold everything together for too long and allow too much irreparable damage to be done. We become caught up in the mess of managing competing interests rather than drumming up the nerve to clearly articulate a vision for moving forward, a vision that is not just about the process or celebrating diversity.
The changing meaning of Mennonite. In my community in Goshen, there seems to be a tight marriage of the political left and many of our Mennonite leaders. As a result, the word Mennonite has changed significantly for those in our community. The nuances of how we understand our commitment to peace, our perspective on a larger government role, our commitment to the unborn, and our thoughts about affirming same-sex marriage are some of these shifts. This is not the way most Anabaptists or Mennonites would understand their self-identity around the world.
We are called to be family, in the best sense of the word. Family is not the same as institutional loyalty or maintaining households together. We have not really been one denomination even after we merged, and perhaps the battle to keep us all together is the wrong path.
Our church agencies and schools cannot continue to try to straddle the fence and have the public relations office communicate one perspective while hiring policies, campus environment, and key leaders carry a different perspective. I am hopeful there can be a commitment to openness and honesty. If agencies and schools want to serve all the parts of the church, the current way of doing that is not adequate and does not honor our long-standing belief in Jesus’ challenge to speak simply and without duplicity.
We need leaders who will either help us overcome the hurdles above or help us separate well. This should be done in ways that are respectful of diverse viewpoints and seek out the best in the other. We need leaders who help us live into what we perceive as our strengths and calling. Rather than trying to stop each other, let’s release each other, fully and completely, even if that means branching out in separate directions.
-John M Troyer