Choosing to Stay in the Mennonite Church

Last night, our denomination, Mennonite Church Manitoba, met together to discuss the topic that has been causing tension within our body for the past decade or more - same-sex marriages in the church. It was a tense night, a little bit uncomfortable to be honest, but I was reminded once again that meetings like this are one of the biggest reasons why I choose to stay in the Mennonite church.

If you are not familiar with the process that our denomination has engaged in for the past eight years, or the conversations that have been taking place for the past three decades, that’s okay. I plan to write a blog sometime in this new year as a resource for those who are curious about what that process has been and who want to engage it in their own study.

The abbreviated version of that (soon to be) blog post is that after much study, prayer, discussion, and discernment, we, as Mennonite churches in Canada have decided to revert back to our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995) as our guide for interpreting Scripture when it comes to relationships and marriage. However (and this is a huge however), we have also decided that we will provide space for those congregations within our body who have come to a different understanding than the interpretation of our confession of faith. 

It’s no secret that several congregations in our conference have chosen to become affirming of same-sex unions, have married same-sex partners, and have hired same-sex married pastors. As a conference that is built on the belief that it is the role of the community (not a few leaders at the top) to discern these situations together, we decided, this past summer, that we would allow space for those congregations who have moved in that direction.

In essence, we have decided that unity in the midst of disagreement is vitally important to us. We already disagree on so many things, and to elevate this issue to the point of making it foundational to give us license to break fellowship with one another, would be a sin. Of course we mourn those people and congregations on both sides of the spectrum who have decided to leave their church and conference because they simply could not worship with people who disagreed with them on this issue. That is a sad reality of not doing another conference-wide split.

Last night, we gathered as members of our Mennonite churches to continue the conversation. We have already decided that we would provide space for disagreement, and our focus was on what that space would look like. We had reflections and guidance from some of our leaders, small group discussion and plenary discussion as well. I went to the meeting expecting some kind of drama, and I was not disappointed. 

Things were said that rubbed me the wrong way. There was open disagreement and some people were cut off from what they wanted to say. There were some who decided to speak on issues we decided at the start we were going to avoid (because that was not the purpose of our meeting). As I left the meeting, I left uneasy and bothered. I left like I didn’t get all my questions answered. I left like some of us in the room where just miles apart. I realized that we have a lot more work yet to do.

Those kinds of meeting almost always have me reflecting as I drive home and try to go to sleep. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that as uncomfortable as that meeting was, meetings like this are one of the reasons why I choose to stay in the Mennonite church. I never planned to become a Mennonite, and when I first joined my church, I didn’t understand why they did things a certain way. But as I learned our Mennonite history and congregational polity, I fell in love with this way of doing church. This meeting reminded me of some of those points.

  1. Everyone is allowed space and a voice. As a priesthood of all believers, we believe that we all have equal access to God and that everyone’s voice is important. Whenever we make big decisions, we rely on the community as a whole to work through it. Everyone is invited into the space and collectively we hear the voice of God. We not only want each other to be involved, we need each other.
  2. Disagreement is okay. Although the Mennonite church is not immune to division, our commitment to unity in the midst of disagreement makes us a beautiful and diverse mosaic. Choosing to love and respect each other, even when we disagree on the topic of same-sex marriage, is a powerful testament to our common faith in Jesus Christ.
  3. We don’t know all the answers. The only reason why we have been talking about this issue for so long is that there is good evidence and arguments on both sides. It’s a complex topic and we are not going to magically know it all. At our meeting, that was clearly evident. We need each other so that we can learn from one another. Dividing from people who are different from you also means you can no longer learn from them or vice versa. Instead of dividing, let’s continue the conversation. We have a lot more to learn.

Being the church is messy work. No one ever said it wouldn’t or shouldn’t be. I can see how someone would leave our meeting yesterday and say “This is too much. Why don’t we just leave our conference and do our own thing?” I can understand that. Being the church on the local, regional, national, and global level isn’t easy. Just look back into history and see how many times we split, not only churches but also each other. Literally. We killed people who disagreed with us.

I am happy to be a part of a church body that puts on meetings that make me uncomfortable. I am blessed to be a part of a community that values my voice as well as the voices of our diverse group. I am heart-broken for the people on both sides of the debate who have been hurt by what we, as a church, have done (or not done). And I am committed to walking together in unity as a church in the midst of disagreement as we continue to discern together. 

“How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!”
Psalm 133:1