From where do we derive our value, our worth? From whom? Is it something all people intrinsically know as a fact of human birth, or is it something we are taught, something that must be sheltered and nurtured? When did you win the knowledge of your own worth and beauty, of the goodness of your own body and soul? Who were the people who held you when you were weak and whispered this seed of truth into your open ears until it was planted deep in the soil of your being?
Can this truth ever be stolen?
From social media, I know that many of you have read the recent report of the advisory group on Mennonite Church USA’s Membership Guidelines. (I’ll used the phrase “membership guidelines” to refer just to its third section, which is labelled “Clarification on some issues related to homosexuality and membership.”) I’ve wanted to talk to many of you about the experience of being part of the group that created this report, but it has been tough to find the right words, since so much is wrapped up in this report and my experience with the advisory group: hope for the future of the Mennonite church, exhaustion at the intransigence of anti-queer blindness in the Mennonite church, the power of human connection and vulnerability to open eyes, a faint sense of new possibilities at work, cynical anticipation of the inertia of church institutions to squash new life. It’s hard to hold all of that inside at the same time, and even harder to put into words.
You’ve probably been aware of this guidelines document if you’ve been part of MC USA. Read the history of it in the first section of the advisory group report at the link above; it’s a well-written, eye-opening account of why this curious, ambiguous document even exists. The very short story is: it was the best that the managers of the church could come up with twenty years ago to bring together the predecessor Mennonite denominations while bridging the interests of two groups, those that accepted LGBTQ members and those that refused to be part of a denomination that accepted LGBTQ members. Read the description of those two groups again: those that accepted LGBTQ members and those that refused to be part of a denomination that accepted LGBTQ members. There is, of course, a third group of people at stake in the document: us. LGBTQ Mennonites. The people whose lives, bodies and souls the document is about. It has nothing for us. It’s about us, but it wasn’t written for our own good. The point was never to consider as a community what God’s will, the Spirit’s presence, Christ’s gospel meant for LGBTQ people. It was simply a political compromise with us as an expendable bargaining chip.
This is an experience I’ve had again and again in the broader church during my work in BMC and Pink Menno: as soon as a discussion gets focused on these church documents and policies about LGBTQ people, everyone’s mind suddenly gets to imagining and processing all sorts of political considerations, and LGBTQ people (the actual people) drift further and further from the center of the discussion, until very quickly we’re once again just an abstract (and therefore expendable) object in a story with two main characters, the two “sides” of the church.
In the words of a recent conference minister tasked with carrying out the policy based on these guidelines (which resulted in suspending the credentials of a queer pastor but not those of another pastor in the same church who had performed the wedding of the queer pastor) “obviously, these practices do not express some coherent theological view.”
What has been the legacy of the membership guidelines document? It seems to have failed at its mission, which was to unite those two groups into one denomination. The same two groups still exist: those who accept LGBTQ members and those who refuse to be part of a denomination that accepts LGBTQ members. They are still splintering or hunkering down in the same uneasy, ugly-feeling tension they lived in twenty years ago. What has been the legacy for LGBTQ Mennonites? Our stories are endlessly varied and nuanced, of course, but we’ve commonly felt how expendable we are in this denomination, how so much tension and strife and effort and discussion seems to be about our existence without ever being for our good.
And so we’ve built our own holy places, inside and outside the Mennonite church, together with those have have opened their hearts to our stories and lives. We’ve whispered into each other’s ears words of love and worth, and we’ve proclaimed those words in the open.
So - what is the story of this report, and what does it mean for us and for the denomination? The advisory group was made up of around 24 people from all parts of the denomination. There were five openly LGBTQ people in the group (a number that felt significantly large enough that we could each speak out of our own individual experience), people of different races, parts of the country, theological backgrounds, ages. We spent three full days together at a hotel in Chicago last November. The first day and a half were focused on building and agreeing to values and principles that would guide us in discussion and then building a timeline of church history that allowed us to share a common story as we started to engage with the membership guidelines themselves. We then got to the task of making proposals, grouping them into themes, discussing them, re-writing to reflect group feedback, and crafting the report you can read, with everyone present able to register their level of agreement with each recommendation.
Reflecting on that weekend four months ago, here are some strong impressions still with me:
Our stories and physical presence are a powerful force. For much of the weekend I felt that we were able to constantly remind the group of whose bodies and lives were ultimately at stake in our discussion: those of the most vulnerable LGBTQ people in the church (the youth, the closeted adults, the ones at intersections of multiple marginalized identities.)
I was surprised how people with conservative theologies or representing conservative groups almost all ended up agreeing that the membership guidelines are bad policy and should be retired. I was even more surprised when they all agreed that any new denominational statements or policies on LGBTQ people should include our active participation. Was this just a fleeting openness fostered by the work our group had done that weekend, or did we make some kind of long-lasting impact on them? I have no idea.
I was moved when members of other groups usually marginalized in our culture and church spoke out powerfully and forcefully against anti-LGBTQ policies, and drew connections between the violence they have faced and what LGBTQ people have faced. So often LGBTQ people and people of color are spoken of as separate, opposite groups that “the church” must choose between (as if they aren’t already integral to the church) in deciding on a future. In the advisory group, many people of color offered their stories and voices, without reservation, to support and amplify ours. It felt to me like a sacred gift was being given.
There were moments where a possible future for the church seemed clear, even simple. The guidelines are failed policy and a bad way of doing theology. Let’s stop pretending we can make everyone happy. Let’s stop making decisions in the shadows.
There are some impressive, good people who work for the denomination.
So, please read the report, and all the good words and ideas that we were able to include in it. I honestly don’t know what its fate will be. As we looked at the history of how the Mennonite denominations have grappled with the existence of LGBTQ people, there are very clear patterns: whenever a group has come together, done hard work that included deep interpersonal relating, and written a document for the church about sexuality and/or LGBTQ people, their work has always resulted in what would have been a significant step forward for the time (see the work of the Human Sexuality group in the early 1980s, or the Listening Committee in the early 1990s.) Each of those times, the political structures of the church have suppressed those reports and instead operated out of fear and self-preservation to pass denominational statements devoid of all complexity and humanity (like the Purdue and Saskatoon statements in the mid 1980s, the Confession of Faith sentence on marriage the in mid 1990s, the membership guidelines section 3.)
How will the current MC USA Executive Board, who will ultimately be responsible for deciding which the next steps for the recommendations, engage with this report? I’m waiting to see if one of the key (unanimous) recommendations will be followed: that LGBTQ people be represented at the meetings where these recommendations are discussed. There has already been one executive board meeting where they discussed it, and we were not invited. Were they taking a breath before diving into serious engagement with it, or were they starting the process of burying it? I don’t know. As more meetings happen in the next few months, we’ll learn more.
If you’re interested, I encourage you to engage with the report in the following ways:
Read the whole thing. It’s kind of long, especially the initial history, but it’s engaging and illuminating.
If you’re part of a congregation, bring it to the attention of your congregation - read it and discuss it in a Sunday School class, make copies available, draw people’s attention to it. It can’t have any legacy if no one has reads it or knows about it.
Pay attention in your life wherever you feel you exist in an uneasy status quo, aware of who has to be treated as expendable and worthless in order to preserve some institution or structure. The patterns that created the membership guidelines aren’t unique to Mennonites or church institutions. Let’s untie these knots together.