s this issue of the EAF Newsletter goes to press, several thousand Mennonites are preparing to meet in St. Louis for the conjoint assembly of the Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC). The last time the two denominations met together, in Wichita in 1995, the delegates agreed to move forward with the idea of a merger of the two groups into a single new denomination. Even the most optimistic merger enthusiasts knew there would be obstacles along the road to what was then called "integration," but most assumed these would be mainly matters of organizational structure and government ("polity"). Then, last fall, a committee assigned to develop guidelines for determining who would be members of the new denomination published its recommendations. Since then, progress toward merger has slowed significantly.
The issue which has brought the integration process in the US to a virtual impasse is homosexuality -- specifically whether congregations who receive practicing homosexuals into membership will be part of the new denomination. Over the past couple of years, several dually-affiliated congregations which receive noncelibate homosexuals as members have been expelled from their MC conferences while maintaining their ties with the GC. Under the terms of the guidelines proposed by the membership committee, these disciplined congregations would become members of the new Mennonite Church by virtue of their GC affiliation, thus negating the effect of the action taken by their respective MC conferences.
The Debate Goes On
The membership committee's proposal provoked a chorus of dissent. As a result, the MC and GC general boards announced plans to convene a special "consultation" to consider the issues raised by the proposal. The consultation's 120 participants represented area conferences, racial/ethnic groups, the general boards, integration-related committees, denominational staff, and five congregations (four in the US and one in Canada) currently under or facing discipline because of their policies toward noncelibate homosexuals. Meeting near Kansas City in March, the consultation produced a list of six somewhat ambiguous "points of agreement." They failed, however, to reach consensus on a solution to the membership question.
In order to complete the merger process for the new Mennonite Church US by the unofficial target date of 2001, MC and GC delegates would need to approve a membership policy at the St. Louis assembly this summer. In April, however, the MC and GC general boards decided to postpone action by US delegates on the membership question for at least two years. At St. Louis, those delegates will receive proposed membership guidelines "as a first reading and for study with action to be taken at a later time to be determined by the Executive Board." (Canadian delegates will vote on the proposal.) Thus the debate will continue.
Why the delay in the US vote? Several conferences, including the largest in the MC, have expressed reservations about joining the new denomination if the membership guidelines currently under review become official policy. Apparently the general boards hope that further discussion will somehow yield a solution that will keep these recalcitrant sheep within the fold and allow those on both sides of the homosexuality question to coexist peacefully in the new denomination.