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To the Point . . .

St. Louis 99: Trouble In River City

Afternoon temperatures soared beyond the 100-degree mark as delegates from the Mennonite Church, the General Conference Mennonite Church, and the Conference of Mennonites in Canada met in conjoint General Assembly in St. Louis, July 23-27. They listened to lengthy reports on the extensive work that has been done over the past two years in preparation for the merger which is designed to "transform" these three existing groups into one new denomination with two national identities, the Mennonite Church USA and the Mennonite Church Canada. They gave their approval to the legal and administrative procedures required to bring the new denomination into existence. But when time came for US delegates to discuss the divisive issue of membership in the new denomination, tension ran high, and the emotional "temperature" inside the air-conditioned meeting hall rivaled that on the street outside. To quote one Mennonite Church delegate, the Assembly "ended on a sour note," highlighting the serious obstacles yet to be overcome if merger is to become a reality by the target date of 2001.

That "sour note" had to do with the question of whether congregations that receive practicing homosexuals as members will themselves be eligible for membership in the new denomination. (For a full discussion of this matter, see the Spring 1999 issue of the EAF Newsletter.) A "membership committee" had proposed guidelines for congregational membership in the new Mennonite Church which, if adopted, would pave the way for area conferences to receive such congregations, despite the official statements, including the new Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, which declare homosexual activity sinful and inappropriate for Christians. Canadian delegates approved the guidelines with a 95% favorable vote.

Denominational leaders had hoped to avoid a vote by US delegates, recommending, instead, that the guidelines be received as a "first reading and for study with action to be taken at a later time." Many delegates believed that such a delay would not be helpful and might even prove counterproductive. Representing this point of view, delegates from the Pacific Southwest Conference introduced a resolution calling for immediate acceptance of the proposed membership guidelines. A two-thirds vote of both MC and GC delegates was required for passage of the resolution. The GC vote was 79% in favor, but the favorable vote in the MC was only 45%. The resolution failed. Delegates then adopted the General Boards' original resolution and voted to postpone final action on the question of membership until a later date, probably at the General Assembly in 2001.

After the vote to delay action on the membership question, the Resolutions Committee brought forward a resolution sponsored by a member of the MC General Board. It called upon delegates to "reaffirm our faith statements' teaching that sexual relations are reserved for a man and a woman in marriage." (The resolution was thoughtfully worded and introduced to the Assembly through appropriate channels. Its purpose, in large measure, was to address the concerns of minority groups such as the African-American Mennonite Association, the Hispanic Mennonite Convention and the United Native Ministries, all of whom strongly opposed the membership guidelines.) Following an all-too-brief period of spirited discussion, delegates voted on the resolution. It passed the MC with a favorable vote of 72% but ultimately failed when only 47% of GC delegates voted in favor of the resolution.

During an open forum following the vote, many who had voted against the resolution defended their vote on the grounds that they opposed the procedure and saw the resolution as an unnecessary addition to the existing official statements. Those explanations rang hollow, especially from persons who had previously exhorted the delegates to trust each other more and fear each other less. In defeating this resolution, delegates, especially those who voted against it even though it expressed their personal convictions, missed a great opportunity to allay fears and build trust. And so, after five very expensive days in St. Louis, the General Assembly adjourned, leaving the most important question affecting the MC/GC merger unresolved and plunging the denominations into another two years of frustrating discussions and ultimately futile negotiations.

The dictionary defines irony as "incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the expected result." Proponents of merger expected that two denominations within a common tradition could, through compromise, concession, and conciliation, overcome their differences and meld into a single new entity. That goal was effectively thwarted when, instead of a single, bi-national denomination as originally proposed, leaders presented a plan, which the delegates approved, for a bifurcated body to be known as the Mennonite Church USA and the Mennonite Church Canada. Now further division looms over the issue of membership. A process designed to bring two groups together has resulted in dissension and disunity. Talk about irony.

For the past forty years the MC/GC leadership has ignored (or has encouraged) the growing influence of theological liberalism and, more recently, post-modernism on the denominations. The current flap over homosexuality and church membership is the direct result of that influence. It is not the most serious, long-term effect. (That will be seen later when the subtle changes in attitude toward the Bible, the person and work of Christ, and the nature of sin and salvation become more blatant.) But it is an issue people feel strongly about, whether or not they understand the theological and spiritual factors which have caused it. And because it is a theological issue which affects people viscerally, it will not go away.

Because the differences which divide MC/GC Mennonites arise from mutually-exclusive underlying presuppositions, they will not be resolved by further discussion. It is time to recognize that our differences are irreconcilable. Wrangling over the issue of homosexuality has exhausted our patience, frayed our nerves, and depleted our spiritual energy. Lacking courage and/or convictions, our leadership has failed us. They have allowed us to play into the hands of our Adversary, the Devil, who must be thrilled to see us devoting so much time to useless debate. In the meantime, the work of the kingdom is impeded while we try to find ways to accommodate perspectives at odds with each other. Even if the MC/GC were to arrive at some compromise acceptable to all those on opposing sides of the current debate (and I cannot imagine such a thing), underlying differences will emerge later in the form of other issues such as those alluded to above.

For the sake of the work of the Kingdom of God, and in the interest of faithfulness and wise stewardship of time, energy and resources, it is time to consider some drastic alternatives to the existing situation. I pray that God will raise up articulate leaders, marked by humility and godliness, who can guide us out of this morasse and into a fresh experience of evangelical Anabaptist Christianity. It is time for something new.

Eric Kouns -- Harrisonburg, Virginia

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