May 09, 2021
Acts 10:44-48

Before I offer the words I have to share with you today, I want to speak directly to my fellow beloved community members who identify as LGBTQIA. The story I am about to explore is the history, present, and future of the Membership Guidelines of MCUSA. These guidelines have upheld false and harmful teachings about our beings. If you are not in a place to listen to that today – please know I fully support your needs and I send you forth with love and celebration of who you are and gratitude for your persistent presence in this body!! If you are able to stick around, I pray that in the midst of naming a history that has been confusing and painful to us you will also hear words of hope and joy in the presence and ongoing work for justice and denominational  transformation.

With that said, travel back in time with me, for a moment, to 1999. We are in St Louis at a joint gathering of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church – two Mennonite institutions that have been conversing about the possibility of merging into one body for the past 10 years and working on that merger since the official approval of that idea in 1995. Here at this gathering, in 1999, the merger is finalized and two entities: Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) [the denomination we currently belong to] and Mennonite Church Canada are birthed into infancy.

We should qualify that word ‘finalized’ here – because these truly are infant organizations with lots to learn and figure out about how they are going to take shape and live into the world. At this point, we’ll leave the Mennonite Church Canada trajectory for a different day of exploration and follow the early days of Mennonite Church USA.

You see, as soon as it was born, there was tension in MCUSA – right there at the 1999 gathering in St Louis when the merger was approved and all was expected to move forward into a new and exciting stage for the church – a complication arose. There were several congregations that had been dual members of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church and each of those congregations had been disciplined by one of the bodies but not the other on the grounds of welcoming LGBTQ folks into membership. How would the new body – the one body of MCUSA treat these congregations? The membership guidelines of the new denomination did not adequately address this question and so they were not passed and the merger stalled.

For two years folks discussed and debated this question – who gets to say who belongs and who is not allowed to belong?

Travel back even further in time with me to the early days of life amidst Jesus followers after his ascension and listen again to the scripture from Acts 10:44-48

Peter had not finished speaking these words when the Holy Spirit descended upon all who were listening to the message. The Jewish believers who had accompanied Peter were surprised that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also, whom they could hear speaking in tongues and glorifying God.

Then Peter asked, “What can stop these people who have received the Holy Spirit, even as we have, from being baptized with water?” So he gave orders that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Turns out these questions of who we expect to belong and who we don’t are ages old! Here we see another institution in another time and place hard at work figuring out what the future would look like for them and being surprised when the future doesn’t play by the same rules the past has relied on. We humans seem to have the ability to settle into patterns of belief, acceptance, and behavior that create a comfortable status quo – comfortable, that is, for those who hold sway in how those patterns are established.

In the case of the early church, a Jewish community, the surprise comes in the form of the Holy Spirit being poured out on Gentiles. The way of Jesus has led this community to a crossroads that joins their path with the paths of Gentiles, a community that they have shared geography with while maintaining spiritual distance from. Yet here, in this moment, God’s own Spirit has been poured out into all those who are gathered together, Jew and Gentile alike, challenging expectations and opening every person to a new experience.

And, God bless Peter, he seems to have a handle on this unexpected opportunity – instead of trying to reign in the Spirit and preserve the distinction of Jew and Gentile he extends hospitality.

“What can stop these people who have received the Holy Spirit, even as we have, from being baptized with water?”   

What can stop people who have received the Holy Spirit from becoming full members of the community of Christ? It turns out, in the case of MCUSA, formalized Membership Guidelines can significantly squash hospitality and welcome. Travel with me now to the year 2001 where we find ourselves once again at a Mennonite convention – this time in Nashville, TN where the delegate body receives a revised set of Membership Guidelines that includes three sections in an attempt to draw the body into agreement and be able to move forward with the newly merged denomination of MCUSA.

The first and second sections of the membership guidelines contain much of the same content as the original guidelines that had failed to be approved in 1999. The first section lays out a scriptural basis for membership. The second section lays out the expectation for the polity and practice of membership in MCUSA. And a newly added third section is entitled: Clarification on some issues related to homosexuality and membership.

In an attempt to draw everyone together into a neat package of merged identity, while still trying to keep people happy by creating clear cut lines of division that declared what the new church would and would not approve of, section 3 of the membership guidelines was born. It basically states that, in the church and in our country, there are diverse approaches to understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ people. That the church knows it is a human institution and makes mistakes but that it is trying its best to be God’s people in the world and as such, it will hold the views expressed in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective from 1995 as its teaching position – that marriage is between one man and one woman, that sex is reserved for marriage, and that anything outside of those boundaries is sin. It says that as a church we should continue to be in dialogue about our differing opinions on this matter. And it also tacks on a sentence at the end stating that credentialed pastors may not perform same-sex covenant ceremonies (legal marriage for same-sex couples wasn’t yet a thing in this land) and that if they do, they would be subject to a review of their credentials by the conference. [I should also add here that the documents do not explicitly state that queer folks cannot be credentialed pastors – but the underlying assumption of banning credentialed leaders from performing same-sex marriages seemed to be that if people were participants in a same-sex union they also wouldn’t qualify for credentials or pastoral leadership.]

No one was fully thrilled with this addition to the membership guidelines – and yet it seemed to smooth things over enough for those who weren’t queer and those who were afraid of queer folks to be acceptable in maintaining a status quo that they could live with. This set of Membership Guidelines was approved, setting the stage for MCUSA to officially become itself in early 2002. There was a caveat included that the membership guidelines would be reviewed in 2007 to see how they were working for the church – for guidelines, by definition, are supposed to be useful tools.

Flash forward to 2007 when that review was initiated by the Constituency Leadership Council, a group made up of representatives from across the denomination. It turns out that 6 years later, the church still had a variety of viewpoints and practices on the welcome and inclusion of LGBTQ people. As a local example, HMC was put under discipline with the conference in 2005 for welcoming LGBTQ people into full membership – a practice it had been living out since the mid 80s. Our discipline was brought about by concerns brought to the conference by another congregation which was not at all open to LGBTQ people being participants in the church. These diverse viewpoints and membership practices made the review process difficult and so no review at all was actually completed on the usefulness of the Membership Guidelines.

In that local example you can begin to see how these policies, which were patched together to create a neat merger package, were super complicated for LGBTQ people who were part of, or trying to be part of, the Mennonite Church. And this still remains true to this day – across MCUSA we have church communities of inclusion that fully welcome and affirm the presence, gifts, and membership of LGBTQ people. There are church communities that welcome but do not overtly affirm the LGBTQ people in their midst. And there are church communities in our denomination that are overtly hostile towards the presence, participation, and even the idea, of LGBTQ people.

As you might imagine, this is particularly complicated for LGBTQ people who desire to be part of the body of Christ that is MCUSA. I cannot speak for all LGBTQ folx as we are each individuals who experience this journey in our own ways with our own histories, trauma, resilience practices and so on – but I can say that the Membership Guidelines as they exist to this day have lost the church many beloved members who would otherwise have joyfully and richly participated in the body. And for those who have found a way to stick around – it is often still quite painful to realize that, while we may have found pockets of community that welcome and embrace our presence in the church, the institution itself still preserves a status quo that is demeaning and dehumanizing to us as individuals.

Blessedly, the number of communities within MCUSA that see this status quo as something that is unjust and unholy is growing and growing – thanks in part to the work of several groups within the denomination. The Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests has been at work since the late 70s (before exclusion was even codified into our documents!) offering education, support, and a voice speaking for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church. The Inclusive Mennonite Pastors of MCUSA is a group of pastors and lay leaders who rally around work to bring justice and inclusion into the practices and polity of MCUSA. Cindy was a founding member of the Inclusive Pastors group and served on the leadership team for many years. More recently, I have joined the Inclusive Pastors leadership team to help continue to work for queer justice across the denomination. Pink Menno is a group of folks – including significant queer representation that has employed creative activism, particularly at deniminational gatherings to witness to the presence of the beloved bodies of LGBTQ people in the church and to call out the harm the church’s policies have inflicted on those bodies. Local congregations have found ways to live out welcome and extend hospitality to all people regardless of the membership guidelines.

And all of this led to a push at the 2015 MCUSA Convention in Kansas City to pass a resolution that called for forbearance in the practice of the church – meaning that the church as a whole still does not agree on whether LGBTQ people should be welcomed into membership but that those who hold explicit view points of either welcome or rejection should forbear with each other and let the other live out their belief in practice however they feel called in their local context. This resolution passed with strong support – and it felt like a small win for queer folx and queer allies. A small win that was quickly followed by a confusing act by those same delegates to reaffirm the Membership Guidelines which keep queer people at the margins of the status quo.

That reaffirmation of the Membership Guidelines was done to desperately hold the denomination together. The merger, which began on rocky footing, was increasingly unstable, especially where Queer justice was concerned and when conferences started credentialing pastors in same-sex relationships the system seemed on the verge of collapse. Denominational leadership once again looked to the reaffirmation of the Membership Guidelines as a way to keep the peace – to hold the group together in false harmony. While this seemed to appease some communities – other conferences were unhappy about having to forbear with those whom they disagreed, and so they left anyway. Much like, when HMC was welcomed back into membership in Allegheny Conference in 2015 many other congregations left the conference, fearing that their own identity would be tainted by official association with us.

The landscape of the church shifted and leadership has had to continue to consider what these Membership Guidelines mean to the institution. The reaffirmation of the guidelines in 2015 included a moratorium on adapting or changing those guidelines for 4 years. We have now passed that 4 year mark and so the conversation is up in the air again. In light of the diversity of practices across the denomination regarding the inclusion of people who are LGBTQ, and in light of the forbearance resolution that was passed in 2015 that allows congregations to practice whatever is determined best in their local context – it doesn’t make sense for the Membership Guidelines to remain as they are. [Not to mention that in our polity structure membership is held at the conference level and not through the denomination so there really aren’t reasons for the denomination to have membership guidelines at all.] And so the executive leadership of MCUSA has become increasingly open to a shift in guidelines – and not just a shift – a retirement of them in full.

Enter the work of the Inclusive Pastors leadership team – a group of folks who continue to be committed to queer justice in the policies and practices of the church. The Inclusive Pastors saw this moment of opportunity as a moment for the church to not only shift the status quo away from excluding LGBTQIA people, but to openly acknowledge and repent of the harm that the the church has caused through it’s anti-queer policies and practices. They drafted a resolution entitled: Resolution for Repentance and Transformation and have submitted it to the Resolutions Committee of MCUSA which reviews submitted resolutions and determines whether to pass them through to the delegates as resolutions for consideration for action or topics for further study.

The Inclusive Pastor’s resolution is bold and prophetic and it calls the church to rescind the membership guidelines in partnership with confession, repentance, and truth-telling. It names the violence and harm that LGBTQIA people have experienced through the church’s exclusionary practices. It affirms the full status and worth of LGBTQIA people as part of God’s beloved community. It cries out for justice and makes space for LGBTQIA people to become fully celebrated participants in the church. And it turns out it has been hard for some people to read. It was hard for me to read when I first encountered it because it tapped into some deep truths in my own experience of balancing welcome and exclusion in the context of the church. And it has been hard for other people across the church to read because it calls for an accountability of exclusion that many people are not ready or willing to own up to because they don’t believe it to be a problem and are not ready to shift the status quo as it has been.

And while denominational leadership is ready to let the Membership Guidelines go, they are still working pretty hard to maintain a sense of peace among the diversity of opinions around LGBTQIA inclusion. The Executive Board has drafted a resolution that simply retires the membership guidelines without owning responsibility for the exclusion that has been experienced by LGBTQIA people. And while getting rid of the membership guidelines is a needed step on the path towards transformation and queer justice – to do so by quietly retiring them is unfortunately also a path that could lead towards a nice and tidy bypassing of truth-telling and justice.

It is still unclear what the path will be ahead in terms of how the membership guidelines of MCUSA will come to an end. While we know for sure that the Executive Board’s resolution to retire the guidelines will go to delegates for action at a special session to be held next year, the resolutions committee is still deliberating on what to do with the Inclusive Pastor’s resolution and so we don’t know whether that will be given to the delegates to consider, or even offered up for further study, or simply abandoned.

No matter how that process unfolds, truth-telling and accountability will eventually need to be part of the path for MCUSA if queer justice is to be acheived. I have little doubt that the denomination as a whole is not ready to accept ownership of the pain that LGBTQIA people have experienced under the exclusionary policies of the church – I just don’t think the church is ready to own up to that at this point. And yet, I am choosing to cling to hope that, even if we cannot pass the Inclusive Pastor’s resolution at this time and choose to simply retire the guidelines, I trust that transformation and truth-telling will be part of the path for the denomination eventually. This was the case for Hyattsville and Allegheny Conference – when we were welcomed back in – it was not with apology and ownership, or even acknowledgement, of any pain our congregation had experienced – and yet, with ongoing relationship and effort we have come to a place where we, as a conference, have invited and made space for truth-telling as a conference and we are all the stronger for it.

The status quo of division and exclusion that the membership guidelines of MCUSA has faithfully upheld is not life-giving. It has attempted to create a sense of identity by keeping LGBTQIA folks at the margins for the sake of the comfort of those not willing to extend hospitality to those they have labeled as other. This is not so different from the experience of the early church when all of a sudden Gentiles were experiencing the outpouring of God’s Spirit in addition to the Jewish community. Yet, thanks to Peter’s willingness to speak out for inclusion, the early church opened itself to the opportunity of new life made possible in connecting beyond fears and expectations. Theologian Willie James Jennings reflects on the gifts of that transformation like this: “As Acts 10 makes clear, there is a “joining of Jew and Gentile” in the outpouring of God’s Spirit. This does not result in a betraying of identity, but it does prohibit any notion [of God’s love] that maintains the status quo. In Jenning’s words, “in the home of a centurion, a rip in the fabric of space and time has occurred…that will open up endless new possibilities of life with others.”

As we travel the path ahead with or without the Membership Guidelines of MCUSA in place – may we commit to and open ourselves up to the endless possibilities of life that come when we lean into the Spirit of God’s love, justice, and connection for all people.