The welcome offered at the communion table on Jan. 20 at Hope Mennonite Church signalled the congregation’s arrival at a significant milestone on what has been a long, winding and sometimes painful journey.
“We celebrate because God is at work,” said pastor Lynell Bergen. “When God is at work, sometimes the tables have to be turned over. We celebrate our commitment to the Jesus story, the story of welcoming all God’s people, the broken ones, the ones full of laughter and singing, and all those of us in between. . . . Welcome to this holy table.”
In particular, the church welcomed the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered/queer (LGBTQ) Christian community, along with a number of visitors from other Mennonite Church Manitoba congregations.
“We needed to go on this journey together,” said Eric Stutzman, chair of Hope’s Steering Committee. “We didn’t start out knowing where it would lead us.”
Since its inception in 1988, the congregation has wrestled with welcoming those on the margins of society. A more intentional process of dialogue, education and discernment began in 2005 because of a growing discomfort in the congregation.
“We had wonderful people who were part of our church leave because they could not be fully themselves or fully affirmed,” explained Stutzman.
At the same time, there were those who had concerns about how this might impact the congregation’s relationship with the larger Mennonite church. “To be so tentative was perhaps convenient for the congregation, but it was less than fully supportive of LGBTQ people, even hurtful,” reads the Hope Mennonite Church Statement of Consensus on LGBTQ Welcome and Affirmation, passed by the congregation on Nov. 11, 2012.
The journey involved a series of consensus-building sessions, including education about LGBTQ terminology, exploring how LGBTQ Christians experience the church, understanding Scripture and many opportunities to process this in small- and large-group settings. Throughout, the Bible was foundational in congregational discussions.
“For us, it is clear that Scripture passages which refer to LGBTQ issues must be understood within the context in which they were written,” states the consensus document. “In doing so, we follow the example of Jesus, who consistently challenged the traditional holiness and purity codes . . . just as the prophets had previously challenged traditional understandings.
“Hope Mennonite Church desires to follow Jesus’ example of welcoming all people to God’s table. In our context, this includes welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and affirming their full participation in the life of our church.”
“We want to express honestly who we are and we do not want to draw lines in the sand,” said Stutzman. “We see ourselves as a multi-faceted congregation struggling with all kinds of issues. This is only one important part of who we are. We want to be honest and open and transparent.”
“Hope Mennonite has been gracious and candid with their processes and conversations,” said Ken Warkentin, executive director of MC Manitoba. “We are deeply grateful for their transparency and their humility. Obviously, there is some tension between our official position in the Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective and Hope’s current position.
“Our board will maintain Being the Faithful Church (BFC) as the primary tool to discern God’s will in many matters including ones of sexuality,” he added. “We will continue in this conversation that Mennonite Church Canada started a few years ago with the understanding that at some point we will address specifically the biblical passages regarding human sexuality in the context of the political and social climate we find ourselves in now.”
Hope Mennonite is not the only congregation in MC Manitoba that is having conversations around this issue, according to Warkentin.
“Our hope and intention is to remain a part of MC Manitoba. We see ourselves in ‘substantial agreement’ with the Confession of Faith,” said Stutzman. “We very clearly see ourselves rooted in the Anabaptist Mennonite perspective and theology, and feel we are probably in as much ‘substantial agreement’ as any congregation, for example, with the practice of open communion.”
“I’m not sure much is going to be different now,” said Stutzman after the service, “but we can truly say to LGBTQ Christians, you are welcome here. You have a place at God’s table.”