At the beginning of this month, I had the pleasure of going to “Ex-Mennonite, Near Mennonite: Liturgical, Non-denominational, Secular,” a conference hosted by the Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg (one of the perks of living in Winnipeg again!). Though it might seem like a strange fit for someone like me who considers myself committed to remaining within and contributing to the Mennonite church, I actually found it very interesting. It provided a window into why some people choose to leave the Mennonite church or feel excluded from it – which I think is closely related to why people join or stay, too!
I won’t summarize the presentations here, but I wanted to reflect on two major themes which the presenters touched upon. One idea that came up over and over was the Mennonite impulse to belong to larger groups; I guess this amounts to a kind of restlessness or dissatisfaction with belonging to the Mennonite minority. Presenters talked about or were ex-Mennonites who have joined more “high church” or liturgical traditions (Catholic, Anglican, etc.), or, on the other hand, who have joined more evangelical traditions (such as “non-denominational,” prosperity-gospel models of church – sometimes achieved just by dropping “Mennonite” from a church’s name!). Interestingly, I would say that these impulses toward more liturgical or more evangelical streams of Christianity can be found within the Mennonite church as well. There is an ongoing argument among Mennonite theologians and historians over whether our tradition is more “Catholic” or more of a radical version of Protestantism – some even argue that it’s both, or neither! This shows that even Mennonite “insiders” have and continue to try to define ourselves using the terms of larger, more well-known groups, and to struggle with the distinctiveness of the Mennonite tradition. The ongoing challenge, in my view, is to reinterpret and make this distinctiveness our own – including, for instance, Mennonite peace theology, which is often one of the reasons people leave the Mennonite church.
A second issue which was really clear to me is all the work that remains to be done surrounding gender and sexuality in the Mennonite church, and even in Mennonite scholarship. Though discussions of gender focused on queer or LGBT experiences, there were other, unacknowledged brushes with feminist gender concerns, too. I noticed that during the discussion on “high church” Mennonites, those who had joined Roman Catholicism were men, whereas the woman on the panel had joined Anglicanism. I wondered if it was a coincidence or whether women generally wouldn’t be as willing to join the Catholic tradition because it still doesn’t ordain women as priests, whereas the Anglican church does? A second example is the strong critique that continues to be leveled against Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver by others in his field. What these critics rarely acknowledge is that Weaver is one of only a handful of Mennonite theologians who is engaging in serious dialogue with feminist and womanist theologians (theologians who emphasize women’s experience). I have to wonder how much of the discomfort with Weaver’s work stems from this, whether consciously or not. And though I didn’t agree with the generalization of all Mennonites as equally exclusive of LGBT folks, I did find that the two presentations on “Gender Non-Conforming Mennonites” raised some really challenging questions, such as: Why do so many Mennonite institutions continue to speak about “homosexuality” instead of LGBTQ questions (a stance which refuses to let queer people name their own identities)? In what ways are LGBT Mennonites deemed “unintelligible” and therefore excluded from Mennonite identity? How does Mennonite identity tend to produce tension between the individual and the community, for LGBT people and others?
At the end of the conference, I was left contemplating the idea suggested by the title of the conference. In one sense, I don’t feel the need to mourn ex-Mennonites, or to think that they should’ve remained within the Mennonite community – we are, after all, a community which is joined by adult baptism, a voluntary community. While I don’t agree with all the reasons why people leave, I think it’s important that they do so if they choose. But that’s just the thing. I remain troubled by “near” Mennonites, if I’m understanding that right, since among them are those who want to be Mennonites but are in some sense excluded. In other words, some “near” Mennonites don’t necessarily choose to leave the Mennonite community, but are driven to do so through being made to feel that they don’t belong. That, to me, isn’t what it means to be a voluntary community; instead, it’s something that needs to be acknowledged and addressed by the Mennonite church – at least if we want to continue claiming that we are a community guided by the call to love neighbour and enemy alike.