“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16).
There is so much handwringing going on in Mennonite circles about same-sex relationships, the threat to church unity and the possibility of raised voices, that we are forgetting the point. We have been confronted for several decades by people who, by their very presence, ask whether the church will embrace them not just as individuals but as couples. They have grown old waiting for our response. Our deliberations have grown tired.
I am not advocating a particular answer, but pointing to the proper question. Not: “How will we weather this storm?” “How will we manage this conflict?” “How will we avoid division?” Rather: “How shall we respond to these couples who have challenged us by the fact of their relationships?”
And there really is more than one legitimate answer. One may be to advocate celibacy for gays, lesbians and unmarried heterosexuals. Another would open the institution of marriage to same-sex couples. Either could generate conflict and division.
But recall that Anabaptism itself began with a question that shattered the church. In 1525, George Blaurock asked to be baptized upon confession of faith. Conrad Grebel responded with an act that set “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother,” and turned the predecessors of Mennonites into hunted fugitives. One wonders where Mennonites would be now if the question of baptism had instead triggered a season of discernment.
This is not to say that how we deliberate is of no importance. Should we offer counsel with humility? Absolutely! Should we consider contrary counsel with seriousness and respect? Of course! Ironically, the Mennonite establishment’s dedication to notions of discernment, consensus and reconciliation has inhibited counsel, humble or otherwise, and precluded a forum where opposing views can be aired and debated.
Proponents of consensus cannot help but aspire to a moment when everyone is saying the same thing. The temptation and the practice in Mennonite circles is to structure conversation to discourage public statements that generate dispute. The classic exercise is to fragment discussion into multiple table groups. The theory: We thus place value on each and every voice. The practice: We muffle what needs to be said and mute the debate by compartmentalizing conversation.
Strong, intense or angry voices are constrained within a small circle, and the participant designated to report to the larger group presents a summary of “what was discussed” that, in an effort to represent every voice in the table group, is unable to properly advance any position.
“Motherhood statements” are the norm—proposals crafted to which nobody can object. Motions that could generate dispute are deferred as long as possible in the hope of “moving the community” to a point where it is ready to accept the suggestion with a shrug. Unfortunately, the effect is to paralyze the institution during exactly those times when decision is most important. The shrinking number of contrarian voices are muffled by the process, or worn out by it, until overwhelmed by the tide of a new Canadian social consensus.
Ultimately, we may anticipate that congregations will be encouraged to each set their own course in a kind of “you’re okay, I’m okay” mentality. The final irony: By prioritizing conflict management and consensus over responding directly to same-sex couples, the Mennonite church will have fractured itself in fact, while maintaining the facade of institutional unity.
So what is to be done? Consider the following:
- Sometimes conviction demands protest. This applies both to those who consider the past position of the church on same-sex relationships to be an affront to the neighbour, and to those who see the recent trajectory of openness as an exclusion of God from the realm of sexual morality. Either side may conclude that conscience requires separation, even if only temporarily, from a community that has lost its way.
- Re-conceptualize voting. Voting is not about determining who wins. It is about every participant agreeing on how to lose. It is the procedural version of being subject to one another. All voters consent to the notion that the vote will govern, even if things do not go their way. Voting is systematic humility.
- Voting confers dignity to dissent. The risk of consensus decisions is that pressure to conform can whitewash over sincere and serious opposition. Properly held votes allow dissenters to make their case or propose amendments that could make a resolution palatable. If compro-mise is out of reach, principled oppo-sition can be recorded and respected by an opposing vote. A mature community that understands the ethos of a formal vote can sustain greater diversity than a community that insists decisions be made by consensus, because it offers documented dissent as a middle ground between unanimity and separation.
How might a New Testament outlook inform the mechanics and implementation of a decision by vote? Might a successful majority, having clearly articulated its conviction of how the community ought to respond to same-sex couples, nevertheless offer to an equally convinced minority to forbear implementation of the vote, at least for a time? Such an offer would reflect the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, or the counsel given by the Apostle Paul in Romans 14:14 to those sufficiently mature in faith to understand that nothing is unclean in and of itself. If a majority were to support a recommendation affirming same-sex relationships, it might yet refrain from performing marriages in order to maintain communion with dissenting congregations.
Neither consensus decision-making nor voting mechanisms guarantee happy outcomes. As far as what the Bible says, conservatives will continue to know for sure, and liberals will continue to know better. The problem, however, is that the agenda has been hijacked by the luke-warm middle, invoking the ethos of consensus. The passion of both the hot and the cold, a passion to respond, has been suppressed, and our area and national churches and too many of our congregations still have nothing real to offer same-sex couples waiting at the fringes of their communities. It’s time for a vote.
Russel Snyder-Penner is a corporate/commercial lawyer in Kitchener, Ont., who attends Waterloo North Mennonite Church, Waterloo.