Fourteen months have gone by since the conclusion of the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process and the decision congregational delegates made at Assembly 2016. At the end of that seven-year process, a large majority of the delegates voted in favour of “creating space” for congregations to differ from one another when it comes to committed same-sex relationships.
The framers of the BFC recommendation acknowledged that “there are those among us (congregations and individuals) whose careful study of Scripture and prayerful journey of discernment lead them to a different understanding on committed same-sex relationships than is commonly assumed by readings of Article 19 in our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.”
Their recommendation was “that we create space/leave room within our body to test alternative understandings from that of the larger body to see if they are a prophetic nudging of the Spirit of God.” The discernment document called on both area churches and congregations to “determine how they will create this space” within their midst.
Have we taken up this challenge?
Wearied from the hard slog of difficult BFC conversations, many of us breathed a sigh of relief and moved on to points of agreement about easier issues. A segment of us saw the assembly decision as confirmation that the church has totally lost its way on a key point of faith. Another segment saw it as permission to proceed with full inclusion of same-sex members into our congregations.
Both of these positions risk marginalizing the “other side.” We can be tempted to scold or “correct” the other party and, in the process, fail to listen sensitively to the concerns and fears they express. We also risk not hearing the voice of God’s Spirit.
What are we to do with these recommendations to create space and listen for the nudging of the Holy Spirit? What does it look like, with this particular issue, to make—or allow—room for testing our understandings, as individuals and as congregations?
First, we must ask ourselves: Can we trust that the Holy Spirit speaks not only to us and the ones we agree with but also to the sisters and brothers with whom we have a disagreement?
We might need to confront our own fears as we live into the BFC recommendations. Maybe we fear having our minds and our attitudes stretched. Maybe we don’t want to confront the complexity of our own sexuality. Do we trust God to continue guiding all of us—individually and congregationally—through seemingly unresolvable differences?
The BFC Task Force recognized that the work of discernment in community is a long-term, ongoing process. There was acknowledgement that “unity in Christ is not the same as agreement on all theological, biblical understandings.” In the midst of disagreement, there was also a deep desire for unity as a larger church body.
The challenge is to not get so entrenched in our own corner that we are unable to provide “gracious space for ‘the other,’ ” as one of my colleagues put it. This means moving beyond judgment to a posture of listening and caring. It means changing our speech and attitudes toward those we are tempted to chastise or belittle. Paying attention to how we care for each other.
A possible first step is to have honest, caring conversation with individuals who differ from us. Consider the suggestion of John Paul Lederach, Mennonite peacemaker extraordinaire. To cultivate compassion, he suggests: “Give yourself the gift of finding one person with whom you disagree and commit to having coffee once every few months with each other for the rest of your life.”
Lederach explains that the purpose of this meeting would not be to argue or convince, but rather to “bear witness to your lives in friendship,” to cultivate a caring and honest relationship. In that space we can lay our fears aside and invite the Spirit to nudge and guide.
As individuals and congregations, let’s allow space for the Holy Spirit to continue teaching us. Let’s practise a Christ-mandated love towards those with whom we disagree. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Special Assembly coverage
During the event, to be held Oct. 13 to 15, you can follow Canadian Mennonite and Mennonite Church Canada on Facebook and Twitter: hashtag: #mcassembly2017. Our report will appear in the Nov. 6 issue.