Understanding opponents of LGBTQ inclusion

December 7, 2016 | Viewpoints | Volume 20 Issue 24
Will Braun |
Senior Writer

Officially, the resolution creating greater openness to LGBTQ people received 85 percent support at the Mennonite Church Canada assembly. That number is incomplete—more on that below—but it establishes a new narrative in which a majority within MC Canada expresses a degree of openness toward LGBTQ inclusion. So what about the people excluded from that narrative?

One measure of a democracy is how minorities are treated. For our church family, those minorities include LGBTQ people as well as those who oppose the resolution, which allows space for congregations to explore non-traditional views of sexuality.

Some would quibble with my language about the resolution creating greater openness, saying that the one-man/one-woman Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective is still the official bottom line. But let’s be honest: The LGBTQ resolution officially opens a door that was not officially open before, and that door leads to territory not included in the Confession.

Back to the numbers. If every MC Canada congregation had sent a full slate of delegates, there would have been 761. Only 322 registered. Area church offices are allowed another 40 delegates, of which 36 registered. It is entirely possible—although not certain—that a significant number of those who did not come would have voted against the resolution. Perhaps some churches saw the writing on the wall and didn’t bother to send delegates, as one person suggested to me.

Also, non-Euro-Canadian churches, which tend to be more traditional, had minimal representation at Assembly 2016. Some are now considering leaving.

What next? Many congregations will simply carry on as before, in many cases undoubtedly happy to set this matter aside. A relatively small number will push for greater change down the road. And a number of churches, particularly in B.C., clearly feel pushed further to the brink of leaving, or, if you will, of having been left behind.

I sought out comment from pastors of such churches because I want to hear their assessment of the process, and what factors or moments stand out for them. I want to understand them better. I found reluctance to comment.

One MC B.C. pastor said he and his area church colleagues recently had a very positive retreat, and he feels that at this point they need to deal with matters among themselves and their congregations, but not in the press. That is understandable. His message to the broader Mennonite community was simple: “Pray for us.” (See “MC B.C. divided on BFC7.”)

Dan Graber, who recently stepped down as area church minister for MC Alberta, was rare in his willingness to talk. When asked about the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process, Graber says “conservatives” felt there was a lack of biblical emphasis in the process and a lack of emphasis on prayer. Some also missed reassurances that openness to LGBTQ matters did not also imply a loosening of emphasis on fidelity and keeping sex within the confines of marriage.

Anabaptist history is marked largely by division, in addition to migration and service. According to Mennonite World Conference, there are 74 separate organized groupings of Anabaptist churches in North America alone. Historically, the stresses that divide us relate to the “world” encroaching upon us: English, government schools, chrome, modern mobility and gender equality. As society changes, some go along, others split off; occasionally it’s the other way around. The adapters say the others just don’t get it; the traditionalists say the adapters have traded their Bibles for a slippery slope. In the process, younger generations seemingly learn the wrong lesson and later repeat the cycle—or leave.

I think of a long-time Catholic friend who is gay and who has worked for the church most of his life, sticking with an institution that officially rejects him. Perhaps we can learn from Catholics about abiding the messiness of human existence.

That messiness has certainly marked the BFC process. Some people feel the process was slanted towards inclusion from the outset. I attended an Mennonite Church Manitoba-sponsored conference on LGBTQ matters last year. While presenters outlined differing views, some participants said the event felt biased toward inclusion. I agreed, even though I happen to share that bias.

Somewhat typically, most presenters didn’t state their own personal views, leaving us to guess. There has been a lot of guessing in the BFC process. Many denominational leaders have chosen caution over candour. This has contributed to suspicion. Graber says that smoothly stated non-positions can be used in manipulative ways, as they are hard to argue with or respond to.

At the same time, these are tender and precarious times. No one wants to say something that will be misinterpreted or have unintended consequences. Pastors are understandably jumpy when approached for interviews. And, in a spirit of candour, it is no secret that some more-traditional people within MC Canada view this publication with suspicion or hostility.

The resolution has brought a measure of healing for some and added pain for others. The church, like the world it dances with, is messy. Amidst that mess, graciousness is never ill-advised.

See responses to this column from two church leaders.

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I have been hesitant to offer my views, realizing that one can't argue and "win" over people. However, I am pained by all the discussion with little apparent success in creating understanding.

Possibly, if the Morden Bible study conference had chosen a different format, the outcome would have been different. What if the study had focused on the stories of Jesus from the gospels and chosen 12 stories of encounters Jesus had with different individuals. Take John 4 as an example. Jesus visits with a person who is a woman, a foreigner, a "sinner," in public. If his disciples had suggested they do a "Bible study" before this encounter (from the Hebrew scriptures), they would have easily discovered that he shouldn't have anything to do with her. I believe that there is consistent theme in these Jesus stories that Jesus breaks all kinds of biblical rules in relating to people who were deemed by the religious society to be unclean, undesirable, etc. Surely, as Jesus people, we should pattern our lives to how he encountered those that society (both secular and religious) has so often despised.

There are often calls that people and churches should repent - like Osler Mennonite Church, for being soft with LGBTQ concerns. I know this congregation, and I believe they have repented in that they no longer exclude persons from their families and congregation who in previous times were excluded and either lived in their "closet" or moved far from home to Toronto or Vancouver, far away from condemning judgments. It is interesting that when a community creates the spirit of inclusion, more and more people are encouraged to be who they are. And in communities where this spirit not yet exists, LGBTQ people are very hesitant to declare their orientation.

One more point. Will indicated that the delegate count at the Assembly left something to be desired. That's true. I wonder if the same issue may be true for church membership meetings that vote on these very significant issues. Often only 25% of members turn out for a vote.

Heavy stuff. I will end with a light-hearted story. There was a deacon in a church where I was the pastor, who had concerns about female leadership. He shared a letter he had written to Back to the Bible that confirmed his view. I asked him why he hadn't written to one of the faculty at CMBC who he knew personally. With a twinkle in his eye, he replied, "Because I knew what they would say!" He was a good man with a soft heart for prison ministries and we never broke fellowship despite differing views.

According to the Bible, homosexuality is abominable in God's eyes (Lev. 18 & 20, I Cor. 5). Remember, God loves sinners, but hates the sin.
Why are the conference leaders against what the Bible says?

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