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It is time: speaking truth about LGBT inclusion in the Mennonite church

posted by Tim Nafziger on 07/21/08 at 01:23 AM

Two weeks ago Mennonites from Canada and the United States gathered at the People's Summit for Faithful Living. I wasn't personally able to attend gathering, but heard from a friend about the Postcard Project which was on display across the street for the summit. I asked Jacob Quiring, a member of the committee that organized the project, to write a guest post telling about the project.

Early this July Mennonite Church Canada held its annual general meeting. For the second half of the week MC USA members were invited for a joint People’s Summit. It was a special gathering focusing on the theme of “the church living faithfully as a contrast community in our global reality”. Across the street from the Summit grounds, the Postcard Project was on display as a call for faithfulness to a covenant the church made over twenty years ago in the Saskatoon and Purdue Resolutions to have ongoing dialogue about the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Mennonites. A number of people who came to see the postcards commented on the irony that the Summit attendees should be discussing how to do church when it was too controversial to allow space for people to express their views on the inclusion of LGBT people.

Following is a response that came out of many conversations that we have had with church leadership and people visiting our display.

It is time for a new script. The pages to the old script on homosexuality in the Mennonite church are smeared, torn, and falling out. It is frankly becoming incomprehensible. When discussion about LGBT people is initiated, the noise in the church reaches a level of confusion that would put the mayhem at the Tower of Babel to shame. Sadly, the mayhem in the Mennonite church around the inclusion of LGBT people is not new. People have been uttering grand truth statements and proclamations of divine will past each other in all directions for many years. These arguments in the church cannot shed new insights by reheating them for the umpteenth time. Because of the familiarity with the parameters and direction of all our arguments, all they can give us is chatter. It is speech which lacks the capability to effect either the hearer(s) or speaker(s). Mark D Jordan defines it as senselessly “reply[ing] point-by-point to the recurring arguments” which have no potentiality for going somewhere new.1

It is time to stop trying to convince the church that LGBT Mennonites really do fit into all the institutions of the church just like a straight person. It is time to speak the truth about the Christian lives of LGBT people without measuring them by or trying to fit them into the mold of our straight sisters and brothers. This is not to say that straight Mennonites are somehow lacking or not worthy of comparison but recognizes that LGBT Mennonites have gifts to offer the church precisely because they are LGBT. The unique potentiality that is possible in LGBT members makes value-comparison rather silly. This does not mean sexual orientation incomprehensibly divides people into LGBT and straight Christians with no commonalities. Nor does it necessarily mean there is something essential about being LGBT which trumps all other characteristics about a person. What it does mean is that we can stop arguing about how we are going to fit LGBT Christians into the existing structures of the church with the least ripples. For example, the question of what marriage really is and what it really means and how do same-sex unions fit into that becomes secondary. That discussion has not resolved the marriage issue so let us explore same-sex unions in their own right. It is time to leave the measuring tapes and cups outside and approach whatever the LGBT “issue” is without trying to reshape it. After we have come to understand and appreciate many of the intricacies of what it means to be a LGBT Christian, we can return to the old arguments about marriage, ordination, etc. It is also very likely the old discussion will have become mote.

Let me humbly share some work that I have been involved with which begins to approach this paradigm shift. The Postcard Project is a grassroots initiative coming out of the frustration that there is no place in the Mennonite church to speak about support for greater LGBT inclusion. When approached privately, a growing number of individuals express support for inclusion and a wish to see the church become more welcoming. Few if any congregations have in the past been willing to declare this publicly even when that is a commonly held belief among its members. This leaves the impression that our denomination is not ready for open and honest discussion about the place of our LGBT brothers and sisters. The Postcard Project solicited Mennonites from across Canada to send us a postcard expressing why they believed the church should be more welcoming. Our hope was that by giving voice to the people of our churches in a relatively safe way, we might be able to foster a greater sense of safety in which congregations could feel free to follow their conscience with integrity. Our objective was not to convince people of the biblical support for greater inclusion or convince them by any other means. Indirectly, a realization of the growing support for inclusion could convince some of its legitimacy but that is secondary. The church has been engaging the discussion about sexualities on and off for over thirty year. It has seen much innovation and nuanced argumentation but the apologetics for LGBT inclusion are no longer radically new revelations of the Spirit for the Mennonite church. It would be a waste of time to assume people just need to hear it one more time.

The responses we got to the Postcard Project demonstrate this is in a number of ways. I will briefly outline a couple of general themes bearing in mind that they do not do justice to the stories and comments people sent. Many referred to the church’s call to social justice and how the exclusion of LGBT people cannot be reconciled with that call. In particular a number raised the emphasis of social justice to Mennonite identity as a reason why the Mennonite church must and should find it fairly easy to change its practices. This intertwined with a theme on the cost to the church when it excludes LGBT people. The witness of the church to reconciliation in society loses integrity and legitimacy when the church enforces exclusionary policies for which biblical justification is in question. Furthermore, the church is losing many gifted people not only by LGBT members leaving but also by family and friends losing faith in the church. Another theme which touched on exclusion more generally were the numerous references to the all encompassing love of God. Considering the extraordinary nature of God’s love for humanity expressed in scripture, the church must consider more carefully who is decides to exclude. Finally, many people sent in personal testimony—testimony of weariness that the church is still stumbling along in this conversation and testimony of sadness that they, a family member, or a friend do not feel welcomed in the Mennonite church. Clearly, the people of our congregations recognize the cost of the conversations about sexualities. However, it is not the cost of openly having this conversation, which our church leaders fear so much, but the cost of avoiding and suppressing it.

Finally a few concluding comments about the perils of rewriting the script. The main criticism we received to the Postcard Project was that we solicited the response of people in support of inclusion without addressing those opposed. Therefore, the work we were doing is advocacy and cannot contribute constructively to dialogue in the Mennonite church. The simple response to the first part of the critique is that opposition to exclusion is the position of the church so anyone is free to express that privately or from the pulpit without consequences. Furthermore, even when nothing is said, actions would demonstrate it is reasonable to assume people believe LGBT exclusion is biblical. Consequently, at this time in the Mennonite church those that believe God calls the church to exclude LGBT people in some manner are not without easily accessible avenues for expression.

The accusation that advocacy is counterproductive to dialogue is a little more nuanced. Firstly, it falsely assumes that the church can have a conversation out of time and culture in which the location of everyone at the table is neutral. This is impossible as LGBT people are already in the church so the church must either be practicing exclusion, inclusion or any position in between while it is “discussing”. Consequently, it is rather ironic that church leadership would be accusing advocates for LGBT inclusion of foul play when the church comes to the table with hands stained by ongoing exclusion. There is no neutrality in which pre-existing outcomes are not already present in some form. The really troubling part of suppressing advocacy is that the church is called to be a community of advocates for the marginalized. People called to tell the truth about the lives of those who are too disenfranchised to tell their own truth. The Mennonite church itself is largely defined by advocacy for peace and reconciliation. Why is it different this time? I would suggest that it is seen differently because to acknowledge the legitimacy of advocacy for LGBT inclusion is to acknowledge this is a discussion about justice and not simply an “issue”. This would give urgency and require accountability in the conversation which many wish to avoid. Truth telling about LGBT lives in the Mennonite church to date has been limited to controlled spaces where the “issue” is being studied. This insures that no one listening needs to be personally effected by the truth telling. Everyone is simply involved in discernment. That is a luxury LGBT Mennonites do not have as we are not an “issue” and it is time we stopped acting as if we were. Furthermore, it is time to refuse being drawn into senseless chatter about fitting in. Go and tell the truth of your lives in your words and in your time, without apology.

The Postcard Project invites you to send us a postcard to express your views.

- Jacob Quiring

Nafziger_tim_2_thumbnail Tim Nafziger is passionate about gathering people with shared values to work together for change in our communities and our world. One such space is Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) where he works as interim assistant director. Tim lives with his wife Charletta in the Ojai Valley in southern California where they connect with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministires. Tim has written chapters in Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship; Fear or Freedom?: Why a Warring Church Must Change; and 118 Days: Christian Peacemaker Teams Held Hostage in Iraq. His photo portfolio is at timnafziger.com. You can follow Tim on Twitter at @tim_nafziger

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    "Advocacy", "Peace", "Ronconciliation", "Social Justice". These themes dominate this conversation. Why is God's will so absent in this conversation? Why do friend's of mine in the LGBT Christian Community see their own activists appearing more like secular humanists than Christians?

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