A balance of authority
From the editorby Everett J. Thomas
Stories of ministers performing same-sex covenanting ceremonies and a congregation under discipline dominate the news from area conferences this summer. At first glance, it appears former General Conference Mennonite Church (GC) conferences are following their traditional practice of congregational autonomy, while a former Mennonite Church (MC) conference is following its traditional assumption of conference authority over matters of faith among member congregations.
But upon closer inspection, none of the groups is following its tradition completely. This may be evidence of a merging of the two traditions into something new for Mennonite Church USA.
In response to a pastor who performed three same-sex covenanting ceremonies last year, Central District Conference leader Lois Kaufmann says, “We have always had a conference polity that respects the discernment of its congregations as well as recognizes the diversity in our conference.”
In other words, congregations are given great latitude in their expressions of faith as long as the conference trusts the discernment process in the congregation.
But such autonomy is troubling to other CDC congregations, and the CDC ministerial committee’s response to the matter may contribute to two congregations leaving CDC.
This would not be a precedent. CDC’s largest congregation, First Mennonite Church of Berne (Ind.), left CDC and joined the Ohio Mennonite Conference in 2010.
Another challenge to the GC tradition of congregational autonomy is playing out in Western District Conference. Four congregations have proposed a resolution requiring WDC congregations to align themselves with Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (see “Resolutions to Confront Differences,” June). If this happens, presumably the four congregations will expect WDC to limit the amount of variance a congregation can have in its faith practices. As I understand it, such a use of the Confession would be new to WDC polity.
On the other side of the ledger, leaders in Allegheny Mennonite Conference (AMC), a former MC conference, are asking whether delegates can increase the amount of autonomy one of its member congregations may have. The congregation has been under discipline since 2005 because its membership guidelines allow for the full embrace of LGBTQ members.
Donna Mast, AMC conference minister, was interviewed about the situation by National Public Radio on May 2 (see “Allegheny Conference Leaders Recommend Reconciliation With Hyattsville,” June).
“We’re not looking to come to a place of total agreement,” Mast told NPR. “What we’re looking for is, Is it possible for us to work together and to remain together in fellowship, even though we disagree on this issue?”
In the 10 years since Mennonite Church USA was formed, diversity on this matter has been managed primarily by a few congregations switching membership to a different conference in which they find greater theological affinity.
But if Central District Conference, Western District Conference and Allegheny Mennonite Conference moderate their traditions, we may see the beginning of a polity that takes the best of both GC and MC traditions. Doing so would establish a balance between complete congregational autonomy and the authority conferences need to discern matters of faithfulness.
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