Themes bubble up from WDC’s uncertainties on sexuality, governance

By Laurie Oswald Robinson for WDC

MOUNDRIDGE, Kan. – When Western District Conference (WDC) leaders met Nov. 15 to discuss conference-wide survey results on how church governance should be practiced regarding same-sex unions, several themes bubbled up from a pool of uncertainties.

More than 140 people – including pastors and congregational leaders from 29 churches – participated in WDC’s fall Reference Council at Eden Mennonite Church. They explored survey results on sexuality, polity and unity completed by 1,700 constituents this past summer. And they reflected on new possibilities for forging more local autonomy within denominational accountability.

“… As our discernment moves forward the first question appears to be not whether WDC will maintain a basic polity of congregationalism, but rather what kind it of congregationalism will it be,” said Jim Schrag, WDC’s Discernment Task Force chair and former executive director of Mennonite Church USA, during his Reference Council presentation. “What kind of covenants do WDC congregations need with each other? What can congregations decide on their own?

“The second question may be more difficult – what kind of covenants does WDC have with other conferences in MC USA? What can each conference decide on their own and what may they decide only as one body together of 21 conferences, by means of the MS USA delegate body?”

The survey was piqued by a resolution submitted to the WDC delegates in August by Rainbow Mennonite Church that seeks “immunity” from the censure of pastors who perform same-sex unions in WDC congregations. Opportunity to respond to the resolution will happen at the next Reference Council, April 11, and at Annual Assembly, October 30-31, 2015.  Despite uncertainty, however, three themes emerged out of presentations and table group discussions at Eden that are likely to give shape to future direction:

ONE: Mennonite Church USA denominational leaders affirm the nature of WDC’s process, said denominational leaders Terry Shue and Patty Shelly in interviews following their presentations.

“We affirm that WDC is conducting a broad conversation that is not reactionary and is moving forward in a systematic way,” said Shue, Mennonite Church USA’s Director for Church Leadership Development and Cabinet Liaison to WDC. “Clarence Rempel [conference minister] has been very clear that he wants to be in consultation with the denomination throughout the entire process.”

Shelly, moderator-elect for Mennonite Church USA, agreed. “The MC USA Executive Board is very appreciative of the conference having postponed its decision-making on the Rainbow resolution until it has had time to study at the conference level and time to listen to delegates at the national conference this coming summer.”

TWO: There is deep respect for the Hispanic congregations’ declaration, sent to WDC. After Gilberto Flores, associate conference minister for WDC, finished reading the declaration, he received loud applause. And a couple of table group comments described the Hispanic response as “prophetic.”

Gilberto read, “It is of great spiritual and emotional concern for us that the church in general and in particular WDC is spending so much time discussing this issue as if it were all that has to do with the life of the church. We do not mind the conversation about homosexuality. What disturbs us is the great investment of energy just to keep the issue ‘on the table’ without showing signs of improvement or advancement.

“… Our position about homosexuality has not changed. However, knowing that God has called us to live in peace and unity, we declare with fear and respect that if people, pastoral leaders or individual congregations, perceive homosexuality differently and in consequence declare solidarity with or minister covenant ceremonies between same sex persons, we will respect what they decide and will not impose an obligation to change or criticize their decisions, let alone question their Christian values. At the same time, we hope that our position will be respected and that we always will be considered as valid partners when it comes to talk about the mission of the church, the witness of Christ and the celebration of brotherhood.”

THREE: The Reference Council sticky dog exercise revealed that participants favored a congregationalism of relational accountability.  “The WDC delegate body may ask a congregation to practice consultation (to be defined by the leadership fo WDC) when a congregation is making a decision that affects others.”

For a full report of the survey results and the proceedings of Reference Council, go to:  http://mennowdc.org/annual-assembly/#Reference

A sample of survey results reveals the diversity of WDC:

SEXUALITY:

  • One half (50 percent) affirm the denomination’s Confession of Faith definition of marriage – one man, one woman, for life. (40 percent disagree).
  • One third (38 percent) support the Guideline’s censure of pastors performing same-sex covenants. (54 percent disagree)
  • One third (34 percent) say they get “clear guidance” from scripture or church statements on sexuality. (54 percent disagree).

POLITY:

  • Two thirds (63 percent) say congregations should make their own decisions on belief/practice. (29 percent disagree).
  • One third (38 percent) say MC USA beliefs/practices should be “binding” on congregations. (50 percent disagree).
  • Almost two thirds (58 percent) say MC USA “teachings” should be viewed as “advisory.” (27 percent disagree).

UNITY

  • One half (52 percent) say that unity is based on “common adherence” to statements of belief/practice. (37 percent disagree)
  • Two thirds (65 percent) say unity is not dependent on uniformity. (29 percent disagree).
  • Two thirds (62 percent) believe WDC unity can be maintained, though congregations have different practices on same-sex relationships. (28 percent disagree).
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