by Laurie Oswald Robinson
WICHITA, Kan. – Western District Conference (WDC) leaders continued their year-long discernment process regarding whether congregations will be freed to sanction same-sex covenanted unions at Reference Council on April 11 at Hope Mennonite Church, Wichita. A resolution granting such freedom was submitted by Rainbow Mennonite Church, Kansas City, at the WDC annual meeting in summer 2014. About 120 participants discussed the impact of such permission on WDC congregations and the conference’s relationship to Mennonite Church USA in preparation for a delegate vote on the resolution in late October.
The resolution calls for allowing individual congregations to discern how homosexuality will be subject to biblical interpretation. Also, the resolution calls for granting pastors – with affirmation of their local congregation – the freedom to officiate, or to refuse to officiate, ceremonies that consecrate monogamous, life-long unions, regardless of the sexual orientation of those being united.
WDC’s resolution vote on October 31 will occur after deliberations on the issues at Mennonite Church USA’s denominational July delegate sessions in Kansas City. There delegates will vote on a resolution that invites area conferences during this time of uncertainty to forbear on their differences regarding same-sex unions. A recent whirlwind of unrest has been stirred by decisions of some area conferences and congregations that vary with denominational membership and ministerial guidelines.
The denomination currently states in its founding documents that marriage is between one man and one woman for life; and pastors are not to officiate ceremonies for any other kind of union. The implication is that conferences are not to license non-celibate homosexuals as pastors. The binding quality of the documents – not currently scheduled for review or change — is being tested by some area conferences.
Patty Shelly, moderator-elect of Mennonite Church USA gave a report to the Reference Council on behalf of the denomination’s Executive Board (EB) and Constituency Leaders Council (CLC) on the issues. She said the results of a denominational delegate survey as of April 11 indicated that delegates were about evenly divided on the Membership Guidelines forbidding same-sex unions in terms of its support and usefulness. “This shows how divided we are,” she said.
A main component of the EB resolution in Kansas City asks delegates to recommit to living with one another and looking to area conferences to interpret and implement current documents in mutual accountability with other conferences through CLC, she said.
“While Kansas City will be important, the assembly will not resolve our ongoing conflict but will focus on forbearing with each other and recommitting,” Shelly said. “Some congregations have not waited and others will make decisions soon after the summer convention. We will continue to live in a time of uncertainty and pain.”
If the WDC resolution is adopted, Shelly said that being “at variance” will depend on what will happen in Kansas City with the resolutions. However, she stated that when one conference makes decisions, it affects us all. “When WDC acts, it will impact others.”
Reference Council participants discussed both their uncertainties regarding the area conference’s future vote and the accountability they feel for the denomination. As tools to grapple with these tensions, table group participants responded in writing to three sets of questions on intent, impact and whether a simple majority or 2/3 majority should be required for adopting the resolution.