As Virginia Mennonite Conference works among the debates affecting Mennonite Church USA (and many other denominations) over same-gender relationships in the church, one of the unexpected themes to emerge from Winter Delegate Session on February 7 was hopefulness.
It may not be easy to see a path forward when 50% of credentialed persons responding to an August 2014 survey of Mennonite Church USA leaders support “progressive” positions on inclusion of
LGBTQ persons in church membership, and 50% support “traditional” positions, those aligning with statements on marriage and church membership in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995).
But as analysis of the survey data found, there is a “glue” that holds us together fairly strongly: VMC seems to rank especially high in its sense of identity, its level of healthy interdependence among congregations, and its ability to provide avenues for shared projects, such as missions and relief, that brings diverse people together.
There is also evidence of a relatively high satisfaction with VMC services and a relatively large “middle” of persons (79%) who desire to live together in unity. Delegates were seated at tables with a diversity of voices and engaged several questions respectfully, hearing from each person.
Clyde G. Kratz, Executive Conference Minister, leads a prayer for Conrad Kanagy before his presentation to the delegates. Photo: Jon Trotter
Executive Conference Minister Clyde Kratz welcomed the delegates and introduced Conrad Kanagy, associate professor of sociology at Elizabethtown College, staff member of Lancaster Mennonite Conference, and a Mennonite pastor with a gift for analyzing sociological data from a spiritual perspective. Kanagy led the morning session at Waynesboro Mennonite Church, assessing the survey of Mennonite Church USA credentialed leaders, 66.2% (1,323) of whom responded. Of that number, 60.4% (799) are in congregational assignments.
One hundred and twenty-nine Virginia Conference leaders responded, of whom 70 (54.3%) are in congregational assignments, the remainder being in other assignments or retired. The purpose of the survey was “to provide feedback about a variety of benefits ranging from broader affiliation to denominational and agency services, beliefs about homosexuality and same-sex relations, and alternative organizational arrangements for the denomination.”
Kanagy began by providing an opportunity for a brief table discussion responding to Philippians 2:1-11.
“The goal of the day is for each participant to lay aside personal views on sexuality and concentrate on understanding those around the table. My assumptions are tentative; we are all learning together and from one another. I am pretty sure that most of us are not going to change our views about human sexuality,” he said.
He shared that our views on sexuality do not stand alone but are also reflected in our views on other issues. Each of us comes from particular cultural streams, but there are two broader general narratives; and this issue has become paramount because it taps into personal and social areas (such as family, religion, cultural identity) at a deep level. These cultural streams also shape our theology: our understandings of Jesus, scriptural authority, mission, evangelism, personal piety, and commitment to nonviolence among other things. Delegates were asked, “What do we do with Jesus?”
While many demographics parallel the larger church, Virginia leaders are slightly older, slightly more male, more highly educated and more urban than Mennonite Church USA as a whole.
After Kanagy’s presentation, delegates enjoyed lunch and had an afternoon business meeting with reports from the Executive Conference Minister, the Gifts & Appointments Committee, and Virginia Mennonite Missions, with delegates tasked with discernment and feedback on proposed Core Values and Guiding Principles for the agency.