Mennonite Church coming apart over sexuality issues

A year ago, the Mennonite Church USA was one of many Christian groups struggling with dissension over the place of gays and lesbians in the church. Today, it’s not just struggling, but falling apart.

The divisions reached the highest level of leadership after a member of the denomination’s Executive Board resigned last month after officiating at the wedding of two lesbians, a violation of church rules.

Over the past year, three of the denomination’s 20 regional conferences have voted to withdraw over what they view as sin, potentially shrinking denominational membership by 17 percent and halving the number of congregations. That doesn’t include individual congregations in other conferences that have also pulled out. That leaves the denomination with about 73,000 members and 600 congregations.

Meanwhile, two other conferences have gone in the other direction by welcoming LGBT people. The Central Conference last summer granted ministerial credentials to a gay man, while the Western Conference declared that its ministers could officiate same-sex weddings without fear of censure.

Officially, the Mennonite Church USA upholds that marriage is between one man and one woman. But the denominational rules limit its ability to discipline regional bodies.

“It’s about homosexuality, but it’s about a polity of governance that doesn’t lodge authority anywhere,” said Allen Lehman, administrator of Franklin Conference, which voted in April to withdraw from Mennonite Church USA. The conference has 1,000 members in 14 congregations.

On May 21, the Rev. Isaac Villegas, pastor of the Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship, officiated at a wedding of a lesbian couple. Two days later he resigned his seat on the denomination’s Executive Board.

In an open letter, he wrote, “I hope … that soon we will no longer teach that queer desire is sinful; that soon we will let our churches bless those who wish to marry, whether gay or straight.”

The Virginia Conference, which includes Chapel Hill, has suspended Villegas’ ordination. The conference is assembling a committee to decide what additional measures it will take. Those may include revoking his ordination.

Villegas has the full support of his congregation, which he continues to pastor. In another sign of the widening rift, representatives from two Virginia Conference congregations traveled to Chapel Hill to express their support.

Issues related to sexuality have plagued the group since it was formed by the merger of two denominations in 2002. Those differences came to the fore in 2013 when the Rocky Mountain Conference licensed a gay pastor.

At least 16 congregations left the denomination in 2014, and the Gulf States Conference narrowly defeated a proposal to withdraw.

At the denomination’s biennial convention last year, delegates reaffirmed the sexuality standards and then approved a resolution that called for “grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.”

Patricia Shelly, the denomination’s moderator, acknowledged that the two actions seem to be at odds.

“The current direction the delegates have set for us is to function with the tension,” she said.

The North Central Conference, one of the smallest, with 10 congregations, quickly decided to withdraw. Then the largest conference, in Lancaster, Pa., also voted to leave.

Last fall, Evana, an alternative organization spearheaded by leaders from several former Mennonite Church USA congregations, debuted and quickly became an attractive option for those looking for new affiliations.

Shelly said several other conferences are debating their futures. In the meantime, denominational officials are doing strategic planning.

“We’re planning for a smaller denomination, and that raises a lot of questions,” Shelly said.

Mennonite World Review, an independent newspaper, has even suggested dismantling Mennonite Church USA in favor of a looser organized alliance.

“In a time of declining loyalty and growing conflict, denominations as we have known them may no longer be sustainable financially or emotionally,” reads the editorial.

Instead, the editorial called for a looser coalition bonded by the basic tenets of Christian faith. Such an organization, it suggested, “would not be a place to judge whether others are too lax or too strict and what to do about them if they’re wrong.”

Moreover, “it would refuse to fight the battles over sexuality that preoccupy denominations and divert them from their mission.”