Gay and Mennonite
March 22, 2015 12:44 PM   Subscribe

How do Mennonites handle gay people in their congregation? Depends on the church. This is the story of the Allegheny Mennonite Conference, as they debated what to do about Hyattsville Mennonite Church--let them back into the conference, remove them from it, or dissolve the conference altogether. Hyattsville had been previously disciplined for accepting gay and lesbian members, which they have been doing for decades.

" A Pennsylvania pastor, Jeff Jones, decided to issue a formal complaint.
“Hyattsville had an active ministry to homosexuals, which I was for, I didn’t have a problem with it,” Jones said. But when the church “started putting active, practicing homosexuals in positions of leadership, as delegates in voting bodies here at conference—that became more difficult for me to take.”

Mennonites go through many schisms, usually because of issues of tradition vs. modernity. These days the controversies are usually around the issues of women becoming church leaders and the acceptance of LGBTQ people. Nine churches have left the Allegheny Conference since 2005 over issues like this.

"Each time a split happens, a new version of the faith is created, while an older version is preserved as if in amber—even now, many people associate Mennonites with anachronisms like horses and buggies, when in reality, this kind of traditional lifestyle is only followed by roughly 13,000 American adults, called Old-Order Mennonites."

Licensing is an issue for the Hyattsville clergy--one female pastor won't get her credentials renewed again because she married two men, and a lesbian associate pastor may not be able to get officially licensed.

In the end, Hyattsville won by "rounding up," with 50.7% of the vote--and three other churches decided to leave.
posted by jenfullmoon (13 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It's helpful to think about the Mennonite church as existing along a spectrum -- some congregations are more liberal than others (those that don't permit the internet in the house; those requiring no chrome on a vehicle, women in print cotton dresses, etc.). Central Pennsylvania tends toward the conservative anyhow, so it's not a total surprise to see protest out of Lancaster County.*

It makes me sad to see these splits, and still I can get behind some of the church's projects, like the relief work and sales done by the Mennonite Central Committee. As an outsider, I find it difficult to see Mennonite women (where I live) running so much, and assuming so many responsibilities of charitable work, and at the same time living within a deeply patriarchal and traditional culture. It must be so, so painful to be an insider who is not cast in that mold.

* On the other hand: This letter was written by a 96-year-old Mennonite, a former pastor, in Lancaster County. "We believe this is an opportune moment for the church to boldly proclaim a pastoral, grace-filled readiness to include both homosexuals and heterosexuals within the blessing of a marriage covenant designed to be wholesome and God-honoring." When same-sex marriage became law in Pennsylvania, he performed the marriage ceremony for his gay son and his partner. Change is possible, but what a painful road to get there.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:19 PM on March 22, 2015 [13 favorites]

I'm really curious about how this is playing out in Mennonite congregations where I live, but I would feel weird asking anyone about it. Mennonites around here are deeply committed to a lot of social justice issues, but I think they're mostly pretty quiet about LGBT issues.
As an outsider, I find it difficult to see Mennonite women (where I live) running so much, and assuming so many responsibilities of charitable work, and at the same time living within a deeply patriarchal and traditional culture.
My sense is that there's a pretty wide spectrum on that issue, like on all issues. The particular group of Mennonites in the article allows women to be pastors, for instance, which isn't the case in a lot of Christian denominations. The Mennonites I know don't seem to me to be any more patriarchal than anyone else. Obviously, things are different in more conservative branches.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:39 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

In the end, Hyattsville won by "rounding up," with 50.7% of the vote

Yeah, that's what the article says, but I don't believe it's accurate. The article also specifically mentions they were following Robert's Rules of Order, which for a vote requiring a simple majority, requires only more "yeas" than "nays," nothing more. That standard is sometimes cited as "51%" for convenience, but "51%" is not technically accurate. 50.000001% would be enough. No rounding is required.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:57 PM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's helpful to think about the Mennonite church as existing along a spectrum -- some congregations are more liberal than others (those that don't permit the internet in the house; those requiring no chrome on a vehicle, women in print cotton dresses, etc.). Central Pennsylvania tends toward the conservative anyhow, so it's not a total surprise to see protest out of Lancaster County.

I grew up in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, which is close enough to Lancaster County that I went to school with several Mennonite kids, although most of them were from relatively modern orders. However, I believe most of them eventually left the local school to go to Lancaster Mennonite High.

My other connection to this is that my stepmother's brother is a gay convert to being a Mennonite. He's openly gay, but otherwise, he wears a beard just like an old order Mennonite guy would.
posted by jonp72 at 2:32 PM on March 22, 2015

When I lived in Philadelphia, I was friends-of-friends with an out Mennonite lesbian. I ended up being invited to her place for Thanksgiving one year and it was an absolute feast attended by a large number of her Mennonite friends.

Really all I know about Mennonitism (Mennonism?) is that it's that it's a little bit like being Amish but not really. Based on how active and popular she was in the Mennonite community, I just assumed that Mennonites were progressive on LGBT issues.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that it's more complicated than that.
posted by 256 at 2:39 PM on March 22, 2015

Coverage from the World Mennonite Review.

jonp72, Lancaster Mennonite School acquires Hershey school.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:47 PM on March 22, 2015

Well, at least some Seattle Mennonites (at the Lake City location) have been feeding, clothing and assisting street youth, many of whom are queer of some sort, for as long as I can remember. I briefly lived in that neighborhood 20 years ago, and they were supporting openly queer youth even then. Don't know what that means *inside* the fellowship, but my synagogue assists with the meals, and that group of Brethren/Sistren are acting like my favorite kinds of Christians.
posted by Dreidl at 4:18 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Mennonites are Congregational, and rest on smaller communities, coming from a radically open set of communities--from the 16h century. The earnest working out of tradition here, within the interpretation of scripture, seems so close to God, and to the problems of community. It seems genuine and faithful. I really don't know what Menno would do with queerness, his mystical readings of The Song of Songs, the bride of christ, and earthly marriage, has something there, his refusal of infant baptism, suggests a bucking of convention...but his reading of the bible...that and that problem of revelation and what do about it. As a queer folk, i would want to believe he was on my side, but I am concerned he doesn't...
posted by PinkMoose at 4:31 PM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) have been wrestling with LGBT issues as well. We tend to feel a kind of affinity for Mennonites since we're two of the three historic Peace Churches, along with the Church of the Brethren. We are also often mistaken for the Amish, so that's another thing we have in common. The issues talked about in this article feel very familiar to me.

I know a fair number of former Mennonites and Brethren through my involvement with a Quaker group called Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns (FLGBTQC). Liberal unprogrammed Quakerism can feel like a comfortable next step for LGBTQ people leaving other plain churches, and it's not all that rare for still-active Mennonites or Brethren to join us at our gatherings if they're struggling with issues of sexuality personally or in their churches.

Quakerism is also a religion with little-to-no central authority. We have Yearly Meetings, which are annual gatherings of all the meetings in a geographical area, to share news, worship, and do business together. Yearly meetings generally can issue recommendations and guidelines, traditionally called "Advices," to local congregations, or "monthly meetings," but do not generally have the authority to enforce compliance, though this varies. The article mentions that membership in the larger conference can be important for Mennonites because there are relatively few of them; this is also true for Quakers. Especially in the Midwest and West. Here in Michigan, if you don't attend larger gatherings of Quakers, your Quaker world might consists of as few as 20-40 people in your local meeting. I have friends who belong to a meeting about an hour north of me; it had 9 members right up until Vern died a few years ago.

Quakerism has had its own share of schisms. To significantly over-simplify, many of them are rooted in questions of Biblical authority versus ongoing revelation. Early Quakers believed they were returning to a primitive form of Christianity like the one that sprang up around Jesus' life and death; they believed in the Bible, but also believed that contemporary Quakers (this was in the 1650s) could have the kind of direct experience of God that early Christians did. They embraced both the guidance of Christian scripture and the idea of new revelation.

The root of most schisms among Quakers in the US has been questions about the primacy of scripture vs. the primacy of direct revelation. There are still some yearly meetings that identify as Conservative, and these usually retain both the traditional Quaker form of silent worship, lack of specifically identified pastors, and a basic belief in Christian doctrine. But there are also now Quakers whose beliefs are very much like those of Evangelical churches, as well as unprogrammed liberal Friends, for whom Christianity and Christian scripture are optional.

In 2008, West Richmond Friends Meeting, a pastoral and explicitly Christian meeting, published a statement that they were a welcoming and affirming congregation. This caused significant tension within the yearly meeting, both around GLBT issues and around questions of yearly meeting authority over local meetings. A yearly meeting committee asked to study the issue reported back to the yearly meeting that the Richmond statement was problematic because it welcomed gays and lesbians into membership, and suggested that gays and lesbians could be in positions of leadership.

A number of courses of action were considered, including kicking the Richmond meeting out, deciding not to discuss the issue at the yearly meeting (an "agree to disagree" kind of position), and others. Eventually, in 2013, the yearly meeting split in two, which created a whole lot of other interesting questions about things like which of the new yearly meetings owned certain properties, and so on.

It's a very hard thing to deal with, as a Quaker. I know that every mainstream protestant denomination has split over and over again, but it's hard having people out there who also call themselves Quakers but who have beliefs and engage in actions I find reprehensible. As LGBTC individuals, and as a community in FLGBTQC, we're also divided about how to respond and what outcome to wish for. On the one hand, you think, "Fine, you fucking bible-thumping homophobes, we don't actually want to be in the same religion with you anyway." On the other hand, a division that draws a line between meetings that are accepting and those that aren't isolates LGBT Quakers in a hostile environment: we can't walk away without leaving some of our own behind enemy lines, as it were.

One way that some people in FLGBTQC have chosen to respond is to be present and out at Indiana Yearly Meeting, and other conservative yearly meetings. Not to argue or proselytize but simply to show up, be present in business meetings, worship together. Some folks I know have even gone to international Quaker gatherings, for instance in Kenya, where there is a very large population of evangelical Christian Quakers seeded by the one branch of Quakerism that proselytizes, and where, a few years ago, a Quaker leader expressed support for the death penalty for gay men.

One big difference between Quakers and Mennonites is that Quakers don't vote. We do business by consensus, or unity. But that doesn't prevent us by solving problems through schisms, both formal and informal. Every monthly or yearly meeting that has dealt with a contentious issue over a long period of time—which might be as heavy as issuing a statement in support of same-sex marriage, or as petty as whether to add a new classroom to the meetinghouse—has eventually come to agreement in part because some people who found themselves "out of unity" have left.

One of the Mennonites quoted in the article talks about the irony of being a pacifist church that can't solve its own problems without schism, and that's a Quaker problem, too. Sometimes we actually believe our founder, George Fox, had a message that could bring peace to the whole world. And then we remember that time somebody got punched in Quaker meeting over what color the new carpet in the hallway should be. And we remember, too, that even as we've done good in the world, we have always been hurting each other, too.
posted by not that girl at 7:01 PM on March 22, 2015 [24 favorites]

thank you for that.

i think that one of the things that people who are not theological fail to understand, is how often queerness becomes a debate over polity, and how queerness can center around other problems of colonalism(s).

there is an article to be written about how queerness fuctions as a simple entry point to discussions of polity/authroity
posted by PinkMoose at 8:33 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

In case anyone is wondering, a similar situation has been boiling over with the Church of the Brethren and (Church of the) Brethren and Mennonites have been working together on a Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns for several years.
posted by koavf at 9:19 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

working together on a Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns

Their Just Church Resolution is interesting, especially the last bit: "Extend grace and forbearance to those individuals, congregations, and conferences that will choose to remain in fellowship with MCUSA despite being at variance with the inclusive position of the denomination."
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:49 AM on March 23, 2015

The area of Pennsylvania where I grew up is often defined by an odd combination of cultures, which I sometimes refer to as "Quaker-German-redneck." You have the influence of the Quakers and the other pietist "peace churches" such as the Amish, Mennonnites, and Brethren in Christ. A lot of the pietist churches are of German origin, but there's also a big German-American influence from 18th and 19th century immigration by German farmers who weren't necessarily linked to a church, either. Then, you're also near the Appalachians, where you have a lot of people of Scotch-Irish Protestant descent who have a "Southern" mentality despite being on the north side of the Mason-Dixon line. If you have trouble imagining the blend of cultures, I'd point to the character of Dwight Schrute from the office, who has the Germanic/redneck fusion down pat. I wish I could say Dwight was a total exaggeration, but I did go to high school with guys like him. Anyhow, the basic gist is that, in this context, the Mennonites sometimes come off like the liberals, because they're less "redneck" and more in favor of peace and dialogue than "Let's bomb 'em back into the Stone Age."
posted by jonp72 at 6:38 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

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