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Mennonites struggle to agree with each other on same-sex marriage

Sect balks at LGBT rights, even as some individual churches and members embrace them

HARRISONBURG, Virginia – Matthew Hunsberger grew up in the industrial city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. But he found the pull of his faith so strong that he transferred to Eastern Mennonite High School in Virginia so he could be immersed in church teachings. 

This region of Virginia, near Shenandoah National Park, is home to one of the largest communities of Mennonites in the United States.  But now, some 20 years after he first arrived here, Hunsberger, who is gay, is feeling tugged away from his home and his church.

“I can go now and legally be married, but it feels somehow incomplete because the church is such a part of my life. I work at a Mennonite institution and go to a Mennonite church. I really would like that marriage to be in the church,” Hunsberger said.

The Mennonite church – often vocal on peace and social justice issues – won’t perform his vows and views his sexuality with a wary eye. Though often viewed as a church of old-fashioned, plain-dressed pacifists who live agrarian lives much like the Amish, the reality is that “Plain” and horse-and-buggy Mennonites comprise only about one percent of the church. 

The rest of the church, a Protestant Anabaptist sect founded during the Reformation in the 1500s, uses varying degrees of modern technology. And most adherents wear modern clothing. What unites all factions of the church is a commitment to pacifism and social justice. And it’s those very traits that are also threatening its unraveling, as the church – and the rest of America – comes to terms with recent progress in the fight for LGBT civil rights.

A recent conference in Kansas City was supposed to smooth over some of the Mennonite church’s deep divisions over the role of the LGBT community in the church. Instead, the conference seemed to stake a compromise on a very narrow strip of ideological real estate in the middle, which left few satisfied, some churches threatening to exit altogether, and other members engaged in silent protest by sealing their mouths with duct tape.

“It was very emotional,” said Jennifer Marsch, a delegate to the Mennonite USA conference from Linville, Virginia, who counts herself among the progressives. The Mennonite Church USA, with over 100,000 members, is by far the largest Mennonite group in the U.S. There are over 1.5 million Mennonites worldwide.

Delegates attending the annual conference voted to approve a “forbearance” measure, a new part of the church platform acknowledging that there is not currently a consensus within the church on issues of human sexuality. The forbearance encourages dialogue, discussion, and prayer. Yet delegates also affirmed membership guidelines that effectively shut the door on the church allowing same-sex unions, with a moratorium on further discussion for four more years. The forbearance was supposed to be a nod towards the church progressives, with the membership guidelines a bone for the conservatives.

Only a small fraction of Mennonites adhere to a "Plain" lifestyle with horse and buggy.
Kevin Williams

The roots of the division rest in the composition of the church itself, which is an eclectic mix of peace and justice activists espousing socially liberal views and more evangelical Mennonites believing in a strict interpretation of scripture. The issue crosses the boundaries between age and religion.

For instance, Chester Wenger, age 96, was stripped of his ministerial credentials by Mennonite Church USA after performing a same-sex wedding for his gay son. On the other end of the spectrum, Briana Thomas, 19, a Mennonite blogger on food and faith, declares gay marriage to be a sin.

“God created us male and female and all of nature has always operated upon that premise. It’s common sense,” Thomas said.

Hunsberger says the majority of the church falls someplace in the middle.

“I do think there is a large chunk of people in the middle who are uncomfortable with either extreme, but all we hear are the loud voices on either side. I am looking for total and complete acceptance from my church. But I don’t want to be one of the loud polarizing voices on the left,” said Hunsberger, who is still hopeful the church can find a way to be more inclusive.

Also caught in the middle are the rank and file Mennonite Church USA members (consisting of some 21 different conferences) that may or may not agree with the Kansas City resolutions.

“We stand in agreement and affirm the decision in Kansas City. We are a small community and a fairly conservative community. But it would be a mistake to assume every church feels the same way about same-sex marriage. You could contact 10 different Mennonite churches and get 10 different answers,” said pastor Ron Wenzel of Trenton Mennonite Church in Ohio. 

Wenzel said he wouldn’t perform a same-sex marriage service if he were asked to do so. “As a pastor in the Mennonite church, I would refer to their official position and abide by it,” Wenzel said.

Other groups are trying to push the Mennonite institution towards full inclusion.

When delegates at the Kansas City conference adjourned one of their voting sessions, they were greeted with a silent protest by activist group Pink Menno. Some wore duct tape over their mouths to symbolize how they felt they were being silenced. 

“So there was no way to exit the room without having to step around one of the Pink Menno protesters,” said Jonathan Neufeld, a pastor at the Seattle Mennonite Church. Neufeld describes the Seattle Mennonite Church as being at the forefront of the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. (A same sex marriage was performed 10 years ago, and the pastor was stripped of his credentials by the Mennonite Church USA governing body). But at the same time, there has never been any active discussion of Seattle Mennonite Church leaving the Mennonite Church USA.

“I really respect the Pink Menno movement because generally their actions are very respectful and non-confrontational,” Neufeld said.

Pink Menno protesters show their displeasure with the church's policies by taping their mouths.
Cory O'Rourke

The top ranking Mennonite official in the United States is Ervin Stutzman, the Executive Director of the 100,000-strong Mennonite USA Church. (There are some 40 different Mennonite groups in the USA). Stutzman paraphrased Abe Lincoln when describing his job of trying to keep such disparate factions of the church together: “You can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time,” he said.

Stutzman has been at the helm of the Mennonite Church USA for 5 and a half years but has been involved in church leadership for over 20 years and calls the issue of LGBT inclusion in the church “the most challenging issue I’ve been involved in.”  

He called the forbearance resolution a step in the right direction. “We’re giving people a little space in the middle to work this out,” Stutzman said

Stutzman says he hears from people on all sides of the spectrum: conservatives that think the church has gone too far and progressives who think it hasn’t gone far enough. The pressure has been tough personally. “But at the same time I can never remember seeing so much being written about the Mennonite church and so much being discussed, with all the different ways people have of expressing themselves, from blogs to online forums. And I think that is exciting,” Stutzman said.

Stutzman said he is unaware of any conservative churches leaving since the Kansas City conference but that he does think some could bolt in the months ahead, as the members digest the news out of Kansas City. “On the progressive side it tends to be individuals who leave; on the conservative side you have whole congregations that leave,” Stutzman said.

While the membership guidelines won’t be revisited for another four years, Stutzman isn’t ruling out revisiting the issue in another way, saying that there are a variety of ways and venues in which the topic could be addressed.

Mennonites at the Kansas City conference in the midst of a dispute over same-sex marriage.
Cory O'Rourke

But Jen Yoder, co-founder of Pink Menno, has heard such promises before.

“Promises of dialogue have not been fulfilled,” Yoder says.

Yoder, whose partner is transgender, founded the group with her brother. She is also a co-pastor of the Pittsburgh Peace Church, an inclusive church that is part of Mennonite Church USA. She says Pink Menno’s aims go beyond simply allowing same-sex marriage.

“This is about Queer folks being able to live out our lives fully and completely as members of the Mennonite church,” Yoder said, adding that there are plenty of straight Mennonites living together or having premaritial sex, and those issues are left unexamined.

Yoder says that Pink Menno was formed to let church leaders know that the LGBT community was already a big part of the church.

“We wanted to let the leadership know that we are not knocking on the door and asking to be let in, but letting leadership know we are already in, our families are in, we are delegates, we are congregants sitting in the pews, we are part of this church already, so let’s talk abut what all this means,” Yoder said.

All eyes are on the EVANA Network, a newly formed evangelical organization of Mennonite churches that will be ramping up this fall. The network could serve as a conservative alternative to Mennonite Church USA, although EVANA leaders say that isn’t their intent.

“We are committed to the confession of faith which defines a marriage between a man and a woman for life,” said John Troyer, EVANA’s director. Troyer says same-sex marriage will not be the most prominent item on EVANA’s agenda, but that witnessing and outreach will be primary focuses. Still, conservative churches not comfortable with the Mennonite USA’s positions would be permitted to be credentialed through EVANA. Some fear that could cause an exodus and lead to a formal split in the Mennonite church.

“A trend like that is happening, EVANA is forming and a number of conservative churches are joining, but their plans to get up and running seem definite, so a trend in that direction is inevitable. The question is, how big of a movement it will be? How many churches leave before you call it a split,” said Paul Schrag, editor of Mennonite World Review, an influential, independent publication.

Schrag was an early and outspoken proponent of having the Mennonite Church USA endorse same-sex unions, and hee is cautiously optimistic about the long term. “I think the church will find a way to tolerate differences,” Schrag said.

But will it be too late to keep the church together by the time it does?

Back in Harrisonburg, Hunsberger will wait and watch the church’s evolution on the issue in the hopes that he can one day walk down the aisle in the church. But, in the meantime, he has other more pressing matters.

“I have to find someone to marry first,” laughed Hunsberger.

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