Menno delegate votes  – “What does this mean?”

This coming Sunday is Pentecost.  One of the great phrases in that Acts 2 story occurs after the Spirit has swept through the upper room in Jerusalem where the Jesus followers had gathered, the sound of wind and flame mixing with the voices of festival pilgrims from all over the Roman world, each spontaneously declaring the praises of God in their own native language.  Onlookers are amazed and perplexed, looking at one another and asking, “What does this mean?”

It’s a question many of us across Mennonite Church USA are asking after having gathered last weekend from around the US for a special delegate assembly.

The final action of the assembly, late Monday morning, was to vote on an accessibility resolution seeking to “remove barriers in architecture, communication, and attitude that prevent individuals with disabilities from participating in church life.”  A woman at my round table shared tearfully about her son’s mental health conditions and her plea for her congregation and the wider church to remove stigmas and create compassionate spaces.  Others shared from the mic about their own or loved one’s accessibility needs and how churches might address these.  The resolution passed unanimously.  What does this mean?  At a minimum, it means we have named and elevated these values, we are open to hearing one another’s stories, and we all agree we have work to do.

This unanimous vote came a day after the most contentious vote.  The Inclusive Mennonite Pastors had put forward a resolution titled A Resolution for Repentance and Transformation.  It names the violence our denominational policies and practices have committed against LGBTQIA persons and their families, confesses that we are all diminished by this history, and names concrete actions that will lead toward transforming our church body.  It was the only resolution that first needed a vote as to whether it would come to the floor for a vote.  The writers and many of us were uncertain even that would pass, but Saturday afternoon nearly 3 out of 4 of the 500 delegates voted that we should discuss and vote on the resolution.  What does this mean?  It means we recognize we can’t ignore this conversation and it is never going away.

The writing of the Repentance and Transformation resolution was a direct response to another resolution before us, proposed by the Executive Board.  It sought to retire the Membership Guidelines which prohibited pastors from officiating at weddings of same sex couples but left room open for area conferences – who provide ministerial credentials in our system – to decide how to respond to these pastors and the congregations that bless their ministry.  The Membership Guidelines were originally written to appease conservative conferences when Mennonite Church USA came into being 20 years ago.  But it made for unclear polity and authority – a prohibition from the denomination that only conferences have authority to enforce, or not.  The resolution was framed as a polity resolution.  But when a polity has caused as much harm as this one has, it’s poor church practice to simply “retire” the polity without confessing those harms and committing to transformation.  Some of us joked that we weren’t particularly interested in a retirement party for the Membership Guidelines such as thanking it for its service and sending it off to enjoy a cruise and draw from its 401k.

The retirement of Membership Guidelines resolution did end up passing Sunday morning by nearly 83%.  It was good news, but what does this mean?  Does it mean we are simply aligning our polity with our practice of conference authority on matters of credentialing without collectively committing to healthier ways of being church?  We would find out that afternoon when we discussed and voted on the Repentance and Transformation resolution.

Our discussion included a helpful process known as “world café.”  Each seven-person round table group was tasked with discussing and recording their responses to the resolution – what resonated positively with them, what dissonance they felt with it, and what questions they had.  One person from each table was assigned to be that table’s reporter.  All other delegates then shuffled throughout the delegate hall on their own, spending five minutes each at five different tables, a different mix of people each time, first listening to that table’s reporter go through their responses, then having open conversation about how that related to one’s own table.  By the end of this time we all had a sense of what common themes were emerging among the wider group.  This was followed by open mic time when individuals could address the whole delegate body.

By biggest concern was a significant group of comments that empathized with the resolution but thought the wider church was not ready to claim this as a representative statement.  I have heard these comments for the last 15 years – preferring an imagined unity over naming difficult truths, only to have those congregations with whom one was trying to preserve unity leave anyway.  I do think there is always value in staying open to relationship and not merely seeking to be right, but when it is only one group threatening to cut off the relationship if their theology doesn’t remain normative then we have a problem.  When we keep sacrificing queer folks in the name of unity then we are all in danger of diminishing our humanity.

Surprisingly, perhaps shockingly, wondrously, the Repentance and Transformation resolution passed: 55-45% 

What does this mean?

It means we as a national denomination are claiming everything stated within the resolution as our common voice, even as it allows individuals, congregations, and conferences to continue their own discernment in these matters.  I think it means we are on our way to being a queer-affirming denomination.

One of the things I’m still processing from this event was how muted the response was after the vote.  There has been a lot of heartache and work to lead up to this shift, but when the shift was formalized in this vote, there’s just as much somberness that it took this long to get here as there is joy that the vote passed. 

One of the extra layers of meaning for me was having our daughter Eve serve as a youth delegate contributing to the church, claiming this posture of confession and transformation.  When your sixteen-year-old child walks away from a church conference proud to be a part of the witness of the church, it means a lot.