The Lancaster Mennonite Conference, largest of the Mennonite Church’s 25 conferences, has ended its 46-year affiliation with America’s top Anabaptist denomination. According to stories in Christianity Today and Mennonite World Review, this decision was more than two years in the making.
In 2015 the Lancaster Conference’s churches were encouraged to enter into a time of discernment about whether or not to remain with the Mennonite Church. About ten percent of the conference’s 179 churches engaged in an extended discernment process, with eight of the 17 churches deciding to remain within the Mennonite Church. Those congregations joined the nearby Atlantic Coast Conference.
At the same time, about 29 congregations from outside the Lancaster Conference joined the conference, from as far away as Oregon and Hawaii. The congregations leaving the Mennonite Church represent about one-sixth of the denomination’s membership.
The split was sparked by the licensing for ministry of Theda Good, a lesbian pastor in a committed relationship, by the Mountain States Mennonite Conference in 2014. That licensing was not recognized by the national Mennonite Church, but neither was the Mountain States Conference disciplined by the national church. The Mennonite Confession of Faith says that marriage is “a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”
In response, conservative Mennonites set up a new network called Evana to promote traditional values and spiritual renewal. At the time, they hoped 100 churches would join the movement. Two years later, nearly 180 congregations have decided to withdraw.
Mennonite church polity is different from United Methodist polity, in that it is congregational in government and there is no denominational trust clause holding the property with the denomination. So it was relatively easy for churches to withdraw, once they had made that decision.
Some have pointed to the Mennonite Church as a denomination that was not consumed with battles over same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing LGBTQ persons. But just like the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and United Church of Christ, the Mennonites have experienced division, as well.
It is interesting to note the parallels with United Methodism. For over 25 years, there have been isolated examples of UM annual conferences that ordained openly homosexual persons to ministry. Sometimes, those ordinations were overturned by the church’s judicial process. More times than not, there was no discipline for the wayward annual conference, and the ordination was allowed to stand. Since 2012 the emphasis has been on clergy performing same-sex marriages or unions. A few resulted in the clergy being disciplined (none severely), but in most cases the offense was either ignored or celebrated by the annual conferences involved. The disobedience of our church order reached a culmination in 2016 with the election of a married lesbian clergy, Karen Oliveto, as bishop in the Western Jurisdiction.
In addition to the long-standing renewal groups (Good News, Confessing Movement, UMAction), evangelical United Methodists in 2016 formed a new network (the Wesleyan Covenant Association) designed to promote traditional values and spiritual renewal.
The Mennonite experience also shows what might happen as a result of the proposals coming from the Council of Bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward. Some of those proposals involve expanded jurisdictions or branches with more fluid geographical boundaries, which would allow evangelical congregations from across the country to band together in a common framework of ministry. Other proposals envision parts of The United Methodist Church departing from the denomination and forming new independent bodies to promote ministry from a particular perspective. We know these approaches are indeed possible because they have been done by other denominations, most recently now by the Mennonites.
The Mennonite experience illustrates once again that organizational church unity is threatened by the widely divergent perspectives on homosexuality. There are many United Methodists who value organizational unity more than theological agreement. But there is a significant number of United Methodists for whom a certain level of theological agreement is a necessary precondition for organizational unity. For those United Methodists, the disagreement over marriage and sexuality, as well as the denomination’s inability to enforce its standards, have made organizational unity nearly impossible to sustain.