The Mennonite Church and Homosexuality

In the late 1960s and 1970s the question of the appropriate response to homosexuality arose among Christian denominations in North America, including the Mennonites. Prior to that era it was accepted with little discussion that homosexual people were to be excluded from the church community. In 1969 same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized in Canada through legislation introduced in 1967 by then justice minister Pierre Trudeau. By 1982 Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms protected homosexual persons against legal discrimination, and this was even more explicitly stated by the Canadian Supreme Court in 1995. In 2005 the Canadian Parliament legalized same-sex marriage. These and other national legal changes forced all religious groups to clarify and restate, or modify, their previous understanding on homosexuality. Mennonites were no different.

For conservative and Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups in Ontario and elsewhere these legal changes did not alter their previous understandings. Homosexual behavior continued to be punished as contrary to teachings in the Bible, and homosexual persons were expelled from congregations. Most typically, homosexual persons would “voluntarily” leave the community, often with great pain. Some conservative denominations permitted membership for a person with a homosexual orientation if the individual lived a celibate life.

Brethen Mennonite Council symbolConversations about homosexuality within the more assimilated (i.e. “mainline”) Mennonite denominations like Mennonite Church Canada and the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches began in the 1970s. This also occurred in the USA. The Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (BMC, now Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests) formed in 1976 to advocate for gay and lesbian persons in the Mennonite and Church of the Brethren denominations and to encourage greater dialogue within the church. More recently, beginning in 2008, a Pink Menno campaign was launched, primarily focused on Mennonite Church USA in an effort to create more openness.

Martin Rock

Martin Rock, founder of BMC. Source: BMC oral history project

BMC did not have a regional chapter in Ontario until 1984. Its first overt activity in Ontario took place at the Mennonite Church’s 1979 biannual general assembly held at the University of Waterloo and known as Waterloo ’79. On the BMC representative’s first day at the conference he discovered an “assembly line” at Conrad Grebel College tearing a page out of a large stack of songbooks. It was #91 in Sing and Rejoice!, which was to be the hymnbook for the conference. The third verse of that hymn said “Praising God is the privilege of all; Black and white, straight and gay, old and young, short and tall.” An

Sing-and-Rejoice

The offending line in Sing and Rejoice!

Ontario Mennonite had complained about the verse, followed by pressure from congregational leaders. Rough censorship was the immediate solution for the general assembly, and the third verse was omitted in later printings of the songbook. Later in the meetings a BMC member was prevented from circulating a small brochure on What is the appropriate Christian Response to Homosexuality. This was the beginning of a decades-long series of unsuccessful BMC attempts to have exhibit space or formal recognition at Mennonite Church delegate sessions.

By the early 1980s Mennonite and other Protestant church bodies began to issue formal statements, sometimes after lengthy study processes. A number of works by Mennonite academics also appeared for use by congregations. The debate, as with the earlier issue of accepting divorced and remarried members, was over how to interpret key biblical passages, especially the New Testament passages of Romans 1:24–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10.

Those pleading for welcoming gays and lesbians argued these passages addressed cultural issues faced by Christians in the first century that were not equivalent to late 20th-century sexuality issues. Those who wished to retain barriers against homosexual behavior said these Biblical passages were timeless in application and self-evident in meaning. People on both sides also expressed strongly held contrary views on the causes of an individual’s homosexual orientation and whether that orientation could be changed through therapy.

The earliest Mennonite statement explicitly on homosexuality and the church, by the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (1981), suggested that homosexual activity was sinful, but that homosexual orientation was not. All subsequent resolutions by Mennonite denominational bodies took essentially the same stance, including those by the General Conference Mennonite Church (1986), Mennonite Church (1987), Conservative Mennonite Conference (1995), Conference of Mennonites in Canada (1998), and the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (2004). The confessions of faith of all Mennonite denominations have continued to support this view up to 2017.

Notwithstanding the official denominational positions, a growing number of voices advocated the acceptance into the church of gay and lesbian Christians who were living in same-sex relationships. These calls primarily occurred within the binational Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church. These denominational bodies eventually restructured as Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada between 1999 and 2001. Sometimes these growing voices of acceptance included entire congregations that publicly welcomed gay and lesbian persons in relationships to full participation in the church, and identified as publicly “welcoming” congregations. Two MCEC congregations that joined the Supporting Congregations Network quite early were the Warden Woods (Toronto) and the Olive Branch (Kitchener-Waterloo) congregations, though both of these congregations later closed.

The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Canada has continued to have discussion as well, though none of its congregations has become “welcoming.” They held study conferences in 2013 and 2015 on human sexuality, though the study conference leaders tried to restrict input to positions that reflected the confession of faith. This does not mean that there is no support for LGBTQ people in Mennonite Brethren churches, but congregations have not achieved the unity required for a public statement. (My thanks to Arli Klassen for pointing me to these links.)

One Ontario example of welcoming ministry to the LGBTQ community concerned Ron Lentz, a nurse and Mennonite from Pennsylvania. He came to Canada in the 1970s and contracted AIDS in 1982. He was fired from the Toronto Western Hospital for having AIDS, but later won reinstatement through a legal challenge. He helped to found an AIDS drop in center in 1987 described as “a blend of Alcoholics Anonymous and Mennonite Community principles.” His December 1988 death was remembered in a January 1989 service at the Danforth Mennonite Church in Toronto.

Welcoming congregational initiatives generated several, sometimes contradictory, types of response within denominations. In a number of Mennonite Church USA area conferences it resulted in the expulsion of the congregations from the area conference (and the denomination). Expulsion occurred also in Canada, but less frequently. No Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) congregations in Ontario were expelled for their openness to full membership and participation by gays and lesbians, partly because of a concerted effort of Mennonite Church Canada and MCEC leadership to maintain  dialogue between the interpretive factions. The dialogue approach by these leaders, however, caused some more conservative Mennonite Church Canada congregations, particularly in western Canada, to withdraw from the denomination.

Since 2000 there has been acceleration, both in the pace of interpretive change and theological tension,  within both Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Two Mennonite Church USA area conferences have authorized ministerial credentials for gay or lesbian pastors who were in a same-sex relationship. At the same time, a number of congregations and three area conferences, including the large Lancaster Mennonite Conference, have withdrawn from Mennonite Church USA. This turmoil has had a devastating impact on the denomination, threatening the financial viability of some of its programs and diverting attention from other issues.

Being a Faithful ChurchFor its part, Mennonite Church Canada went through a multi-year discernment process from 2007 to 2016 called “Being a Faithful Church.” It encouraged each member congregation to undertake a study of Biblical interpretation, especially in the area of human sexuality, and to provide feedback to the denomination on possible ways to move forward on the issue. The delegates at the denomination’s annual meeting in 2016 approved a resolution that stated the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective continued to serve the church, while acknowledging there were different understandings within MC Canada on committed same-sex relationships. It called for the denomination to create/leave room “to test alternative understandings from that of the larger Body to see if they are a prophetic nudging of the Spirit of God.”

This compromise was unsatisfactory for many on both sides of the issue. More congregations on the conservative side withdrew from Mennonite Church Canada, especially in western Canada. Others felt the action was much too cautious, and called for explicit acceptance of LGBTQ people. The impact on Mennonite Church Canada has been similar to that in Mennonite Church USA. A reduction and decentralization of denominational programming in Mennonite Church Canada is underway, in part because of increasingly reduced financial support from its congregations. A reduction in financial support has been common in many Protestant denominations, including other Mennonite groups. Controversy over issues of human sexuality has not been the only factor in this reduced congregational giving, but it has been a significant factor within Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.

As evidence of the distance Mennonite Church Canada has travelled on this issue in recent years, on September 28, 2017 the General Board of MC Canada issued an apology to its LGBTQ members. In this apology, the General Board confessed it had not permitted the continuing loving dialogue called for in its predecessor denominations’ human sexuality statements in 1986 and 1987, and confessed that many LGBTQ persons had felt silenced even during the “Being a Faithful Church” process.

Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC), an area conference of Mennonite Church Canada, is located primarily in Ontario. To this point in 2017 no congregations in MCEC have withdrawn over the issue of sexuality, though it appears several congregations are contemplating such an action.

Nonetheless there has been deep pain within Ontario MCEC congregations over the issue. One of the most visible cases was that of an associate pastor at the Toronto United Mennonite Church (TUMC). She began serving on the two-person pastoral team in January 1999. In April 2002 she declared to the congregation her lesbian sexual orientation and revealed that she was in a dating relationship with a Mennonite woman from another congregation. This disclosure led both TUMC, and MCEC, which oversees ministerial credentials, into long discernment processes. Two congregational votes on June 21, 2003 resulted in inadequate support for the associate pastor’s continued employment in the congregation. Meanwhile, MCEC immediately ended  a process that would have led to her full ordination. This painful story received much visibility in the church press within and beyond the Ontario Mennonite community.

The leadership of MCEC then took a deliberate decision in 2004 to not exclude congregations who were welcoming to LGBTQ persons. This was outlined in a document, “Pointing a Direction on Homosexuality.” Since that time a number of MCEC congregations have self-identified as welcoming to LGBTQ persons. This was done through formal statements, including statements on congregational websites, as well as inclusion of the rainbow symbol on their websites.

At the time of writing, after a quick search of MCEC congregational websites, I had identified ten mostly urban MCEC congregations that self-identified as welcoming to LGBTQ persons on their websites. These included Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church (Kitchener), Erb Street Mennonite Church (Waterloo), Waterloo North Mennonite Church, Rockway Mennonite Church (Kitchener), St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, Breslau Mennonite Church, Community Mennonite Church of Stouffville, Toronto United Mennonite Church, Hamilton Mennonite Church and Ottawa Mennonite Church. I believe there are other congregations with welcoming statements that could be listed. I may have missed some. I would appreciate updates that could be added to this page. Congregational statements can be sent to me at steiner.sam [at] gmail.com.

Stirling Statement

Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church’s statement on their website, 2017. See also their Litany of Lament and Confession

I was prompted to reflect historically on Mennonites and homosexuality in this blog by a controversy occasioned by the inclusion of a paid supplement sponsored by the Maple View Mennonite Church of Wellesley, Ontario in the September 25, 2017 issue of Canadian Mennonite. The supplement adapted a statement by the Evangelical Free Church of America on human sexuality that was an uncompromising restatement of the traditional exclusionary view on homosexuality. I engaged in the social media discussion on the Mennonite Church Canada Facebook group by defending the right of Maple View Mennonite Church to place such an ad, though I questioned whether it would be effective. A vast majority of social media voices felt the supplement should not have been included by Canadian Mennonite because it did not invite dialogue and was harmful to the LGBTQ community that had already suffered much from the church. The response of the Canadian Mennonite at time of posting the blog was incomplete. On its Facebook page it said it “acknowledges the deep pain and anger that was caused by the Maple View supplement,” but would make a fuller statement the following week. The formal response came in this statement (also published in the print edition of October 23), though the statement was not well-received by most of the early responses to it.

The consequences of this controversy within Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada will remain unclear for many years. Certainly denominational structures are changing and shrinking. The reasons include aging demographics, a desire for more localized programming, a fading interest in the institutional church, along with weariness and dismay over painful controversies. The matter of relating to its LGBTQ communities has been one such controversy in the Mennonite community.

To learn more about Ontario Mennonite history, read In Search of Promised Lands.

I obtained some of my information on the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests from its periodical, Dialogue.

Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) and Diversity

Last week I spoke at the Mennonite Historical Society annual dinner in Elkhart, Indiana. I was asked to make observations for Mennonite Church USA from Ontario Mennonite history.

Confession of Faith

Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective — 1995

Mennonite Church USA has been going through difficult times in recent years, as a number of congregations have withdrawn from the denomination and/or area conferences because they believe MC USA has not properly enforced the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective approved in 1995, especially the article on marriage that says “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”

Vernon Leis

Vernon Leis, MCEC Moderator, speaking at the first annual meeting in 1988
Sam Steiner photo

In my presentation to the historical society I noted that Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC), since it was formed in 1988, has had no congregation withdraw. I suggested  three  reasons for why MCEC has had a different experience from MC USA.  I characterized them as first, historical diversity; second, unified leadership; and thirdly—resulting from the first two—a greater openness to theological diversity.

The historical diversity comes from the three Mennonite historical streams that shaped Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. The first stream included the Mennonites who came from Pennsylvania in the late 18th and early 19th century. In the 20th century this group became very fundamentalist in theology, and developed a top-down conference structure that gave great authority to male ordained leaders, especially long-serving bishops. This changed in the 1950s and 1960s when younger, seminary-trained leaders emerged who rejected fundamentalism and embraced biblical criticism and the contributions that social sciences make to human understanding.

The second stream was the Amish who immigrated to Canada from Europe in the 1820s and following decades. They remained more rural, and retained decision-making authority within the congregation to a much greater extent. It was not until the 1920s that the Amish organized the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference, and even then they established minimal programming like Sunday school conferences and winter Bible school. By the 1950s some young leaders began to pursue higher education in theology, especially at Eastern Mennonite College.  It was only in 1959 that the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference formally joined the Mennonite Church denominational structures.

The third stream included the 1920s Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union who first arrived in Ontario in mid-1924. In Ontario they called themselves United Mennonites, and soon affiliated with the General Conference Mennonite Church. Initially they had one bishop for the entire Ontario United Mennonite “congregation” that had meeting places in Waterloo, Vineland, Leamington and Northern Ontario, but gradually they divided into geographically based congregations that became very large and very congregational in their polity. This congregationally centric polity meant an Ontario United Mennonite Conference was not formed until 1944. As with the Ontario Amish Mennonites, there was limited conference programming for many years.

Conrad Grebel College building site

Site of the future Conrad Grebel College, 1963
Mennonite Archives of Ontario

These conferences began to cooperate on projects in the 1960s, including formation of Conrad Grebel College, urban mission projects, and inter-Mennonite student chaplaincy at universities. After one false start in 1981, these conferences merged in 1988 to form the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada, now known as Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.

Despite the historical diversity, there was convergence of approach in the three conferences considering merger because leaders were unified on key theological issues. This was evident when understandings changed in the 1970’s and early 1980’s on accepting persons who had been divorced and remarried, including ordained leaders. It was evident in allowing women to accept pastoral leadership positions in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Four years after MCEC was formed, the conference hired a female executive secretary, Mary Burkholder.

The matter of homosexuality has been a tougher issue, but it has been handled similarly. MCEC leadership has remained unified, though individual leaders have held varying personal positions. Although a few congregations have taken public stances as welcoming to LGBTQ members, and many more have been informally welcoming, MCEC leadership has consistently refused to discipline any congregation for variance on this issue, preferring an approach of continuing dialogue.  MCEC hosted a “Season of Discernment” process from 2001-2004 that resulted in a document entitled “Pointing a Direction on Homosexuality” that was approved by the delegate body. The document said that congregations would not be excluded for being at variance with the confession of faith on the matter of sexuality. It did uphold a guideline that stated pastors credentialed by MCEC would not perform same-sex marriages or bless same-sex unions. In the early 2000s MCEC refused to credential a homosexual man for ministry as a chaplain, and a bit later declined to ordain the associate pastor of the Toronto United Mennonite Church who came out as a lesbian in a dating relationship. MCEC has not said what the consequences would be if a pastor did perform a same-sex marriage. At least one congregation—my own—has a policy that explicitly endorses same sex marriage, though none has yet taken place. It is my understanding that same-sex marriage services and blessings have been performed by a few MCEC pastors, though not in an MCEC congregational setting.

This leads to my final brief point on MCEC’s greater openness to theological diversity than in parts of MC USA.  I believe this comes back to the greater congregational authority MCEC embraced in its development and maturation. There are MCEC congregations that do not welcome LGBTQ persons. There are MCEC congregations that will not accept a woman in pastoral leadership. There are MCEC congregations with a strong Pentecostal flavor that would be rejected by most other MCEC congregations. There are “seeker” churches led by evangelically-minded pastors, and there are “peace and justice” churches. One congregation offers a liturgically-focused style of worship, while others give full voice to worship bands, and still others use only denominational hymnbooks.

I make no claims that MCEC has solved the issue of managing diversity. In 1999 MCEC’s membership was 13,500. In 2015 MCEC’s membership is 13,350. MCEC is facing all the issues common to mainline Protestant denominations in North America.  Many churches are starving for children and young adults. A large bequest has allowed MCEC to test a variety of ways to help traditional Mennonite congregations re-learn how to interface with their communities, as well as testing new forms of church in our post-modern world.  MCEC has worked hard to provide some Mennonite theological training for pastors who have embraced Anabaptism from other theological streams. MCEC also offers basic Anabaptist teaching to immigrant pastors in non-English congregations, but without a heavy hand. MCEC congregations worship in 13 languages, which in itself produces a certain measure of diversity.

To learn more about Mennonite Church Eastern Canada read In Search of Promised Lands.

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