Congregations, pastors need freedom of conscience
In three Mennonite Church USA area conferences there are signs of allowing diversity in congregational and pastoral responses to gays and lesbians.
In Central District Conference, the Ministerial Committee recently decided not to discipline Megan Ramer, pastor of Chicago Community Mennonite Church, for officiating three covenant ceremonies for same-sex couples last year. The committee affirmed her ministry while acknowledging her actions violate the denomination’s Membership Guidelines.
The issue is similar, but the outcome uncertain, in Western District Conference, where Joanna Harader, pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, Kan., officiated a same-sex ceremony in 2010. Like its CDC counterpart, the WDC Leadership Commission decided not to impose discipline. But a congregation is bringing a motion to overrule the commission and suspend Harader’s credentials. Delegates will consider the resolution July 6-8 in Oklahoma City.
The next steps are unclear in Allegheny Conference, which stripped Hyattsville (Md.) Mennonite Church of voting rights in 2005 for openly welcoming gays. To its credit, Allegheny did not break fellowship with Hyattsville. This spring the Leadership Council announced its intent to begin a process of reconciliation.
In a denomination that respects both individual conscience and community discernment, decisions on such an emotionally charged issue are not easy. In each of these conferences, a leadership group has set a good example of permitting the freedom of congregational discernment that a denomination ought to allow. It is not possible, or even desirable, for every member, church or conference to think and act alike. Diversity is inevitable and should not threaten unity.
At the same time, community discernment is important. MC USA’s Membership Guidelines make clear the denomination’s disapproval of a pastor who performs a same-sex ceremony. Discipline, while not required, can be considered. A pastor who flouts the guidelines must be prepared to accept the possibility of consequences.
But a conference that chooses tolerance takes the better path. The decisions by the WDC and CDC Ministerial Committees stand in the tradition of congregational autonomy that many in MC USA have long upheld. Decisions about how to minister to an individual or couple, whether gay or straight, belong at the pastoral and congregational level. This is where each of us is known as a real person. It is where we can do what CDC Ministerial Committee member Joel Miller said he experienced with Chicago Community Mennonite Church: “deep listening to one another, searching for biblical wisdom and openness to the leading of the Spirit.”
A pastor who performs a same-sex ceremony, or a congregation that welcomes and affirms gays and lesbians, is following a deep conviction about how to show love and affirm equality. For this there should be freedom of conscience without punishment.
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