I have spent ten years in full time ministry in Mennonite Church Canada. My professionals career has run parallel to the Being a Faithful Church process. As the ‘process’ has now concluded I wanted to reflect on the next ten years of my ministry and the life of my denomination.
As churches in Mennonite Church Canada we have concluded a decade long process named Being a Faithful Church (BFC). This process has come to be identified with the issue of discerning the church’s position on same-sex relationships but this issue is of course much older and the BFC process itself was set up to build capacity for ongoing discernment beyond how the church understands marriage and sexuality. So, as we are transitioning out of this particular phase, what capacity to be a faithful church have we gained? I want to offer a few thoughts as someone who has followed and engaged this process closely and whose full-time ministry has run parallel to this process.
First, we should ask if we now have the capacity to discern together. Ongoing discernment was the primary goal of the BFC process. Unfortunately the BFC process itself was not always able to model mutual discernment. Church leadership (perhaps most leadership) tends towards a superiority complex. Put simply, we act as though we are sufficient and superior prior to contact with groups or individuals not directly affiliated with those of us in positions of authority. This is clear in our doctrine of scripture when we claim to possess the word of God (as opposed to those who do not) and this is often clear in our theology of mission believing that truth and salvation flow from us into the world (we have nothing to gain and everything to offer). In light of this heritage the church has often discerned issues relating to other groups without mutual consultation and engagement. This does not simply happen with groups outside the church (think dominant paradigms of indigenous/colonial missions) but this also occurs addressing those within the church. While the BFC task force did consult with LGBTQ identified individuals and LGBTQ individuals were heard (occasionally) from the floor of larger gatherings it remains the legacy of this process that nowhere was their testimony heard in the official documents and nowhere was their presence acknowledged formally on the stage of our sessions. This reality remains an indictment of a supremacist model of discernment. The question then is a live one, do we now have the capacity to discern together?
A significant shift in the BFC process occurred when we turned decidedly from discerning matters of marriage and sexuality to maintaining unity in the church. Suddenly the goal of the process became maintaining unity. I want to suggest that unity is not a goal. Unity is the means by which we offer support to those suffering as well identify and confront those inflicting suffering. Whether we can work in unity is also a live question. Will we use the remainder of our energy and resources putting out small fires of disagreement and bandaging the wounds of church splits or can we turn our attention in a way that can more faithfully address matters of gender, sexuality, and relationships. I am not old enough to have experienced the shifts in addressing marriage and divorce as well as women in leadership but I gather our patterns of relating then are in keeping with the same practices of today, that is, make minimal compromises for the goal of unity.
In light of our past practices and present moment I want to suggest a few opportunities. In her book Women’s Bodies as Battlefield Susan Brooks Thistlewaite introduces the phrase critical physicality. In the midst of competing approaches to doing ethics Thistlewaite reminds us that we must always be paying attention to what is happening to bodies. In order to do ethics well we must always give witness to the impact our beliefs and actions have on the body. We must also acknowledge that the forces of our world have made some bodies and lives more vulnerable to abuse and suffering than others. I believe that if Mennonite Church Canada (and other churches) had adopted this approach to faithfulness it would have dramatically changed the way we engaged ethical behaviour. It seems that most of our debates and controversies revolve around questions of authority and who is identified with or recognized by that authority. This has been the case with divorce and remarriage, women in leadership, and LGBTQ recognition and inclusion. These ‘debates’ have caused a great deal of controversy but the controversy has often been focused on how these groups and individuals challenge or undermine authority. But for those working on the front lines of sexual abuse, women’s rights, and LGBTQ advocacy another story remains largely untold (at least in the church). If issues of gender, sexuality, and relationships are important to us as a church then why do we remain silent on questions of incest, harassment, and discriminatory behaviour? I have never had to go very far both in my own life as well as in conversations with others to hear these stories. Open up a safe conversation about sexual boundary violations and hear stories of stalking, verbal harassment and unwanted touching. Get to know the story of LGBTQ individuals and hear stories of denied employment, eviction, and shunning. And take note of how incest haunts our past and present as one of the most traumatic unspoken knowns of the Mennonite church. Why have we centred our conversations around abstract notions of authority and not on the experiences and needs of those inflicted by abuse?
Critical physicality does not always tell us how to respond but it changes our attentiveness and realigns our energy. Critical physicality can also help us discern that there are different types of ‘pain’. This is not a matter of recognizing one form of pain while dismissing the other but it does help us to recognize differences and acknowledge that not all experiences have the same effects and not all individuals are as secure as others in a given time and place. In debating our understanding of marriage it has been said that ‘both sides’ have felt pain and I am sure this true. People feel pain for all sorts of reasons. However, we need to distinguish the context of this pain. We can feel hurt when someone disagrees with a value we cherish; it can feel like an insult and make us feel insecure. However, when a person’s beliefs function to deny the value and witness of another human being and leave them vulnerable to abuse then we need to differentiate our understanding of pain and vulnerability. I still hear the sentiment that white men are now the people most discriminated against. Many men feel ‘hurt’ because they do not have many of the privileges they once assumed. Working towards equity will inevitably be experienced as a ‘threat’ (pain?) to those most invested in power. The same has been true in the church. When someone expresses pain over having their beliefs challenged in society we need to be aware if those beliefs have actively silenced or marginalized other groups in the past. We cannot equate the pain of discomfort and critique with the pain of rejection and marginalization.
So it remains a live question. Will we (particularly those who have benefited most from previous leadership and theological structures) set aside previous agendas so that we can allow our faithfulness to be shaped by a critical physicality, an attentiveness to the sources and sites of pain in our world, where unity becomes a means of supporting those most vulnerable and dismantling those expressions inflicting harm?
This commitment has clear implications. Our questions of marriage and sexuality must begin with seeking out those suffering from intimate partner abuse, those coping with the effects of childhood abuse and incest, survivors of rape and harassment, those discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation. I have only begun to take these commitments seriously, only begun scratching the surface asking questions in these areas and I am quickly finding that there is more than enough work to do.