Narrating church success

Amid the chronic expressions of church (and Christian) decline there remain a few narratives of church success in urban North American settings. There are new Canadian congregations in which an established faith from another country/context is transplanted here transferring an existing vitality. Then there remains the suburban evangelical mega church model which skews either towards a charismatic spirituality and/or conservative family values (these sometimes have ‘satellites’ in the downtown area). These narratives of success tend to remain in keeping with the larger socio-economic forces whether it is the value of social cohesion and coherence of new immigrants, the capitalist aspirations of infinite accumulation in health and wealth charismatic spirituality, or the reassuring stability of the nuclear family in evangelical mega churches.

I would like to explore a third narrative of urban church success, namely those churches emphasizing the use of ‘higher-church’ liturgy and a more straightforward commitment to theological orthodoxy. While I don’t find this article particularly well researched, a recent response to Serene Jones’ denial of a ‘literal’ resurrection attempts to demonstrate how Jones’s liberalism is now passing and another generation is rising up who embrace an orthodox theology without retreating from present issues. This article is characteristic the common claims of orthodox forms of liturgy and theology that are revitalizing the church. I would like to explore this narrative of success through my experience at and reflection on St. Margaret’s Anglican Church here in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Before continuing I should add that by ‘success’ I simply refer to congregational/parish settings that reflects vitality in terms of broad demographic engagement, ministries offered, and profile in the larger community.

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Closed communion: On maybe not being God’s gift to the world

As the trend in Mennonite Church Canada continues to drift towards ‘open communion’ (which typically refers to an invitation to receive communion regardless of one’s ‘merits’ [baptism, membership, etc.] or even designation as a Christian) I found myself becoming more resistant than I anticipated. There are several reasons for this.

First, by way of orientation. In my experience ‘closed’ communion is typically supported by the notion that communion already reflects a faith commitment. This could be appealed to by way of the biblical precedent of only disciples being present at the founding event and then also of the very early church tradition in which communion was given special weight in relation to a believers commitment. It is assumed that people find value in communion and as a significant site of spiritual formation and worship it is not something to be undertaken lightly.

As many traditions in the last 50 years or so began to question and address the manner in which the church has functioned to exclude people and hold an unhelpful and hypocritical measuring tape up against others there have been attempts to ‘open’ communion, focusing rather on the radical hospitality of Jesus and the rejection of meritocracy, on who is ‘worthy’ to judge and to receive communion. Communion becomes a symbol that anyone should be able to recognize and receive as a sign of grace.

What I find myself wondering about is the arrogance of the church in both of these models. Closed communion can certainly be reflective of a larger ‘closed’ culture in a congregation which is unable to recognize faithfulness and goodness in people who do not fit the moral codes of a congregational theology. This is still most easily identifiable in matters of marriage of equality or sexual orientation but this extends in basic postures of piety that often reflect middle-class values on what being ‘blessed’ looks like and in turn what we expect others to look like. And so ‘closed’ communion can easily function to reinforce who is really a part of God’s chosen people. There can be an equating holiness with perfection and the church as stewards of this protection. This aligns with the deeper theology of Christian supremacy which believes the church to sufficient and superior prior to contact with what is unrecognized.

In this way it makes sense for those addressing these harmful practices to ‘open’ communion and indeed focus on radical hospitality, extending the table as it were. However, I find this posture to be more a reaction in overcoming the narrowness of its more conservative brothers and sisters. What I mean is that I am concerned this approach is more about soothing our own guilt and distancing ourselves from what we find distasteful in other church forms than actually thinking about how communion can and should function in the church. So, a few thoughts.

If communion is meant to be an intimate space in the relation to God and fellow believers church leadership should never consider it a completely open space. One can only wonder how many times victims have been forced to take communion alongside abusers. The time has fully arrived for the church to re-visit the question of church discipline particularly in relation to issues of abuse and harassment. It seems reasonable if not necessary to reflect on how to make communion a safe space (which includes an interrogation of the theology behind communion practices).

And so while communion should hopefully support and protect those within a congregation I also feel like we need to be more attentive to how communion protects those outside the congregation. Unless we wish to make communion literally a meal basically like every other meal (which could well be fine) then we need to acknowledge that communion reflects a practice that bonds one to God and to one another. There is great pious theology that can articulate the abounding love of God which is for everyone. And most of us in the church do hope that if there is something good we can offer, we want to offer it. But deploying this theology at the site of communion may not be the most helpful.

This call to open communion can again communicate that we are literally God’s gift to everyone, that we have what is good for what ails you. And so what I am wondering if we are willing to acknowledge that we may NOT actually be good for some people to be bonded to. I hear this from some black people who are uncomfortable (to put it mildly) with our white churches trying to be more ‘diverse’ (making them a project of their aspirations). I hear this from queer individuals hesitant to receive welcome when it is only practiced in a let’s-all-agree-to-disagree-and-focus-on-unity context (ultimately subsuming them under a repressive theology). And it is quite simply arrogant to assume we have what you need (I can’t help but think there is a sneaking supremacy in all this).

Rather, take your time. Get to know the church. Learn about its history, theology and practices. You know, catechism. If the church can only offer communion as a means of support to those outside its congregation it is probably doing something wrong. There are all kinds of tables, all kinds of relationships and opportunities. We don’t have our house in order and should not be quick to begin bonding someone to our family dynamics until that person has a better sense of what they are getting themselves into. Particularly as Mennonites we cannot allow our theology to become increasingly divorced from our ecclesial realities.

The patriarchy . . . still: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 3)

In my last post I made clear that my theological outline is not based in an ‘liberal’ understanding of theology or society. If you are still following at this point I am guessing you know I won’t draw on many traditionally conservative resources. This is true. This does not mean it is not worth clarifying the ways in which patriarchy continues to exert itself forcefully within the church and its theology.

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Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 2)

The first part of this series was an attempt to situate the current theological state of Mennonite Church Canada. The commitment I would like to nurture is a moral commitment to remain attentive to those suffering and struggling in the midst of our churches and cultures. I hope that this commitment will also help us to open up some of our broader theological commitments.

In the next two parts I will look at the two dominant theological forms at work in Mennonite Church Canada. My accounts are neither complete nor exclusive to other influences at work. However, the terms liberal and conservative get thrown around so much that is worth paying attention to them and clarifying their insufficiency in relation to a gospel drawing our unity and attention to the realities of suffering and injustice. After these next two critical sections I will try and offer some more constructive pieces in moving forward (Hint: It’s not a ‘third-way’!).

Since it will come as no surprise to those who know me I am critical of conservative/patriarchal theology instead I thought I would begin with my still developing understanding and critique of liberalism.

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Beyond BFC – Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 1)

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.

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Just let him finish; Or, you cannot serve both process and advocacy

“No man who does not actively choose to work to change and challenge patriarchy escapes its impact.” – bell hooks

“I’ve come to the conclusion that process is how Mennonites justify and inflict violence. As long as we have a process, we have been fair, good, and kind people.” – Carol Wise, Executive Director, Brethren Mennonite Council on LGBT Interests [1]

“Just let him finish.” – Patriarchy

“Institutional process is not advocacy.” – Me, thinking about church

Last week I interrupted two men speaking from the floor at a meeting of Mennonite Church Manitoba. The meeting was meant to understand what it means for congregations with differing understandings of marriage and human sexuality to continue to be in fellowship with each other as an area church. It was explicitly stated that this was NOT a meeting to debate any particular issue within that diversity but to imagine what life as a larger denomination can look like going forward.

Most of the meeting, I think, was on topic. Towards the end of the meeting things began taking a turn. One man got up and spoke about the recent edition of National Geographic that explored our changing understanding of gender and how we needed science to help us in the church. This may be true but it was already outside the parameters of the conversations. I wish some comment of clarification would have already been made at that point. What happened after that was that I interrupted two speakers in the middle of their comments. The first speaker equated this change, the intentional creation of space for differences on marriage, with changing the Word of God. To create space for same sex marriages was to deviate from the eternal Word of God. I interrupted by calling on the speaker to try and maintain the parameters of the conversation I was told, ‘Just let him finish’. He did.

Then another man got up and began to speculate on behalf of queer Mennonites wondering if perhaps gays and lesbians are leaving the church because they are convicted by the Holy Spirit. Then he asked us to consider this from a ‘spiritual warfare perspective’ that perhaps all the trouble going on in Mennonite Church Canada can be attributed to Satan using gays and lesbians . . . I interrupted again. I don’t even know what I said. The man did not finish. He left the building immediately. The meeting ended shortly afterwards. I have been reflecting on my actions and the events since. I just wanted to offer a few thoughts.

I realize now that my actions last week are directly related to my experience in Saskatoon this past summer during the national gathering of Mennonite Church Canada. During the floor discussion in Saskatoon there was a point when a man got up and over several minutes went over the biblical and theological laundry lists of why homosexuals will be damned to hell. Here again, our moderator and our delegate body were content to ‘just let him finish’.

Later that evening I was one of the General Board representatives that met with a group simply called ‘Family and Friends’. This is a support group for LGBTQ Mennonites as well as family and friends. That this group has such an ambiguous existence among the formal gatherings of MC Canada already speaks volumes. During that time people shared their hurt and anger over the leadership’s inability to recognize the inappropriate and harmful actions from the man speaking from the floor. They looked at me as a General Board member to be accountable for such an action. That experience led me to understand that unless ‘church process’ is directly accountable to the experience of and advocacy for the most vulnerable then one will need to choose. There are times when you cannot serve both process and advocacy.

Trying to understand my experience during summer I found a short entry in my notebook from summer in which I confessed that I felt I needed “to let him say his piece.” And I apologized for not having “the immediate presence of mind to name such language as both hateful and heretical. . . . [And] that whatever diversity we express going forward it cannot tolerate expressions of faith that expose LGBTQ believers as condemned.” Even though I forgot these exact words I can see how my actions last week grew out of them.

If we can accept that patriarchy continues to be a negative influence for our church then we need to learn how to NOT ‘let him finish’. This is hard. We, men, are used to getting to finish even if after the fact we might acknowledge that it was not the best thing. I am not putting this on the moderator of the meeting, this has been the practice of the church myself included.

With regards to regional or national leadership I don’t think there needs to be a choice between process and advocacy. In summer in Saskatoon I spoke with two church leaders about this, one from MC Canada the other MC USA. Both acknowledged that there is a difference between the role of prophet and priest but one said that he viewed his role as trying to protect the prophet so that places and opportunities can be given for her voice even though he recognizes that he cannot occupy that place. The other leader said that we need to be careful over interest groups and that good process keeps the ‘lynch mob’ at bay. There is a marked difference here (even though the former is still problematic). And that one leader can equate advocacy for LGBTQ Mennonites as a potential ‘lynch mob’ is unnerving to say the least.

With regards to individual actions that interrupt, protest, or resist larger church processes we need to be prepared to be criticized. This should go without saying but I was surprised by the type of criticism I received after my actions at the meeting. Two criticisms came from older ‘tolerant’ men accusing me of arrogance and narcissism for acting in the way I did. This reminded me of Stephanie Krehbiel’s research on LGBTQ advocacy in the Mennonite church where she states that, “Because Mennonites are theologically wedded to the notion of ‘community’ as the vehicle through which God’s will is mediated, charges of individualism bear a particular sting.” To interrupt, to not let him finish is to assert individualism and therefore to be wrong by default in the Mennonite world. I am well aware that I talk a lot (and write), more than I need to at times but I don’t think this should be confused with our fear of or indifference towards interrupting him.

This also reminded that we need to be clear about what becoming an ‘affirming’ congregation means. I heard several voices that night coming from formally ‘affirming’ congregations that continued to also affirm anti-queer positions in the larger Mennonite body. That including homophobic voices in gatherings was an acceptable form of unity in diversity. This does not make sense to me. We can certainly acknowledge that such diversity exists; we can acknowledge our own ambivalence and uncertainties on some of these matters; we can create parameters around when and if such conversations are helpful when we gather as a larger body. However, is there really value in affirming a theological position and practice that a congregation has discerned as harmful and inappropriate? The second man whom I interrupted literally attempted to create fear in us by suggesting that Satan might be working through gays and lesbians to destroy the church. And this is what we are now wrestling with. What does it look like to gather as a larger body after formally affirming the space for those congregations who have departed from traditional views on marriage? As someone mentioned to me after the meeting, LGBTQ Mennonites know that not all ‘affirming’ congregations are the same. Affirmation is a commitment to work at stopping violence towards the vulnerable and excluded not an achievement to boast or even rest in.

What will I do? I hope to connect with LGBTQ Mennonites as well as any family and friends to learn how to best be supportive. If my actions at the meeting (or in general) simply reinforce the arena of dudes-talking-to-each-other-about-important-things then I want to change and learn what actions are best. I want to keep learning to be accountable.

I hope that Stephanie Krehbiel’s dissertation, Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA, will eventually gain popular publication. It is a tremendous resource in these matters. In Chapter One she recounts an interview with Carol Wise who Krehbiel says could be described as a ‘senior member’ of the queer Anabaptist movement. To conclude (not letting myself finish!) I will quote a portion of their interaction,

 As we sat down over breakfast, Wise told me immediately that she found our email exchange reassuring. Upon hearing that there was a straight, Mennonite ethnographer interested in this subject, she told me that her initial response was to worry that I would try to argue that Mennonites were exceptional in their treatment of queer people—that is, exceptionally good. That she would worry about this gulf of difference between her perception and mine, I think, speaks to the continued presence of the tensions I described in the previous section. Years of experience with church process had taught many LGBTQ Mennonites that even ostensible allies were likely to read the state of queer justice in the church much differently than they did. In our emails, Wise was notably encouraged when I responded to her counsel that my work might make me unpopular with church leaders with evidence that I was already becoming unpopular with them. “My observation is many leaders feel betrayed by allies because allies are finally, finally speaking up, asking questions, and not automatically assuming the good will of church leaders,” she wrote.

The question of what to do with assumptions of the “good will” of process brokers was a recurring theme throughout our conversation that morning. “At some point, the church can say, we didn’t know. We didn’t know,” Wise said. “But once you know, if you continue to act in that way, now you’re doing violence willfully… the danger to the church itself is increasing exponentially, the longer it willfully enforces and maintains those structures of racism and sexism and heterosexism. Because there’s no innocence left in it.”

[1] Recorded by interview in Stephanie Krehbiel’s doctoral dissertation, Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA (University of Kansas, 2015).

Suffering, violence, and the Word of God: First thoughts on Müntzer.

I am just supposed to let this all overwhelm me? – Thomas Müntzer

I don’t typically enjoy reading Reformation authors (not that I have read many). Unless I really want to spend the time tracking their logic I find the content has not aged well and reads like bad worn out pietism. Thomas Müntzer’s writings have largely evaded that experience. I really did not know much about him other than he is more or less shunned in mainstream Mennonite thought and history because of his involvement in violent revolts. In this post I just want to note a couple observations as I am about half finished his collected works (minus much of the liturgical pieces unfortunately).

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