Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 6: “Honoring Conscience”

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72As the Supreme Court declares a constitutional right to marriage (with Scalia savaging Kennedy) and Mennonites begin our pilgrimage to next week’s Kansas City convention and a potentially fateful appointment with history : This is the only way forward, I tell you; I can do no other. No, this is the only way forward, you tell me; you can do no other.

Below I share “Honoring Conscience in Plays and Sexuality Wars” as Part 6 of “Blogging Toward Kansas City” for two reasons. First, it’s my most recent published effort (The Mennonite, May 2015) to engage the latest incarnations of those matters I earlier described as being so intensely in play at Purdue 87 and now again before us at a juncture I’ve indeed heard more than one Mennonite Church USA denominational leader name “historic.”

Perhaps what’s about to happen at the Kansas City, Missouri, MC USA biennial convention will surprise us all with its low-stakes outcome. Perhaps we’ll simply muddle on for however many more years of muddling are called for. Yet it seems possible we’ll be parsing and engaging the consequences of Kansas City over the coming generation in ways comparable to the generation we’ve spent unpacking the Purdue 87 assembly.

Second, this represents my final pre-Kansas City effort to testify to why I see space for variance, or what I’d call faithful dissent, as so critical. I simply see no way forward that doesn’t in some way allow sharply opposing voices of conscience to be honored. We don’t disagree so intensely because we want to be cruel, to make trouble, to dishonor Scripture and God. We’re waging what MC USA Executive Director Ervin Stutzman has rightly, I believe, called “civil war” precisely because the very core of what we truly believe is at risk.

A resolution to be processed and voted on at Kansas City calls us to “forebearance.” Meanwhile another resolution calls for reaffirmation of Mennonite Church Membership Guidelines for at least four years. How might these two resolutions work with or against each other? What if one is adopted and the other not?

Time will tell. But I draw some hope from thoughts on the resolutions Stutzman offers in an FAQ. Agree or disagree (and certainly both responses will be offered!)  he provides a rationale for seeking to maintain stability of current denominational teachings on sexuality for at least some years. Then in one comment that strikes me as key to the quest for living together as our voices of conscience offer opposing proclamations, he sees the combination of resolutions as “inviting us to hold the documents more lightly than we hold onto each other as members of the body of Christ.”

I was preparing to post this at noon today, June 26, 2015, to take a breather (and give readers one!) before heading next week to Kansas City and posting Part 7 as a report from there. Then before noon came word of the 5-4 Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex marriage constitutional. I imagine the country and denominations and churches and in many ways the entire globe will be parsing this decision for years to come.

It seems hard to believe it won’t have some sort of context-setting impact in Kansas City. Might some of us see it as underscoring the need for Christians to be counter-cultural? We dissent from a culture of war; do we need to dissent from a culture that undoes what we consider God’s order of creation? Might others conclude sometimes God speaks through culture? Did culture, we might wonder, help a recalcitrant church reach fresh understandings regarding women in leadership? Has something similar happened again here?

Complexity lies ahead for the church and is presaged in the hot contestations within the Supreme Court. Take Kennedy: He will greatly move some and trouble others as he concludes on behalf of those who identify as LGBTQ that “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

He also takes pains to reach out to persons of faith who will disagree:

Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons. In turn, those who believe allowing same-sex marriage is proper or indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate. The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.

 Yet hold on, insists John Roberts (whom I’ll focus on as a more temperate critic that some of the SCOTUS dissenters), it’s not going to be that simple:

Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage. There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.

So there we’ll be in Kansas City, precisely in the middle of these waves. They’ll be crashing from multiple sides against a frail peninsula of discernment jutting out into the ocean of decisions and dynamics that lie ahead for church, culture, and world.

One week in Kansas City can’t clarify for MC USA what next. Yet if anything the Supreme Court decision seems to me to heighten the need for the church to be a zone of peacemaking reconciliation, a gentler and safer harbor than many will experience amid the towering breakers.

I do hope we leave Kansas City with some type of truly mutual forebearance embraced. I hope we provide for all a denominational home that offers foretastes of that Home with its many mansions. I hope we pursue the miracle of providing home, in this world of so much homelessness of body and mind and soul, for consciences entirely at odds with each other to be honored as treasures.

I hope we ask what it would mean for every single one of us to be understood to enrich the body of Christ.  What would we offer ourselves, in a world of beheadings in the name of God, if we built this home not only as isolated individuals but as part of a larger community of discernment and faithfulness and love? Might we then in amazing ways, as a roaring sound comes from heaven like a mighty windstorm and tongues of fire descend, offer clues to the mind of a God whose ways are so much more wonderful, as Job came to understand, than any of us alone can grasp? Might a startled world gasp that oh my, they seem to be drunk?

Honoring Conscience in Plays and Sexuality Wars

Should pastors be forbidden to officiate at same-sex weddings? Or forbidden not to? I draw lessons from a first-grade play.

“But my parents won’t allow me to be in the play because it’s wrong to hold a gun,” I explained, barely pushing out the words against racing heart and tightening throat.

Mrs. Navarro, coiffed white hair not softening stern features she said traced back to Mexico’s most revered president, was not about to budge: “Is there a problem with your brain, young man? What could be wrong with pretending to carry a gun in a play?”

I was in first grade, son of Mennonite missionary parents who had just moved our family to Mexico City. Between culture shock, theological shock, and sheer terror, I had about used up my explanatory resources but tried one last time: “My parents say war is wrong. We’re Mennonites, and that’s what we’re taught. They say because war is wrong even carrying guns in a play is wrong.”

Mrs. Navarro snorted. “I’m not impressed; you are strange people. If you just won’t carry a gun, fine, fine, unhappy boy. But you must be in the play. You’ll get a tiny part and be bored while your classmates have the fun you could be having.”

Half a century later, I can smile at the memory. But I still recall the sting. And it took me decades to shift from blaming my parents for the misery they could have spared me had their consciences been more flexible. It was only a play! Did you have to make me a laughingstock in first grade, not to mention seventh when you made me exercise on a gym floor mat while my classmates learned dancing, another seduction of evil culture? Or college, when I had to confess I’d never been to a movie theater because that too was bad? Yet now that my parents are gone, I’m thankful for their great gift: teaching me that pearl of great price which is obeying conscience.

I’m grateful also for the tradition undergirding my parents’ treasuring of conscience. For centuries Anabaptist-Mennonites have believed with the Peter of Acts 5:29, and the radical reformers inspired by Peter, that when human rules and God’s clash, “We must obey God instead of people!”

This matters today as denominational battles over same-sex understandings rage on. It matters because, I believe, the root cause of the war and our inability to extend ceasefire is conscience. No matter our perspective, most of us are convinced that to believe other than we do is to violate conscience. Any ceasefire must then solve the riddle of how more than one voice of conscience can exist in the same faith community.

In Mennonite Church USA, which I serve as dean at an Eastern Mennonite Seminary confronted with how we form and honor consciences amid voices so at odds, the way forward is unclear. Yet finding a path is critical as divisions roil us.

Some congregations or regional conferences are voting to leave MC USA because same-sex relationships are sinful, they must obey God at any price, and they believe MC USA is not adequately maintaining dikes against sin.

Convinced justice and obedience to God require it, other congregations or conferences are, in effect, engaging in civil disobedience. Even as it goes against current MC USA teachings, they are installing pastors in same-sex relationships or their pastors are officiating at same-sex weddings.

At EMS, students preparing for ministry must wrestle with which theological convictions they may hold without running afoul of one denominational layer or another. How do they navigate when at times theology or practice of one layer—whether congregational, conference, or national—is at odds with another? Dare they candidly express their theologies (on any side of the spectrum) except at high cost? The price can involve external consequences for holding the “wrong” position— or internal soul, conscience, integrity consequences of blending in by sublimating convictions.

There is talk of somehow restructuring MC USA to take us beyond this wilderness. I don’t pretend to be sure how, but it will have to address opposing voices of conscience. Such efforts may then further incite those wanting to exclude or marginalize Mennonite Church USA voices judged to be obeying humans over God.

As tensions mount, my faith in a reconciling outcome is shaken. But I know what I wish for: the non-negotiability of conscience somehow to be named and honored. So for example, MC USA is debating a.) whether our newest polity handbook should forbid officiation at same-sex weddings and b.) whether the handbook offers rules or more flexible guidelines. Meanwhile some—pointing, say, to the Cour D’Alene, Idaho requirement that the for-profit Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel serve all comers including LGBTQ—worry that someday a polity flip-flop could make same-sex wedding officiation a requirement. I yearn for an outcome that doesn’t in effect “criminalize” ministers who make the “wrong” choice—whether conscience calls for refusing or embracing officiation at same-sex weddings.

A complexity of Mennonite—and often broader Christian—history is that commitment conscientiously to obey God has repeatedly foundered on opposing hearings of God. So generation after generation we face a paradox: Mennonites whose tradition sprang from commitment to hear God even if this required dissent to the established church in turn marginalize or sever relationships with those who dare dissent to current Mennonite understandings.

The war over theology and polity of same-sex relationships has brought MC USA and many denominations (including United Methodist, to which the second-largest cohort of EMS students belong) to a watershed. We can do the usual thing. Putting our own consciences first, we can sanction or refuse to honor as faithful Christians those we believe hear God wrongly. Or we can ask whether this time—this time at last, confronted with a historic test—we could try a new thing: structuring ourselves in ways that honor multiple voices of conscience.

In any denomination facing this riddle, many congregations, pastors, members, and denominational entities are convinced they must obey God in ways anathema to the others. A striking MC USA example: one pastor’s officiation at a gay son’s wedding generated widely circulated open letters from family members offering contrasting—yet passionately Christian and scripturally based—expressions of conscience. In other denominational settings, some resonate with Frank Schaefer, United Methodist pastor defrocked for officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son before being re-frocked. He explained his inability to uphold the UM Book of Discipline:

Frankly, my conscience does not allow me to uphold the entire Discipline, because it contains discriminatory provisions and language that is hurtful and harmful to our homosexual brothers and sisters. It denies them their full humanity. I simply cannot uphold those parts of the Discipline.

And some echo Michael Bradley, who in the Witherspoon Institute Public Discourse (“Between Magisterium and Magistrate: Notre Dame’s Choice on Marriage’s Meaning,” Oct. 28, 2014) opposes same-sex marriage and approvingly cites these words from the Roman Catholic 2003 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons”:

In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws. . . . In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.

It may be impossible for such opposing voices of conscience to remain in fellowship. Solving the riddle will take something like the Pentecost inbreaking of the Spirit that enabled understanding across a babble of languages. {Just yesterday—as of the insertion of this update on June 26, 2015—Meghan Good offered in-depth thoughts on how the Tower of Babel and Pentecost might connect with our current circumstances.] Yet I pray that instead of emulating our culture’s fragmentation into an individualistic affiliation only with our own kind, we contribute our individual voices to a divine project larger than any of us alone can build.

To echo Ervin Stutzman (The Mennonite, Nov. 24, 2014), I pray that we learn how to honor “both individual conscience and the value of Gelassenheit (yieldedness) in the face of disagreements.” [Stutzman also elaborates on this in just-published June 23, 2015 comments on the polarities of freedom and mutual accountability.]

I dare imagine that in the reconciling and peacemaking power of Christ there is neither LGBTQ nor straight and even that in Christ there is neither traditionalist nor progressive. I imagine the Spirit descending even on today’s speakers of different and often battling tongues. I imagine Christians, guns holstered not only in plays but when loving LGBTQ-viewpoint enemies, able still to shake hands, to pray together, to break communion bread together. I imagine us able to look into each other’s eyes and to see on the other side this paradox and this treasure: one whose conscience is thoroughly at odds with my own yet who remains a faithful Christian and in some way, however creatively or miraculously this is structured, a member of my faith community.

Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC; and author, Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict over Homosexuality (Pandora Press U.S., 2001), which analyzes the difficulties of understanding opposing voices of conscience. This article was first published in The Mennonite, May 2015.

8 thoughts on “Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 6: “Honoring Conscience””

  1. As a teacher of pastoral care, i loved the way you let us think with you. You embodied Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 John 1 to 4, and so many other texts that are annoyingly asking us to respect each other without violating differing consciences.

    1. David, what a joy to see this comment from one farther ahead on the journey, a mentor I’ve long looked up to. I don’t know if you happen to remember this, but you were the commencement speaker at Eastern Baptist (now Palmer) Theological Seminary when I graduated in 1982. Your books on conflict are still woven somewhere into my own thinking.

      I resonate with and am moved by your highlighting of Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 John 1-4, given how powerfully those texts seem to me to speak to our current circumstances. Blessings on the Way, David.

      1. Richard, thanks for posting. It looks like your next response does provide the desired link. If it’s missing anything, just let me know, and I’ll try to intervene editorially to get the links working.

    1. Richard, thanks for including the link to Roger E. Olson on “And Now…What Conservative Churches Must Do.” This strikes me as an example of the type of wrestling that will be happening in the aftermath of the SCOTUS decision and that will inevitably prove contentious.

      But agree or disagree, those of us who are Anabaptist-Mennonite (or belong to any tradition distinguishing between earthly nations and God’s country) will likely find ourselves needing to reason our way through Olson’s distinction between “God and Country” Christianity and “a colony of God’s people NOT connected to any state or government.”

      In the 1970s, as a member of a historic peace church, I registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war and also received my number in the draft lottery just before President Nixon ended the draft. The CO option was available to me as a historic peace church member precisely as a religious exemption peace church leaders had worked out with the U.S. government. So I feel in my bones the importance of the religious exemption questions.

      At the same time, in my denominational and faith community contexts, persons of deep faith, integrity, and love of Scripture are reaching differing conclusions regarding same-sex relationships, with some celebrating and some mourning the SCOTUS action. Even as it will take us a long time to sort out the intersections between denominational understandings and U.S. political and legal decisions, I continue to dream of our wrestling out together the types of complexities you and Olsen point toward–but not using our varying reactions to the SCOTUS decision as the litmus test for whether we belong in fellowship with each other.

      Thanks again for commenting and engaging, Richard.

  2. Phil Ireton, many thanks for taking the time to offer this thoughtful response to my post. Indeed the divisions are so great for so many, include, as you sorrowfully report, in your Presbytery. I pray we are, so haltingly and fallibly and brokenly, finding our way toward somehow making a home for all amid the complexities of those fine lines you identify.

    And of course it warms the heart of a blogger to read the words “thoroughly enjoy”! Thanks again.

  3. Mr. King: You have handled a heart-wrenching subject that has divided many in my church, our Prebytery, that has caused many to leave for places that more closely match their beliefs. It is further made worse by the timing of political bickering.

    I have had Gay friends who have come to my church, who have been uncomfortable, because they know that they could never be accepted by my church. And that saddens me.

    How is it that someone who is divorced can enjoy the sanctity of marriage, without censor, but two committed, loving people cannot, because they are of the same sex. It has long puzzled me.

    Tomorrow dawns a new day. There is a new Law that will test many. But, the fact remains that we must obey the Law of the land. (I am reminded of the Amish folks who cut the beards of other Amish folks. They said that it was an Amish situation, to be determined by Amish leaders. They were wrong and they went to jail for assault.

    It is a fine line.

    Just so you know: I thoroughly enjoyed your blog.

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