Recently both Ron Sider and Tony Campolo have been commenting on LGBTQ relationships. They hold opposing views. Nothing unusual about that these days—but their lives have long intertwined and only recently did Campolo announce he no longer shared Sider’s perspectives. Both were professors at Eastern Baptist (now Palmer) Theological Seminary in the 1980s, when I was drawn there partly because of them (and became Ron’s student assistant and later co-author of a book on preaching).
When Campolo announced his change of views, he said, “Rest assured I have already heard—and in some cases made—every kind of biblical argument against gay marriage, including those of Dr. Ronald Sider, my esteemed friend and colleague at Eastern University.”
Meanwhile Sider has been articulating his understanding that on the one hand a church too often homophobic needs to be clearer than it has been that welcome is extended to anyone who is “an openly gay, celibate Christian.” On the other hand, Sider underscores this foundational understanding: “the Bible affirms the goodness and beauty of sexual intercourse—and everywhere, without exception, it is sexual intercourse between a man and a woman committed to each other for life.”
I think of these colleagues, leaders, mentors reaching such different conclusions. I think of circles of loved ones, including my own, in which the Campolo/Sider differences are woven into the very fabric of souls and relationships. God’s gracious arms reach out to welcome those of us who identify as LGBTQ and seek profoundly committed relationships within which to love and be loved, say some members of the circle. Yes, and I join you in extending that embrace, say other members. No, says a different member, sometimes a parent, sometimes a child, sometimes a sibling, sometimes a dear friend. That’s a false grace, an erosion of faithfulness to the Bible; if I support you in cheap grace, I’ve failed truly to love you.
It’s because I think of these faces and relationships, so dear and yet so torn, that I can find no other approach for myself than to yearn for a community that tries for the miracle of embracing us all, in all our oppositions, in all our alienations. I ache for a community that asks us to live in the pain of holding dear even the other I believe so wrong.
How we address these matters has long been crucial for Mennonite Church USA, the denomination to which I belong, which has in recent decades joined many other denominations and faith communities in struggling to discern, amid deep divisions, how to view same-sex relationships. A number of times, particularly since the early 1980s, MC USA or its predecessor denominations have reached high-voltage junctures.
Now we’re approaching another one: “Kansas City 2015,” a biennual convention of Mennonite Church USA, its opening worship slated for the last night of this month and key discussions of sexuality resolutions scheduled for July 2. At Kansas City the stakes may be historically high as some would wish for full and unambiguous inclusion of persons who identify as LGBTQ, others want MC USA to maintain a traditional position reserving marriage and full expressions of sexuality for men and women, and some speak of a “forebearance” in which we agree to walk patiently with those holding views with which we disagree.
The fact that I’ll be among writers providing Mennonite World Review with a blog post on Kansas City 2015 got me thinking about “Purdue 87″—the last time I reported on a denominational assembly. I wondered what I would learn from reviewing my impressions 28 years ago in preparation for this 2015 reporting. I was struck, to use an unoriginal line, by how much has changed and how much has remained the same—including in relation to LGBTQ relationships.
So I want to draw on the angle of vision shaped in me through being a reporter on and delegate at Purdue 87. I also want to test the perspectives I’ll be taking to Kansas City, because some of them may be wearing out. It’s not clear to me, for instance, that the dream I’ve articulated above, of somehow including all in the MC USA wing of the body of Christ, whether straight or LGBTQ, whether or not we agree, will survive developments that may lie ahead.
To work at such testing, let me first say more about the potential cross-connections between Purdue 87 and Kansas City 2015. Then I’ll overview the seven-part series of “Blogging Toward Kansas City” posts through which I envision working at the testing.
Many of us expect Kansas City 2015 to be a difficult convention. Blogging for The Mennonite, pastor Jessica Schrock Ringenberg has said that “I am dreading convention” and that even though she normally loves conventions, “this year I have a pit in my stomach that makes me feel sick every time I even think about it. ” This, she explains, is because so many of us are confronted with how we answer “The Question” amid awareness that the stakes are high and depending on setting any answer can get us in trouble.
Meanwhile Purdue 87, held at Purdue University in Indiana, has become famous (or infamous) in Mennonite circles for its adoption of what was to become known as the “Purdue statement.” This was when two denominations, the (Old) Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC) were still years from finalizing their merger and reconfiguration into Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Thus the GCs, still holding separate assemblies, had the prior year adopted their own similar statement in Saskatoon. The overlapping statements were thereafter often referred to as “Purdue/Saskatoon” and continue to be referenced in MC USA’s current membership guidelines.
There was plenty to confront at Purdue. The July 28, 1987 issue of the Gospel Herald reported that this is what happened when the delegate sessions turned toward consideration of sexuality: “Ushers had to turn people away at the doors . . . as debate got underway on the final report of the Human Sexuality in the Christian Life Committee.”
The report highlighted that on these matters “Mennonites express considerable diversity and can’t agree on what the Bible teaches. . . .” It explained that by a large majority delegates approved the Purdue statement, which both affirmed that full expressions of sexuality are reserved for heterosexual marriage and articulated a covenant “to study the Bible together on the subject and to dialogue with each other.”
The full text of the Purdue statement actually said much more about dialogue:
We covenant with each other to mutually bear the burden of remaining in loving dialogue with each other in the body of Christ, recognizing that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and that the Holy Spirit may lead us to further truth and repentance. We promise compassion and prayer for each other that distrustful, broken, and sinful relationships may experience God’s healing.
We covenant with each other to take part in the ongoing search for discernment and for openness to each other. As a part of the nurture of individuals and congregations we will promote congregational study of the complex issues of sexuality, through Bible study and the use of materials such as Human Sexuality in the Christian Life.
The Gospel Herald summary of those paragraphs entirely through the word dialogue points to the possibility that delegates may not have grasped, as was exemplified in To Continue the Dialogue, edited by C. Norman Kraus (Pandora Press U.S., 2001), just how momentous, complicated, and contentious the covenant to dialogue would prove to be. For long years and through many interpretive permutations the church wrestled with what it had committed itself to. Was it to continue conversing about how to care for each other even as the reserving of marriage for a man and a woman was non-negotiable? Or was there readiness to allow the Holy Spirit to shed further light on how holy sexuality might come to be viewed as extending to same-sex relationships?
The report on sexuality ended with these words, in parentheses: “(Gay and lesbian Mennonites in attendance at Purdue 87, through a statement they issued later, said they felt ‘rejected’ by the action.)”
A number of thoughts emerge as I ponder what happened at Purdue 87 combined with Ringenberg’s dread (along with countless more, I’d guess) of Kansas City.
(1) A first thought is that we might want to be sobered. Again and again Mennonites have sought paths for putting divisions over sexuality to rest. Yet as Ringenberg’s comments highlight, no such destination seems in view. Whatever resolutions are adopted or rejected at Kansas City, it may be instructive to ponder to what extent the Purdue delegates could have forecast developments they wittingly and perhaps mostly unwittingly contributed to.
(2) As one whose own belief in my ability to see the future has been chastened, I want to underscore being much more uncertain than I once was that I grasp which choices will yield which results 28 years from now.
(3) In the aftermath of Purdue it has long seemed to me that there will be no putting behind us divisions over sexuality unless we find some clean, clear, genuine way to live with diversity of understandings. I see no way forward that fails to provide for what I’d call “faithful dissent” or some call “variance”—a term not yet common in 1987 but now pulled to the forefront by the reality that any effort to forestall variance has ultimately only energized it.
In relation to sexuality, Mennonites faithfully seeking to submit to Scripture, God, the teachings of Jesus, and the sanctity of conscience continue to reach different conclusions. And far from shrinking through the passing of time, through efforts to finalize sexuality-related discernment, or through the hope that just one more statement will permit us to move on to other things, the differences have widened year after year. If Kansas City 2015 doesn’t provide in some way for variance, I expect the struggles that led to the Purdue statement and then were fed by decades of conversation over what Purdue (and Saskatoon) really meant will unfold once again.
Simultaneously, I recognize that precisely my conviction that space for faithful dissent is essential for moving beyond the decades of impasse is in the end an ingredient of the impasse. Others believe that a clarity not muddled by the faithful dissenters is key. Thus we find ourselves impaled once more on the horns of the dilemma.
(4) Finally, amid all the pre- and post-merger streams of MC USA have faced during the past generation, here we still are, often saddened if not wiser (that remains to be seen) but still traveling on.
On the one hand, there is plenty to mourn. We’re so at odds that MC USA entities are deciding to leave MC USA and to invest in alternative denominational structures or networks. Total MC USA membership is down by thousands when contrasted with 1987’s comparable statistics.
On the other hand, beyond the dread Ringenberg understandably articulates, I also detect ongoing passion and anticipation. And even dread is a marker of intense investment in the church. Many of my Mennonite colleagues and friends report a sense, which I share, of readiness to trust the Holy Spirit, to let go of dreams that may prove unworkable, to dream new dreams, to contribute to the fresh ways of shaping the body of Christ that may emerge if old ways come undone.
So I believe Purdue 87 is instructive. Looking back may help us understand what we do or don’t want to decide next. Yet precisely because we’ve been at this for decades now, Kansas City and the journey beyond will likely not simply reenact Purdue. Kansas City can take us into new fields and forests and cities and churches of that better country, God’s country of Hebrews 11, awaiting those who by faith leave behind what has been and travel toward “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
As I seek to be a voyager to that better country and to report on it at Kansas City, I want to prepare myself. That takes me back to this “Blogging Toward Kansas City” series, which I conceptualize this way:
Part 1 is this introductory post. Then I envision six more posts, five of them reprints with contemporary introductions of past essays or columns. This one and the last are intended to offer largely new writing.
Part 2 will focus on “Who Are You, My Audience?” my original report on Purdue 87.
Part 3 will reprint “On Not Knowing the Truth Before We Find It.” Here through evolution and “intelligent design” (as framed by lessons from my grandchildren) I explore how, if we truly believe our knowledge is fallible—as I do—we might establish models for pooling our insights to achieve something grander than any of us alone can manage.
Part 4 will feature my article “Painholders on Holy Ground,” in which I ponder the riddle of the “open” being closed to the “closed” and the “closed” being closed to the “open” and wonder if “painholders” offer us hope for a way forward.
Part 5 will reprint “Double Conversion,” in which I draw on the story of Peter and Cornelius and a worship service to yearn for ways we could lay our divisions at the foot of the cross.
Part 6 will offer my recent article on “Honoring Conscience in Plays and Sexuality Wars.” Here, amid rising doubt as to whether we can find reconciliation across such different voices of conscience, I still yearn for the Holy Spirit to offer us a Pentecost miracle.
Part 7 will be my new blog post from Kansas City, “Bending the Curve,” deadline 6:00 p.m., July 1, slated to appear both in Mennonite World Review and here in Kinsgview & Co. I look forward to journeying with you.
—Michael A. King is blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; 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),
Editor’s note: As was also the case with its prior incarnation, DreamSeeker Magazine, Kingsview & Co is not intended to be mostly about our divisions over same-sex relationships. But for the next few weeks, amid the potential for major developments in my denomination, it often will be.