Pittsburgh 2011 seemed to be a week in which I was called to have difficult conversations with people who have a very restrictive view of sexuality. Though it was exhausting work, I did find moments of respite with good friends along the way, in an effort to stay energized.
We experienced something new this year: the conversation room. Our teaching position on sexuality in the Mennonite church has included a “dialogue” clause for as long as we’ve had one. And yet, dialogue has rarely (if ever) happened in a healthy and constructive way at the denomination’s gatherings. Dialogue DID happen in Pittsburgh thanks to the conversation room.
I was invited to be one of the first speakers the afternoon we discussed “The Church and the Role of Teaching Positions, Dialogue and Discernment.” I am posting my notes for the 4 minutes I prepared. Please be warned: these are NOTES, and not a polished, finished piece…
I confess that it’s difficult for me to address a “teaching position” on human sexuality when I know so well the faces, the stories, the beautiful, gifted, Spirit-inspired people who represent / inhabit what, for others, may simply be an “issue.” Our congregation would be a spiritually poorer place without the active participation of LGBTQ people. I don’t say this to dismiss the conversation we’re about to have, but simply to confess that I must strive with the temptation to do so.
Like Peter and his fellow circumcised believers, “astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles,” we have found we cannot withhold baptism in the name of Jesus the Christ for all who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have (Acts 10). Since we began this practice some time ago, we are, frankly, no longer “astounded” that the Holy Spirit falls on gay and straight alike. We have come to expect it. And we are richly blessed by the gifts of all. The Spirit has made the way clear to us by the good fruits that we together bear (Matthew 7).
I began collecting notes for this day in a Word document, when I saved it, I named it “statements and Spirit.” After naming it, I was struck by the small “s” in “statements” and big “S” in “Spirit.” The authority is clear.
*I understand dialogue and discernment to be ongoing.
*They don’t stop. We don’t reach a stopping point when something is “settled.”
*We simply may not wash our hands of this “issue,” or tie it up nice and tidily. That ship has sailed.
*Stories of the good fruits born of LGBTQ Mennonites are growing, not dwindling.
*A “teaching position” is a snapshot of a moment in our community’s understanding.
*Not an eternal Truth cast in concrete.
*But a snapshot of something in motion.
*Statements are contextual and provisional, descriptive (of who we are / have been) and not prescriptive (of who we shall be, forever and ever amen).
*And ALWAYS subject to the ongoing discernment of the Spirit.
It is the Spirit who is Holy, Divine, Eternal and True. NEVER our statements. I fully own and claim my preference for the Spirit over statements. I believe it to be a more faithful ordering. This is not to say that the Spirit isn’t present in our drafting of statements, surely the Spirit is there, just as the Spirit is in our editing statements and occasionally discarding statements. All that to say, the Spirit is before what we manage to draft and affirm together, and after. And the Spirit, from the very beginning, has been scandalous—calling and equipping people to do and say some unlikely things, to include and integrate some unlikely people. It is WE who get anxious and wish to tame a Spirit who delights in flinging itself every which way—like tongues of fire alighting on EACH head of a motley crew assembled in Jerusalem one morning approximately 2000 years ago at 9:00 a.m.
I believe that the Spirit of God moves us through the voices and even the TEACHINGS of those who faithfully dissent from a “teaching position.” How do we ever begin to discern movement away from an old teaching position without those prophetic voices in our midst who begin to wonder, discern and then teach another way?
Again, like Peter, we have seen something like a large sheet of queer Mennos being lowered from the heavens while the voice of God has spoken, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10).