I spent the past week in Pittsburgh at the Mennonite Church USA Convention, the bi-annual gathering of the denomination to which I belong. One of the most interesting parts of Convention this year was something called “The Pittsburgh Experiment.” TPE was an attempt to elevate dialogue over decision-making. MCUSA is such a young denomination that the locus of authority in the church is still unclear. So instead of bringing resolutions, opening the floor for comments, then voting on what should pass, the delegates first decision of the Convention was to pass a resolution for no resolutions, except those without which the church could not function. There was open mic time during each session, but only after delegates spent 30-45 minutes at randomly assigned table groups. And no votes were taken.
To my knowledge, the suggestion for TPE came, in part, after two resolutions were put forward in 2010, each on the opposing side of the issue of clergy who marry gays and lesbians (currently if a pastor marries a gay or lesbian couple her credentials would automatically be put up for review by her conference. Some conferences have found these credentials to be “in good order” while others have suspended licensing credentials for two years or more). A committee more or less put these resolutions together, saying “we agree to disagree.” Obviously, this didn’t move the discussion along and it didn’t help either side express its opinion.
So TPE is trying to prepare the church for a new way of approaching difficult issues like this. There are critics of the proposal. Delegates who crafted various resolutions found that they would not be able to bring their parish’s concerns and ideas to the rest of the body. Others think this is a power grab on the part of our Executive Council. After all, if the denomination can mostly get by without you, what’s the point of even having delegates?
I understand these concerns, and I’m not sure that TPE is going to radically shift the climate of contentiousness around the human sexuality issue. But as someone coming from the Episcopal church I am very thankful the denomination went this direction. I was an Episcopalian at a very politically involved church. I went to three national conventions while I was a teenager. And every time it was very clear that the two sides of the debate on sexuality were desperate for a decision. It was all about talking points. Not about hearing the pain of gays and lesbians. Not about listening to the difficult and penetrating questions from traditionalists. Not about knowing where the other side was coming from. It was all about pushing us to the brink as quickly as possible. By the end most traditionalist were relieved that they could “wash their hands” of the liberals in our church. I have no doubt progressives felt the same way. To me the entire experience felt like divorce.
TPE brings out for me what I think so many church polity structures lack – patience. Hey, were not even getting back together for another two years. No decisions were made about an issue that for many is burning. But we did get to talk a lot with different people this year. We did spend time reflecting on the other issues that bind us together as a tradition. Daily we worshiped together. We sang together and we got to see and experience the breadth of the Mennonite church. I felt like TPE was saying, these issues aren’t going to be solved in a day or a year, and they are going to require as much in the way of relationships and charity as theology and Scripture.
I was also impressed by another facet of the Convention – the Pink Mennos. Pink Menno is an organization that hopes to move the Mennonite church towards open and full inclusion of gays and lesbians. But they aren’t a policy group – they are advocates. I was fully prepared for this to mean encountering angry college students chaining themselves to the locked Convention door or littering the hallways with leaflets (hey, that’s how we roll in the Episcopal church). Instead, the Pink Mennos sang hymns. Hymns are a uniting force in the Mennonite church. And each day, before joint worship, the Pink Mennos offered up a protest hymn sing. Ladies still wearing the head covering could sing along side the punk teenager with the mohawk. When I saw these events I was awed at how graceful and thoughtful they were. Instead of suggesting a breakaway or a departure these moments said, “we’re a part of you. We want to be a part of this, ALL of this. And we want you to see us and know that this is who we are.”
In full disclosure, I should add that I left before the open mic time, when anybody can say anything on the delegate floor. I’m still waiting for a report back but it will be interesting to see what the reactions were to TPE after the fact.