A statement made by Mennonite Church Manitoba’s Executive Director Ken Warkentin concluding a recent Canadian Mennonite piece “We’re Sorry” caught me off guard. In it he took, what I understood to be, a moderating posture between the two ‘sides’ of those addressing sexual diversity and the church. He concluded with the words “I want to challenge both groups to be able to say, ‘We might be wrong.’” I was left wondering why the comment lingered with me. What is the function of such a comment? My guess is that the intention is to encourage all involved to be open to change in the midst of the upcoming conversations around human sexuality. Fair enough. But that is not what he said. He asked both sides to be able to say that they might be wrong. What sort of position is assumed in making that statement? My concern here is that our leadership is buying into a model of mediation that must assume a perceived ‘neutral’ posture for the sake of keeping our larger fellowship together. My question, though, is whether such a posture can actually prevent possible schisms and further, can such a posture facilitate constructive growth and faithfulness?
I think it is one thing to ask people to continue in dialogue, to continue seeking openness in how to move forward in the midst of conflict but to ask people to say they might be wrong is to already assume a certain perspective on their position. Again, to be clear, I suspect this was not Ken’s intention (though I will let him address that matter). I am interested then in clarifying our positions in the midst of this process. Because, again, there are no neutral positions. So how do we respond?
As a partial and possible response to my own question I want to offer the following suggestion and observation. If leadership is interested in helping to facilitate substantial change or growth perhaps the best they can do is demonstrate or remind us of the implicit moral worth of fellowship. I want to suggest that the, often implicit, testimony of fellowship itself can lead to the sort of affective (not effective) context in which change is possible. Let me explain.
I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by a number of fairly motivated individuals and groups who are committed to naming and addressing destructive elements in our society (what I would consider necessary if we want to communicate Good News). And there are others who have lived a life 'simple integrity' (I will let that loaded phrase stand unqualified). Many of these people have either known or come to know that there is an art to communicating these issues well. There is a balance between compromising your message and understanding that many people are struggling with how to make heads or tails of living well in this world and that probably many more simply don’t care to hear what you have to say. In time (and time is an important element here) I am coming to see how these people have modeled supportive and committed fellowship while continuing to find ways of addressing those issues that are personal and important to them.
What has been the result of such fellowship? It has been subtle but what has been happening recently is that as I face a point of decision in how I will respond to particular situation (which can range from how I treat my family to discerning my consumption of natural resources) I find certain people coming to mind. They do not loom over me with a wagging finger but the basic testimony of their life begins overlay itself upon my own and I find myself wanting to move in their direction. They bear a certain affective weight in my life.
When we enter into fellowship with a posture of seeking God's salvation (the restoration and healing of humanity in the context of worship) then I think there is an implicit moral function of fellowship. I am not sure that this posture or affect can be proscribed. This is why I am somewhat critical of Warkentin’s comment and also a little uneasy as to our conference’s general approach to these conversations.
I understand that Ken and others occupy a particular and difficult position. But it seems that telling someone entrenched or even partially entrenched on an issue to consider that they should be open to being wrong may not be the best approach. I am not sure leadership can broker the sort of neutral mediation they seem to be setting themselves up for at this point.
I have indeed had to say I am wrong on many issues. But by and large it has been the result of my desire to remain within the realm of the moral affectiveness of fellowship. We cannot stand outside of this play of forces only choose how we will engage. In this way I would tentatively encourage church leadership, if it will not engage directly within the conversation of which direction we should be moving, to adopt a position of engaged description in which we, as participants, can gain another perspective on what is happening from within the fellowship. And then, of course, to reflect on, discern, and offer the contexts in which our lives, our testimonies, can affect one another as we journey in worship and work.