​‘Let him speak’

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Beth Downey Sawatzky, Manitoba Correspondent

An Mennonite Church Manitoba meeting at Fort Garry Mennonite Church took a confrontational turn on Jan. 12, 2017, opening the floodgates of debate on just what it means for local congregations to “create space” for one another based on the Being the Faithful Church (BFC) 7 resolution passed at last summer’s general assembly in Saskatoon.

To distinguish the conversation at hand from any previous theological debates on same-sex unions, moderator Peter Rempel outlined three core areas for discussion:

  • What principles and values will MC Manitoba use to define the “space” it is trying to make?
  • What constitutes “substantial agreement” with the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective?
  • How can the area church support mutual accountability between levels of church leadership and between congregations at variance on the issues throughout the process?

Participants addressed these questions first in small groups, compiling notes for formal feedback through a paper survey. An open-mike session gave members a chance to further the conversation.

Generally, people affirmed the decision to preserve unity by making room for disagreement, but also raised concerns. Members reinforced the need for boundaries around the church’s discernment, to keep it from becoming subject to the caprice of fashionable morality. Some questioned whether leadership is paying more attention to the alleged LGBTQ church exodus than to member-congregations leaving the conference.

Stephanie Wenger of Winnipeg’s North Kildonan Mennonite Church remarked that “there is a lot of healing and reconciling relationships that needs to happen on both sides” of the controversy, before the resolution can proceed effectively.

Her case was made in point shortly after, when a conflict derailed productive debate.    Towards the end of the open-mike session, Garry Fehr of Blumenort Mennonite Church took the floor, and said, “I'm not sure why LGBT folks are leaving the church, I don't know what their reasons are,” at which point an unidentified person called out “Ask us.”

Without appearing to notice, Fehr continued: “Is it possible that members of the gay community, whether lesbian or homosexual, are being convicted that the lifestyle they are living is wrong, and that because they don't want to deal with it, they are choosing to walk away from the church instead? Even from a spiritual warfare perspective—”

At which point David Driedger, associate minister of First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, interrupted, begging a point of order on the grounds that “the discussion points for tonight have already been set.” Rempel attempted to return the floor to Fehr, who had continued speaking over the interruption, asking rhetorically whether “Satan [was] using the gay community as his puppet in an attempt to totally tear apart Mennonite Church Canada.”

Adding to the commotion, several crowd members called out “Let him speak,” but Driedger persisted. Before order could be restored, Fehr left the microphone and the building. Rempel formally admonished the gathering, stated his regrets about the incident, which he described as “sinful,” and closed discussion for the evening.

Colleen Edmund concluded the gathering by leading a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Directly after the meeting, Driedger gave the following defence of his actions: “I interrupted those gentlemen from the floor because the statements being made transgressed the boundaries of our conversation. ‘Creating space’ must mean something. . . . Because the comments were not only out of line for the meeting, but continued longstanding and harmful church practices towards LGTBQ folk, it seemed important to interrupt.”

Contacted later, Fehr made no change to his speech from the floor, but did offer some clarifying comments: “My desire for God’s church is that we would walk beside and with the gay community in their struggle with same sex attraction. . . . The gay community is not allowing the church to do this. They are requesting that we accept their way of life and nothing else. [People] cannot experience the love and acceptance of the church without also accepting . . . the rules of God according to Scripture.”

A lesbian participant at the meeting also spoke to Canadian Mennonite afterwards. Solene Stockwell of Winnipeg, a regular church-goer along with her long-time partner, said: “In some ways, I see how the interruption is shutting down and shutting out the ones who are afraid of being unfaithful to God by changing their stance, who are afraid of welcoming sin into their churches.

“To the man speaking, [it] supports his view that, because of us, through our welcome into Mennonite churches, Mennonite churches are being pulled apart. At the same time, [he] was saying horrible things about me and about people that I love. I wasn't sure how much longer I could stand to be hated openly without knowledge of who I was, knowledge of where I come from, what my experience has been, why I’ve had a bumpy relationship with my home church. I don’t think I had heard anything to that degree of fear and hate of the LGBT in person before. In some ways, I wish the interruption had been done with more kindness, more patience and more love.”

Debate over the incident continues online: Tim Wenger, Faith Development Pastor of North Kildonan Mennonite Church, took to Twitter, condemning Fehr's remarks as “hateful.” Driedger has since published an extended blog post reflecting on his involvement, titled “Just  let him finish; Or, you cannot serve both process and advocacy.” Moses Falco, pastor of Sterling Mennonite Fellowship in Winnipeg, published a contrasting blog response of similar length: “Choosing to Stay in the Mennonite Church.”

For a follow-up to the January 12, 2017, meeting see “Making space for disagreement.”

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