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Welcome to worship for Sunday, August 13, 2023.
I have a friend who is a member of River East Church. REC is part of the Mennonite Brethren Church Manitoba and by extension a part of the Mennonite Brethren denomination in Canada and abroad. If you are unfamiliar with the Anabaptist tradition, it has numerous churches and denominations which go by different names including Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, Hutterites, Amish, Old Order, and others. Many in this family of churches work together on common causes such as global outreach and development (Mennonite Central Committee), and education (Canadian Mennonite University).
River East Church was recently in the news because its denomination had suspended their membership and it is likely they are going to be removed or expelled from that fellowship. To me that seemed like an extraordinary step and so I got in touch with my friend, primarily to ask how he was doing and how he felt about what was happening in his church.
Not surprisingly I found that my friend was comfortable with the direction his congregation had taken and he said that for the most part, people were regrettably at ease with the ‘discipline’ from the denomination that seems imminent. I guess I came to the discussion quite late but by now you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. What happened at River East Church to cause such a stir? How did it escalate to the point of discipline, suspension, and expulsion? What is the heart of the issue? The answer is acceptance.
As a congregation REC decided for themselves that they would be accepting and welcoming of LGBTQ+ people and same sex marriage. They weren’t asking every Mennonite Brethren Church to be so but this is where they believe they have been led as a congregation. It should be said that for the most part Mennonite Brethren is a fairly conservative and evangelical denomination with more traditional beliefs than we are familiar with in the United Church of Canada. But it may also be said that REC has a recent history of being on the leading edge of their denomination. For example, it was the first MB church in the country to call a woman as their minister.
I don’t know or understand the dynamics and personalities, the polity and processes, of other churches so I will leave that alone. One of the things my friend said was that they, the congregation, sought to find a way to remain with the MB family with a proposal called “Living in the Borderland”. In brief it was an offer to let welcoming and non-welcoming congregations stay in fellowship for a period of seven years in order to see what evolved from that kind of companionship. But that proposal was rejected by the MB Church and REC is facing expulsion.
One of the things I find interesting in the midst of this debate is the relative ease with which REC is moving forward in spite of the conflict they are in. Maybe that has something to do with the peace church tradition of which they are a part. But I also think that it has something to do with discerning what it is God is calling them to do and believing in their heart of hearts that this direction is the faithful one.
I told my friend that I think two things happen when a congregation faithfully discerns the voice of God and follows. The first is that a virtual consensus emerges, the idea that this isn’t something forced through with a majority vote, but rather that the time was taken and the prayers were offered so that nearly everyone agrees that this is the right thing to do (I’m sure it wasn’t unanimous but a broad consensus emerged nonetheless). And the second thing that comes to mind is that following God often involves some measure of sacrifice, in this case fellowship and identity within a broader construct. As Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat dies and falls to the ground it cannot be born again” (Matthew 12:24).
This story causes me great admiration for River East Church and I hope and pray that they experience blessing as a consequence of their courage. I also pray for the myriad of churches, and people, who continue to struggle with welcome, inclusion, and affirmation of people whose understanding of identity is different than their own. As my friend said, in the fullness of time he is certain that acceptance will prove to be the right side of history.
As it always has.
Grace and peace,
- Michael Wilson’s book “A Pastoral Pandemic: Remaining Connected in a Time of Disconnection” is available in store and online through CommonWord Bookstore (Canadian Mennonite University). For more information visit: https://www.commonword.ca/go/3408.
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- The reading for this week’s service can be found at: Genesis 37