GOSHEN — Karl Shelly, pastor at Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, has thought long and hard about the place same-sex marriage should have in society today.
He’s come to the conclusion that same-sex unions merit equal standing with heterosexual unions.
After years of “discernment and dialogue,” he wrote, he’s concluded that “being born with a same-sex sexual orientation and entering into a life-long covenant of fidelity and love with another human being is not sin. In fact, it is worthy of blessing. It is one part of the grand design of diversity and communion.”
The Mennonite church and same-sex marriage
Here’s what it says about same-sex marriage in the guidelines for Mennonite membership
“Pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant ceremony. Such action would be grounds for review of their credentials by their area conference’s ministerial credentialing body.”
The document doesn’t spell out punishment or consequences for performing such ceremonies.
He feels so strongly that he performed a same-sex covenant ceremony in May, notwithstanding Mennonite Church USA guidelines that prohibit pastors from officiating such ceremonies. His pastoral license is now up for review by church officials, per church guidelines, but Shelly isn’t letting up.
Foes of same-sex marriage say proponents like Shelly “don’t care about the Bible,” Shelly said in an interview. “As a pastor, I want to say no, we care deeply about it.”
Though straying from Mennonite guidelines, revocation of Shelly’s pastoral credentials is hardly a foregone conclusion. “So far no one has lost his credentials based on that,” said Nancy Kauffmann, denominational minister for Mennonite Church USA.
Still, Shelly’s act is the focus of an ongoing review by the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference and a planned review by the Central District Conference, both based in Goshen. And it underscores the deep divide on the issue within the Mennonite church, as in other churches and the broader society.
Clinton Frame Mennonite Church, east of Goshen, announced last month it had left the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, due in part to discord with acceptance of same-sex marriage among other member congregations. Aside from prohibiting pastors from performing same-sex covenant ceremonies (see sidebar), Mennonite church guidelines dictate that marriage is meant for heterosexual couples.
In the Mennonite denomination, individual churches belong to conferences, bodies under the Mennonite Church USA umbrella that oversee groups of churches, usually in a geographic area. Per church guidelines, conference officials, not Mennonite Church USA reps, are responsible for reviews when pastors carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Assembly Mennonite Church belongs to both the Indiana-Michigan and Central District conferences.
'REALLY GOOD QUESTION’
Lois Johns Kaufmann, conference minister at the Central District Conference, said the body once before reviewed a pastor who performed a same-sex marriage covenant ceremony. Ultimately, the credentials of the church leader, who served an Illinois church, were not revoked.
"We will just be doing a review that looks at (Shelly’s) biblical, theological and spiritual understanding, and look to see whether or not he is a qualified pastor,“ Kaufmann said. “He has been upfront and clear that he performed the same-sex marriage.”
Dan Miller, pastor at the Indiana-Michigan conference, wouldn’t speculate on where the process involving Shelly will go. “That’s a really good question,” he said.
Regardless, Shelly, in the July 25 statement he submitted to the Indiana-Michigan conference defending himself (scroll down to see it), made the case for why what he did is OK.
"God’s call,” he wrote, shows “no partiality to believers born with a particular sexual orientation.”
He went on: “We celebrate the handiwork of God when we celebrate the variety of God’s creation. The impulse for uniformity and conformity — favoring one part of God’s creation to the detriment of another — is rebellion from God’s original design.”
The ceremony he performed involved two members of Assembly Mennonite Church “who were seeking the church’s blessing to live a life of covenanted faithfulness and love to each other,” Shelly wrote. The congregation was aware of the move and backed it, he said.
He wouldn’t reveal additional details about the couple. While there are “progressive” pockets within Elkhart County, “there are still a lot of places where they’re not safe,” he said.
Whether to let Mennonite churches perform same-sex covenant ceremonies will be a likely topic of debate at the 2015 Mennonite Church USA national assembly in Kansas City, Mo., according to Nancy Kauffmann. Though some Mennonite churches are OK with same-sex marriage, others have left the Mennonite Church USA altogether over the issue, apparently not satisfied church leaders are doing enough to stop such ceremonies.
In his statement, Shelly made the case for moderate change — creating “space” for individual churches so inclined like Assembly Mennonite to perform same-sex ceremonies. As is, members from the “younger generation” are increasingly leaving the church due to guidelines seen as unfriendly to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning, or LGBTQ, community.
"I believe the future of the church will be irreparably harmed by a continued punitive response to those whose conscience leads them to be LGBTQ inclusive,” he wrote. “Such a punishing approach will not stem the conflict nor will it satisfy churches threatening to leave.”
Karl Shelly statement to Indiana-Michigan conference