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CHANGE OF HEART: EMU's campus.
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CHANGE OF HEART: EMU's campus.

Going with the flow?

Religion | Mennonites and Church of England waver in their commitment to biblical marriage

Issue: "Tidings of discomfort and joy," Dec. 28, 2013

Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) has announced it will suspend a policy against same-sex relationships for faculty, as the school enters a “listening period” to review its stance on homosexuality. If the policy change becomes permanent, EMU would become the first member institution of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) to allow practicing gays and lesbians to serve as professors. The school’s board of trustees unanimously approved the review.

EMU President Loren Swartzendruber said that the period of reflection would allow the school “to engage in community discussion and discernment over issues that Mennonite congregations—indeed almost all denominations in the United States today—are wrestling with.” The board also reaffirmed EMU’s relationship with the Mennonite Church USA—but that denomination’s “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective” states that “God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” Now, faculty candidates at EMU must explain any objections they have to the Confession, and professors must also sign the school’s “Community Lifestyle Commitment,” which prohibits “sexual relationships outside of marriage.” The state of Virginia, where EMU is located, does not recognize same-sex marriages.

The CCCU, which has not commented on EMU’s deliberations, is an association of 119 North American institutions. The CCCU says its mission is “to advance the cause of Christ-centered higher education and to help our institutions transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth.”

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The Mennonite Church USA has had its own struggles regarding same-sex marriage. In 2012, the denomination rebuffed attempts to discipline pastor Joanna Harader for performing a same-sex “covenant ceremony.” Instead of suspending her, as some conservative churches had requested, delegates to the Mennonite Church’s Western District Conference simply noted that her action was “at variance” with Mennonite Church guidelines.

A REPORT COMMISSIONED by the Church of England is recommending that Anglicans allow ministers to perform “appropriate services to mark a faithful same-sex relationship,” but not offer formal gay marriage ceremonies. Although the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, noted that the Pilling Report did not represent a “new policy statement,” conservatives worried that it would lead to official church blessings of homosexual unions.

The committee, chaired by former government official Sir Joseph Pilling, said that the “foundation” of their report was the desire to “warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of England of gay and lesbian people,” including homosexual clergy. They further asserted that the Church needed to repent of homophobia in its ranks.

The report cautioned, however, that conservatives were not by definition homophobes just because they articulated “traditional Christian teaching on same sex relationships.” The Church, the committee said, should also consider continuing scientific advances in understanding homosexual attraction, as well as the dramatic shift of opinion, especially among young people, on gay relationships—but the public’s view should not “of itself determine the Church’s teaching.”

Lee Gatiss, director of the traditionalist Church Society, welcomed an open discussion of the report, arguing that some liberal Anglicans were trying to change “the gospel into an affirmation of immoral behavior.” Committee member Keith Sinclair, the Bishop of Birkenhead, refused to sign the report, saying he feared the Church was heading toward “cultural captivity” instead of biblical faithfulness. “The Christian Church has consistently taught from biblical times that the sexual holiness … involves the restriction of sexual activity to the context of marriage between one man and one woman,” Birkenhead insisted.

Recent years have seen growing divisions in the worldwide Anglican Communion, with conservative Anglicans in Africa and elsewhere not embracing homosexual activity.

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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