The CCMBC and USMB Executive Boards, made up of men and women leaders from across Canada and the US, requested that the MB Historical Commission remove about three pages from their book On Holy Ground which carries the imprint of the MB publisher Kindred Productions owned and operated by CCMBC. The book itself is a collection of women’s stories (“life-writing”) about their experiences of encouragement and/or discouragement as they served in various ministry/leadership roles in the MB family across North America. The book was designed as a parallel volume to Doug Heidebrecht’s recording of the MB story in his book Women in Ministry Leadership.
However, three pages of one author’s writing suddenly departed to record reflections, experiences, and questions about her evolving perspective on gay, queer, and transgender folks and the MB church. The writer describes her journey where she expresses joyfulness at the marriage of a Christian woman to her same-sex partner and how she found her “perspective on gay marriage beginning to turn.” She proceeds to make several biblical analogies from 1 Samuel 9 and Genesis 27 to raise questions about whether “homosexuality” (to use her word) should be seen in a similar way as the OT monarchy (a compromise) and whether “queer” individuals are like Esau who still gets a partial blessing from his father. Finally, she cites River East’s statement of inclusivity, presumably as a possible model for the way forward.
These three pages move beyond the recording of personal experience about being encouraged and/or discouraged in leadership, to more of a brief theology essay advocating for a type of LGBTQ+ inclusion in conflict with a straightforward reading of our MB Confession of Faith. While the book’s disclaimer acknowledges that the book may contain material that is not affirmed by the MB Historical Commission, USMB, and/or CCMBC, this disclaimer does not seem robust enough to justify a credentialed leader including a brief theology essay on something other than women in ministry leadership.
For many MB readers, these pages will overshadow the important contribution of the other writers, create confusion about what it means for MB credentialed leaders and local MB churches to “affirm” the Confession of Faith, and unfortunately, it will reinforce the damaging stereotype that embracing women in leadership leads necessarily to an affirming stance on gay marriage for Christians. It is primarily for these reasons that the men and women leaders on the two Executive Boards took this unusual step, wrote a letter of request to the MB Historical Commission, and contributed financially to the reprinting of the book in its present form. We do regret that because of the urgent timeline of the original book printing/distribution and the complexity of working as a joint USMB/CCMBC team, we were unable to have personal conversations directly with the author, editor, and others involved.
We are thankful to the men and women of the MB Historical Commission Executive and Membership for the very kind and gracious way they have worked together with us in response to our unusual request. We value our cooperative work together and look forward to more of the same in the future. Finally, we do believe that the slightly shorter edition of On Holy Ground being distributed by Kindred Productions will reach a larger audience and be more effective in its purpose of sharing MB women’s stories of their personal experiences in leadership.
July 8, 2022: The term “mini-theology” in the third paragraph is updated to read “brief theology.” – Ed.
As editor of this volume, I have tried to be gracious in describing my reaction to this action of the executive boards — my sense of deflation, discouragement, and so on — in a letter I wrote to two Canadian leaders about it, but to read this justification of the action and process this morning, subsequent to all that, has me stunned. And angry. It badly mis-characterizes both the book (making it narrower than described in the invitation to the contributors) and the portion that was removed. Anyone who reads the entire essay will see that it has not “suddenly departed,” will see that it is of a piece with the story of a long ministry, of struggle and change. To say it “proceeds” to make OT analogies within “a mini-theology essay” is simply false. The writer is recounting the experience of being asked by “a sincere young man” studying heresy what it was like to be “rebuked,” and then giving the context for his question. It was about speaking at a study conference, something that is very much a part of her history as a leader in the denomination. There is narrative throughout, this is *her* story! And can the executives not read the pain and complication here? And the bit about Esau, which runs throughout this writer’s piece, it’s a parallel, can’t they see?
And the waste of time and money and goodwill in destroying new books — accepted and cleared by the Historical Commission and already printed — and reprinting! And to simply “regret” that the “urgent timeline” didn’t allow for “personal conversations directly with the author, editor, and others involved”? This is tepid almost beyond belief. Perhaps it felt urgent then, but in the interval between when the action was taken and the need to explain themselves as leaders became apparent, there was plenty of time in which I, for example, could have been consulted. I could have helped them read this passage properly, could have explained why it belonged. Could have tried to make them see that this collection of life-writing is, essentially, historical document. The decision was wrong, the process was wrong. And there could have been conversation!
And saddest of all, for me, is the notoriety now given to a small portion, which the majority of readers — I’m convinced — would have understood as a part of one woman’s story, would have “let it be” whether they agreed or not. In the Editor’s note at the front of the book I said, “To be public with it [each woman’s story] carries some risk…and so my invitation to every reader is to listen well–with gratitude and interest, and without judgment–to the variety of voices here, and to each unique expression on the theme.” These stories deserve to be heard, each is unique, and somehow I can’t help feeling the book has been devalued and that the others will not be heard. I hope I’m wrong, that many will still buy the book and listen carefully — without judgment. (And, for those interested, the missing pages are available online to be read there.)
I am responding with passion about this, yes, for all the above reasons, and perhaps, my “unusual step,” like theirs. I wish I could weep but this has hollowed me out.
So disappointing. The MBs have continued to deny the moving of the Spirit. I’m grateful I have found other Mennonites more willing to engage in a communal hermeneutic and listen to God speaking through God’s people. ‘Your daughters shall prophesy’ has been ignored for decades. This control of power from the centre is symptomatic of the rot eating away at this denomination from the inside.
This is such a travesty. Shame on the Mennonite Brethren denomination. I am saddened that the churches of my youth have doubled down on misogynistic and homophobic doctrines that only serve to divide the body of Christ, rather than to unite it. I am not joking when I say that it is the continued sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and general disdain for the poor that has driven me out of the church.
Let me be clear: I am no longer a Christian precisely because of actions like these. What did Jesus say? “Leave town and shake the dust off your feet?” Consider it done, and with pleasure.
So a woman’s voice was silenced in a book commissioned to feature women’s voices. Sadly, this seems to be indicative of the struggle women continue to face in this Conference. This article leaves out the fact that 270 copies of the book printed with the objectionable 3 pages were destroyed at the CCBMC office. This article’s claim that the censored 3 pages would reinforce the “damaging stereotype that embracing women in leadership leads necessarily to an affirming stance on gay marriage for Christians” portrays a need to hyper-control messaging and infantilizes the book’s readers. I do not think that the three pages that were censored, which can be found at the link below, are “a mini-theology essay advocating for a type of LGBTQ+ inclusion.” The author clearly talks about her experience of wrestling with matters of LGBTQ+ inclusion as analogous to her experience of having an evolving understanding of women in leadership as a result of study, discernment and practicing a community hermeneutic. The censored pages also explore what it means to struggle with deep cultural questions in light of Scripture and to hold safe space for real dialogue among Christians who have different understandings of the Bible. The fact that MB leadership did not have a personal conversation directly with the author, editor, and others involved is yet another example of what I have seen as anxiety and a utilitarian ethic that sees the upholding of current Confessional convictions as the supreme goal, resulting in a disregard of relationship. To me, these are not the actions of a Conference committed to God’s dream of shalom – peace in all our relations. Being a Christian (individual, church, or Conference) is about more than rigidly defending what you think are right beliefs. I urge those who were part of this decision to move beyond a mere expression of “regret” and to consider confession and repentance for this disrespectful process. Sadly, the handling of this situation misses the mark. https://timetotellcanada.blogspot.com/2022/06/read-missing-pages-from-new-book-on.html
Thank you for publishing Dora Dueck’s heartfelt eloquent response. Please resist pressure to remove it!
This official response shows again how little understanding these decision makers have of the issue of women in ministry and the experiences these women have had to endure as they have tried to follow the call and invitation of God for their work. I doubt there are many pastors of any gender who have not had to navigate the growing questions about inclusion within the church. Mary Anne was brave enough to describe what this journey has been like for her. It is very much a story about being a woman in leadership. I, to, am disappointed and angry that her experience has been silenced. I can only conclude that such silencing is a reaction of fear toward the inevitable reinterpretation of what it means to be faithful in the context of our age.
Whenever any change is at hand the more cautious of us warn of “slippery slopes,” as if all change leads to an unstoppable slide downwards into depravity. But that’s just not true. Change can just as easily take us a step further upwards, nearer to the mind of God whose thoughts are not always our thoughts. “For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, love, and a sound mind.” – 2 Timothy 1:7
This is disappointing and sadly, expected from Mennonites in Canada. Women have been censored for centuries and there’s finally an opportunity to hear their voices…yet they’re censored once again?!
The grace and humility that was apparent in the pages that were so unfortunately deleted are a contrast to the lack of grace and humility in this official response from the CCMBC. That contrast speaks for itself. Thanks to you, Dora Dueck, for your heartfelt words in reply.
It seems to me the unanimity of these comments is indicative of a greater problem. Some leadership in the conferences may not be headed in the same direction as many of the members. We are ready for this conversation. It isn’t a danger to our faith, and we are not afraid. Open discussion is part of who we are, and in 2022 this discussion is now critical to our peacemaking doctrines. As we have too-recently learned, people of the LGBT community are not the “other”, but are our parents, siblings, friends, and partners. They are us. The community isn’t going to magically vanish and save us the trouble of self-evaluation and critique. While the denomination is somehow still debating whether girls can be trusted on stage, the rest of us are generations past that question, and have become eager for even more inclusiveness. Openness of narrative should dominate here.
At the risk of facing considerable opposition, I thought I would stumble into this extremely treacherous minefield of a discussion. I’ll begin with a few observations. First, it appears the author of the disputed piece has accomplished what every author desires when they write for the public – lots of people are reading those three pages. Probably far more than would have ever read it had it not been excised from the book. Second, a quick perusal of the comments section here, and at other sites, would indicate that she has garnered considerable support for her position. Third, we are in a place where it has become extremely difficult to have a serious conversation about the merits or demerits of what she has written. However, instead of the commenting on the editorial process, the recall, or the way it’s being used to promote or discredit certain views, I want to address the content of those pages, in particular, the references to two passages of Scripture.
Here’s my brief perspective on the author’s use of Genesis 27 (story of Esau’s ‘blessing’ from Isaac), and I Samuel 8 (where God grants Israel’s request for a king). To be frank, I am somewhat surprised that anyone would seriously use these texts to argue for an inclusive position in terms of accepting sexual intimacy outside of a covenantal relationship between a man and woman. Consider for a moment the character of Esau. I’m quite sure that he is not included in any list of the ‘heroes of the faith.’ Do you really want to make Esau your exemplar? And even more concerning, study the ‘blessing’ he received. Personally, if I had been him, I’d go have taken a hard pass on that ‘blessing’.
When it comes to Israel’s request for a king (I Samuel 8), I suppose it is a little more ambiguous, but certainly not an unqualified endorsement. Through the prophet Samuel, God warned the Israelites that it would be a disaster: “When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you on that day” (I Sam. 8:18). Clearly this prophecy was fulfilled in Israel’s history. And yet, someone would argue that this passage is an appropriate passage to bolster their position? I find that rather bewildering. Perhaps there are more compelling biblical arguments for making a fundamental theological/ethical change from what the church has believed and taught regarding this topic for millennia? If so, I would suggest that those promoting a progressive position on this topic, and others, work harder at developing a biblical apologetic. Unless, of course, what the Bible has to say on this topic and others is no longer their concern.
Bryan, I am surprised by your comments regarding this piece and am puzzled as to what compelled you to comment in this way.
As I’m sure you know, a close reading of any text requires an attempt to acknowledge the Sitz-im-Leben (setting-in life) and genre of the text. Mary Anne Isaak’s contribution to On Holy Ground falls in the genre of “life writing.” It is not a theological position paper or a “mini [brief]-theological essay”. To attempt an exegetical takedown on a piece of life writing strikes me as somewhat of a cheap shot.
As much as it runs the risk of validating what I think is an inappropriate treatment of Isaak’s life writing, I love Scripture and feel compelled to respond to your comments on the biblical references in Isaak’s piece.
I do not feel the need to press the point that the heroes of the faith are complicated people whose lives are full of tragedy, triumph, inspiring acts of faith, and horrific acts of harm. My study of the story Jacob and Esau (under Paul Stevens at Regent College) has led me to consider this narrative one of the great pictures of reconciliation and the gracious nature of God-as-surprisingly-revealed-in-our enemy that we find in Scripture. In the scene where Jacob finally meets his feared enemy-brother, Esau runs towards him, throws his arms around him, and kisses him. (Gen. 33:4). There seems to be an echo of this scene in the story of the Prodigal Son, as the father runs towards his younger son, throws his arms around him, and kisses him. (Luke 15:20). After the dramatic reconciliation of the brothers, Jacob utters words that have profound implications for us as Anabaptists who take Jesus’ words concerning enemy love seriously. Jacob says to Esau, “For to see your face is like seeing the face of God…” (Gen. 33:10). I’ll come back to this at the end of my comments.
I understand how those who are privileged and in positions of power would want to take a “hard pass” on Esau’s blessing. However, I can also see how the oppressed would receive a blessing that announced eventual liberation from the heavy yoke of those who burden them. In talking about the pitfalls of hermeneutics done from positions of privilege, Ethicist David P. Gushee offers the following words of advice to those who do hermeneutics from above, “Access in your heart, and not just your in your mind, awareness of the harm done by obliviously privileged people in how they have read the bible and how they have interpreted the Christian faith. And also [access] the incredibly insightful new liberative paths of reading the bible that are available all around us from people who never had that privilege or who have learned to renounce it as far as possible. You can’t just do it with books, but you need to be in community, with people who embody different narratives, different stories, who can only teach you if you humbly listen to what they have to say.”
The topic of divine accommodation, God’s openness/vulnerability to God’s people, and Israel’s monarchy, has been explored by many (e.g., Brueggemann, Fretheim, Hendricks, etc.). I’ll simply state again that I struggle to understand why you would feel compelled to home in, and comment on the hermeneutical suitability of comments Isaak said she made in the last minute of a response to a presentation in 2015. Again, the point of this piece of Isaak’s life writing is to describe what it has been like to be a woman in leadership in the MB world and to be rebuked for trying to “open space for authentic conversation.”
After addressing this part of Isaak’s life writing, you go on to suggest that Isaak and others who promote “a progressive position on this topic…work harder at developing a biblical apologetic.” Adding, “Unless, of course, what the Bible has to say on this topic and others is no longer their concern.” In my reading, that statement is a completely inappropriate and condescending comment that in the context of a wider discussion about women’s experience in MB leadership roles, is disturbingly insensitive. It also reads to me as shockingly insulting to siblings in Christ – scholars, ministers, and lay people alike – who are affirming or exploring non-traditional biblical interpretations regarding marriage.
Not only does Isaak’s essay reference the work of affirming scholar James Brownson, but my experience attests to a reality that contradicts your sentiment which implies that those advocating for the consideration of viewpoints that differ from the historic Christian perspective on marriage do not work hard enough or care about the Bible. It has been a matter of my profession as a pastor, to be learning about and informed on a theology of sexuality for the past fifteen years. Over the past year, as my position on marriage was evolving, my work began to be reviewed (unbeknownst to me) by the BC Pastoral Ministries Committee and I was eventually called in to be reinterviewed by the PMC to discern whether or not I was still worthy to be credentialed by the BCMB. I brought a nine-page bibliography to the interview listing the sources that have informed my theology on human sexuality over the years. I also wrote a paper and lengthy responses to Conference material/emails about sexuality, polity, and the use of the CoF, that raised specific questions about hermeneutics. It was my experience, that my specific theological, ecclesial, and exegetical questions were largely ignored. The almost sole question of importance was whether or not I was willing to prove my “unequivocal commitment” to the Confession of Faith. I am offended by your insinuation that I need to “work harder” or that perhaps I am not concerned about what the Bible has to say on this topic.” Please consider apologizing for this insensitive statement.
To Mary Anne Isaak and Michelle Morrow (whose presence was erased by the censorship of these pages) and every other wise woman following the feisty footsteps of Elda Plank, early radical Anabaptists like Margaret Hottinger and Agnes Linck, and biblical heroes of the faith such as Mary the mother of our Lord and Priscilla: I want you to know that I see you. I am so sorry you have had to suffer years of patriarchy in the church – a force that is and always has been diabolically opposed to the egalitarian and liberating work of the Spirit of the Living God. I sense I am on Holy Ground when listening to your voice and am so sorry that ground has been desecrated so often by men in leadership like myself. I am sorry for how biased male perspectives and patriarchal hermeneutics have often forced your high heels, sexuality, and God-given leadership gifts into the closet. The church does not truly reflect the fullness of God without your voice and physical presence in all forms of leadership.
To those who are unsettled by Isaak’s piece: I invite you to allow Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation to point you to a picture of our scandalously hospitable and gracious God who runs towards, embraces, kisses, and welcomes those formerly labeled as enemies. Ponder the miracle of Jacob and Esau’s meeting, and how we might learn to see the “face of God” in those we once feared. Consider your posture towards the offensively lavish welcome of the prodigal son. Are you standing defensive, angry, arms-crossed, outside the banquet? Or will you join God inside at his joyous table of mercy?
Finally, I sincerely hope that the comments made here about Isaak’s piece are not representative of the ethos of MB institutions and I am compelled to yet again express my extreme concern over how it seems defending theological convictions often appears to be the supreme goal of many MB leaders that trumps all others. In matters like this instance of censorship, I find it problematic to separate concerns around process, context, and theology. I think MB leaders would do well to heed the words of Clemens Sedmak: “Doing theology as if people matter means responding to people…” It is dangerous and irresponsible to do theology from a place that brackets out context, genre, and the reality of erasure.
When confessions of faith and pastoral credentials are weaponized; when censorship is used as thought control for the preservation of a theology rooted in “what has always been”…this is when a new reformation is called for. What kept me in the MB world was opportunities to work out my own faith through inquiry within a safe community at MBBC/Concord/CMU. There is still opportunity for us to see the violence here and shift, but it must be done quickly as lines have now been crossed which signal that we have more than ever traded plow shares back in for weapons.
Editor Dora Dueck’s impassioned, intelligent, and committed response is in stark contrast to the patronizing and offhand tone of the official statement. This does seem to be one of those “one step forward, seven steps back” moments in the institutional church. The boards’ action speaks loudly about the silencing of women past and present and the very-much-related silencing of other marginalized and disempowered individuals and communities. It is a blessing that Christ’s church can be found everywhere and is not confined within narrow walls and narrower ideas.
Commenting from south of the border here… All excellent points in the above comments. One of the most interesting pieces in this statement is the very conspicuous defense (as part of a larger justification) that the Executive Boards are “made up of men and women leaders.” This seems an odd thing to lead with. Yet, a quick check of the directories on both the CCMBC and USMB websites reveals some telling data. Of the 20 CCMBC Executive Board members, six are women (30%). Of the 18 USMB Leadership Board members, just two are women (11%). Both national directors are men. On the American side of the table, all the board offices (chair, vice chair, etc.) are held by men, as are the pastoral positions (five district ministers). At a study conference in January of 2019, the USMB leadership doubled down on the assertion that women cannot be ordained, yet adamantly pronounced a new era of opportunity for women (just not as lead pastors), conveying affirmation in all other roles. The dismal data above points to a very different and gloomy reality for MB women. And the contradictory message that women are valued but only up to a certain point is further fortified in the decision to censure a woman’s personal experience, then release a statement of justification rather than an apology. Which, in the end, makes this book profoundly important, beyond anything the creators ever could have foreseen.
I recognize that our current culture makes it extremely challenging to be a leader, with secularization, intense polarization and pressures on so many fronts. But the leadership of the church needs to do better – to be a witness of community at its best, to have enough courage to engage in tough conversations, to be messengers of Jesus’ gospel of reconciliation.
I disagree with the decision made by the boards to remove part of Mary Anne’s story from On Holy Ground. And I take issue with the process.
The fact that the editor, writer and other contributors were not informed of the decision is simply unacceptable. The manuscript was available far before it went to print (I know my chapter was edited and ready to go almost a year ago), suggesting there was ample time to review and make decisions using appropriate processes, including consultation and conversation rather than last-minute reaction.
Did board members even have a chance to read the whole book? I would plead with each one to read the whole volume to fully understand the experiences recorded. These are critical voices – reflecting the work of the Holy Spirit among us as Mennonite Brethren – and should not be dismissed. These are enlightening journeys. And I know that each one (mine included) was submitted with some fear and trepidation, knowing our stories could be dissected, judged, ignored or dismissed. Which is, sadly, exactly what happened.
The act of silencing voices and creating a culture of fear has created a toxic environment within our denomination, resulting in the departure of many fine and godly leaders. I believe this grieves the heart of God, who calls us to a posture of love, faithfulness and reconciliation (which, ironically, was the very message of Mary Anne’s story).
In the 2018 CCMBC board review, moderator Bruce Enns outlined several commitments, including: 1) endeavour to create a culture where people feel heard; and 2) commit to changing our posture toward those who disagree with us, and strive to be more humble in engaging with them. The process by which content was removed from On Holy Ground without consultation has made a mockery of these commitments.
As an ethinic Mennonite, I’m embarrassed, once again, to read about such a powerplay and to be associated with such a narrow minded, judgemental group. Such disrespectful actions by those who feel they represent God and the church is surely a sign of deep insecurity in ones faith. God’s spirit and grace is ubiquitous…far-reaching. Those who waste their effort, in God’s name, to shut down stories of grace and peacemaking are sadly misguided and stand in the way of promoting a faith worth joining.
I remember (in the sense of historical memory) that once upon a time Mennonites were the derided because they didn’t fit the categories of their Age – because they chose to stand against the status quo, holding that true evangelical faith meant clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, caring for the destitute. They knew what it meant when the prophets reminded ancient Israel about their obligations to the “widow and the orphan”, code language in the first Testament for the marginalized. Standing where our Mennonite forebears did perhaps wasn’t intended as a political act, but it had enormous political implications, and they paid for it with their lives. And they did this with outstretched hands to help their enemies, even as their enemies confiscated and burned their books (“Joriaen Simons Burned”, The Martyrs Mirror; Part II, p. 179, 1685 ed.). This I remember, with gratitude.
That was then. Today, we seem to have forgotten. We are beset with amnesia. We have forgotten Matthew 25 and Jesus’ story of the sheep and goats, where the question posed to the characters in the story is not whether they believed the right things but about how they treated those who lived on the margins. In our forgetting we have moralized faith to extremes. Now, what we believe appears to be more important than how we behave. We are no longer known as a people who clothed the naked, fed the hungry, and welcomed the stranger. Now, we are known for our ‘right beliefs’. And, it would appear, we are pretty vigilant about that.
In the 1991 film “Hook”, a grown-up Peter Pan has gone corporate. He has forgotten who he is and now is all about making the deal. He is angry, aggressive, conniving. He has become a “taker”. But when he and his family travel to London for Christmas to see his aunt Wendy, she confronts him. “Peter, you’ve become a pirate.”
Perhaps amnesia can lead to piracy.
Let’s not become pirates. Welcome others as Christ has welcomed you (Paul).
It is with sadness, disappointment and utter frustration that we write. I (Sara Jane) have run up against many gender barriers in my life, including numerous within the MB church, as a member and a leader. I have long given up the fight for myself (just too tired), choosing to be content in the supportive and affirming ethos of River East Church in Winnipeg, and to participate in our collective efforts to invite open hearts and minds on a variety of issues.
But what just happened to Mary Anne Isaak in connection to the censure of part of her personal story in “On Holy Ground” – both the process and the outcome – is truly beyond the pale. Perhaps with a bit of hindsight you have by now recognized just how ironic it is for you to choke Mary Anne’s voice, when the purpose of the book is to give voice to women leaders! I can only hope that a fulsome apology is in the offing, along with restoration of the full text of what she wrote. (The waste incurred by shredding almost 300 books is another travesty, but that’s for another day.)
No one’s personal story should ever be silenced. One doesn’t have to agree with positions taken or conclusions arrived at but the truth of my own story, or yours, or anyone else’s simply is.
Just above, you can read the paragraphs from MWC. Would that the Canadian MB Conference, and especially its leaders, could take those words to heart.
Hoping against hope that wisdom will prevail.
Sara Jane & Rick Schmidt