This is an independent blog and is not affiliated with any particular church, group or conference. The term Bruderthaler refers to a specific ethnic or cultural Mennonite heritage, not to any particular organized group. All statements and opinions are solely those of the contributor(s). Blog comprises notebook fragments from various research projects and discussions. Dialogue, comment and notice of corrections are welcomed. Much of this content is related to papers and presentations that might be compiled at a future date, as such, this blog serves as a research archive rather than as a publication. 'tag

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Prop 8: The End of California’s Mennonites?

 ne Kjast

Note:  This piece was prepared in response to reports that Proposition 8, California’s anti-gay marriage law, had been overturned by the courts.  Further research has indicated that the 9th District Court has not in fact over-turned Prop-8 but that a ruling is likely in the next few weeks.  I plan to hold this posting until a decision is reached.  Given the argument that a ruling’s impact is not likely to have an immediate impact, only relatively minor changes would have to be made to retain the piece’s viability if Prop 8 is in fact upheld.
    Despite political rhetoric surrounding gay marriage inside the United States, a decision to uphold an earlier court decision overturning California’s controversial anti-gay marriage law, aka Proposition 8, by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (federal, not a state court) is unlikely to have an immediate impact on Mennonite and Brethren congregations inside California. 
    On 07 Feb 2012, the 9th Circuit Court upheld U.S. District Judge Vaugh Walker’s August 2010 decision to overturn California’s Proposition 8 anti-gay marriage law based on a lack of justification by the state to exclude gay and lesbian citizens from state definitions of marriage while offering “identical” rights to marriage under the definition of “domestic partnerships.”  (Warren Richey of quotes Walker as, “Plaintiffs do not seek recognition of a new right.  Rather, plaintiffs ask California to recognize their relationships for what they are:  marriages.” (see below).)
    As the U.S. heads further into its 2012 election cycle, recognition of gay marriage in California is sure to heat up anti-gay Republican rhetoric with little regard to the irony that Iowa, location of the nation’s first contest to determine official party candidates, has recognized the validity of gay marriage since April 2009.
    Similarly, pulpits are sure to ring out next Sunday either lauding the Court’s decision or warning of its dire consequences to the morality of the nation.
    The Court’s decision should have little immediate impact, however, on California’s local religious congregations one way or the other.  While the state and its constituencies must adjust to the ruling, individual churches, pastors and conferences will not be forced to perform gay marriage ceremonies.
    In July 2005, Canadian Mennonites faced passage of the Civil Marriage Act removing gender from legal definitions of marriage in Canada.  Many Canadians feared the worst for separation of church and state or held high hopes for greater acceptance and ministry to the LGBT community.  Reality was a bit of a let-down in both cases.  Liberal, tolerant, or welcoming, congregations continued to attract those who felt comfortable in their sanctuaries while more conservative churches were not exactly overwhelmed by gay marriage requests.
    As an ethnically aware prairie Mennonite, there is no question that many gay and lesbian ethnic Canadian-Mennonites have in fact married same-sex partners, the greater majority of them have just chosen to be married outside of the Anabaptist context.
    For Mennonites, Brethren and other Anabaptists, the obvious confrontation between proponents of accepting gays and lesbians and fully embracing them as fellow Christians and members of local congregations and those who remain hesitant or uncomfortable with such notions based on mid-20th Century social norms and American Fundamentalist ideologies, has already more-or-less passed.  For California’s 150-or-so Anabaptist congregations, most will simply note either a hardening of resolve to prevent the membership and marriage of homosexual individuals or feel freed to expand already existing welcoming ministries to the LGBT community. 
    According to, American census data indicates that 125,416 same-sex households were registered in California during the 2010 Census, or that 2% of all California couples are same-sex – a number that is statistically rapidly increasing from year to year.  To be statistically consistent, California would be home to between 1,000 and 2,000 LGBTs of Mennonite Heritage and some 120 same-sex couples of Mennonite and a similar number of Brethren heritage.  (Accurate demographics are difficult to determine based on conflicting practices, definitions and self-affiliations within the larger Anabaptist community.)
    Of greater concern to conservative Mennonite congregations should be an even greater increase in the number of non-married couples, both gay and straight, who have chosen to avoid marriage altogether (approximately 450,000 couples – for four times the number of confirmed same-sex couples). also reported that almost half of women between the ages of 25 to 29 were unmarried in 2009 – twice the number indicated in 1986.  I am sure that the Mennonite and Amish ethnicities are realizing similar trends – especially amongst the secular or ethnic Mennonites who have left the churches.  Church attendance is spiraling down.  Marriage is spiraling down.  There seems to be a trend.
    Contrary to expectations, since legalizing same-sex marriage in 2005, Canada has seen only limited interest in formal pro-Gay Anabaptist inter-conference alliances such as BMC or Pink Mennos.  Iowa and Massachusetts, states where gay marriage is already legal, are both home to numerous and influential Anabaptist and Brethren congregations – yet there are no records of Mennonite or Brethren same-sex marriage ceremonies having yet been performed (I am distinguishing between so-called commitment ceremonies and legal marriages).  In fact, according to BMC sources, only about four or five legal marriage ceremonies have been performed within a Mennonite context in the United States and Canada.  Interestingly, these marriages seem to have occurred between couples who had already been together between 9 and 30 years – the ceremony merely sanctifying an already extent fact.   
     A potential explanation for the lack of Mennonite-led lesbian and gay marriages is that many gay Anabaptists marry outside of their faith and cultural tradition.  The two gay marriages to which I have been invited in Canada involving Mennonites were presided over by United Church of Christ (UCC) clergy – both couples involving a Mennonite and a Roman Catholic – neither having grown up in the UCC, nor either couple attending the UCC regularly afterwards, though both identifying as such.
    Of the few lesbian or gay couples married in the United States, the slim majority seem to be from outside the congregation but from within the greater Anabaptist heritage – so-called ethnic Mennonites from the greater diaspora or grosse gemeinde. 
    That is not to say that an increased demand for same-sex marriage between Anabaptists will not happen.  Speaking with affiliated Mennonite and Brethren congregations with BMC, one gets the idea that most gay, lesbian and straight ally members of their congregations have focused more on establishing safe and welcoming places of worship where the LGBT community, and all other minorities, are able to contribute fully and to fully belong.  For most, whether in or out of monogamous traditional relationships, the question of or need for official recognition of their status as committed partners has yet to come up – or they have contented themselves with congregationally blessed commitment ceremonies.
    One pastor of a welcoming church in California is however already preparing for same-sex marriage ceremonies.  When the time comes, the congregation as a whole will be involved in establishing, recognizing and affirming the ritual.  What has changed, in that pastor’s opinion, is the nature of the debate.  Previous battles over accepting gays and lesbians into full membership and unsuccessful challenges to the ministerial credentials of the pastors of welcoming congregations have already led to a very traditional Anabaptist sense of congregational independence.  According to many impacted pastors, welcoming congregations are no longer looking for permission from their faith to accept, recognize and minister to their gay and lesbian members, they are looking for acceptance by their conferences of the of the ministry to which they have been called and the mutual fellowship and support of their pastoral peers as they strive to meet the challenges of welcoming and celebrating diversity within their congregations.
    Similar sentiments were recently echoed in a December open letter by pastors of welcoming congregations with in the Church of the Brethren to their more conservative fellow believers after an unusually disruptive conference addressing matters of gender in church leadership and inclusiveness of the LGBT Church of the Brethren community:
 … The Church of the Brethren we have known and loved is not the church that was on display this past summer at Annual Conference. The Church of the Brethren we have known and loved seeks the mind of Christ, respects expressions of conscience, extends hospitality, refuses to do violence to those who are vulnerable, seeks peace among us.
    All of these values lead us as well, to extend a spirit of acceptance and inclusion toward all who would join company with us as we follow Jesus. For our congregations, this "all" has and will continue to include lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender persons. And this, we have to tell you, has been a blessing for our congregations. What a wealth of giftedness, commitment, faithfulness, and compassion is shared by our LGBT sisters and brothers! We are grateful and we are clear that this sharing is what it means to be the church; this is what it means to be Brethren.
    Are you ready to join us? To identify with the radical, inclusive love of Jesus? To practice the healing and transforming power of hospitality? ...

    The Mennonite Brethren (MB), a conservative Anabaptist sect originating in Ukraine and Russia, has its national headquarters and seminary in California at Fresno.  Despite this residency, the overturn of Prop 8 is expected to have little immediate impact on the conference.  United Mennonite Church in Calgary, Alberta, has remained the sole MB congregation to welcome gays and lesbians into full fellowship, and was immediately thrown out of the Canadian arm of the conference. 
    United Mennonite exists today as an independent Anabaptist fellowship, and in accord with Canadian law, now consists of the full membership of the only fully welcoming Mennonite conference in either the USA or Canada.  As such, independent churches existing as their own church conference, such as United Mennonite, stand a higher chance of performing and recognizing lesbian and gay marriages in that they, as an independent conference, credential their own pastoral staff.  Importantly, there are no non-welcoming or anti-same-sex marriage congregations to challenge their right or ability to do so.  Even in states such as Iowa, Massachusetts, or now, California, should gay marriages be performed, such moves are likely to be challenged by more conservative and Fundamentalist believers within the local or regional conferences.  Though continued wrangling over old debates is, as was indicated, likely to increase even further the sense of independence and alienation between welcoming and non-welcoming church communities.
    Nor is legal recognition by church conferences of gay marriage a certainty even in states where it is legal.  This December, despite decades of civil rights movements and legislation against racial discrimination, the Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church in Kentucky voted 9 to 6 to bar interracial  couples from becoming members or being used in worship services – the same hurdles faced by most gay and lesbian Anabaptists attending non-welcoming churches.  After a week of bad press, the church did reverse itself, but the damage was done.
    Huffington Post writer Melanie Coffee sums it up by asking, “So between you and me, how do you really feel about interracial couples? Are you OK with it as long as: A) It's not one of your children? B) It's not in your church C) They're not gay or D) The couple's happy. 
    Returning to the open letter to Church of the Brethren believers, it really is not only the gay and lesbian individuals or couples who need a safe, welcoming place to worship – even today.
Gay and Russian Mennonite Symbolism
    Nor is Gulnare Baptist unique.  Heavily influential in Fundamentalist circles, Bob Jones University did not allow interracial dating until March 2000, only dropping the rule after an embarrassing barrage of media attention criticizing Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush’s decision to visit the campus.
    Not that many Anabaptist congregations are much better.  Grace University in Omaha, an Evangelical Bible school with strong Anabaptist roots, has been criticized for a perceived preponderance of Bob Jones graduates in its staffing.  Appalachian Bible College, a Mennonite and Brethren-friendly institution, is also similarly dominated by two names – Bob Jones University and the equally conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, which has also quietly dealt with questions about its teachings and tolerances towards interracial relationships.  Still dealing with issues of race and racism after 40 years of socialization, such institutions are hardly likely to provide leadership in addressing the needs and spiritual well-being of the Christian LGBT community after only a few months.
    The greatest impact of no-Prop 8 is likely to be towards the secular or ethnic Brethren, Mennonites and Amish communities rather than on the religious congregations.  While the idea of gay Amish or lesbian Mennonites seem to conflict with established stereotypes of bearded fellows and bonneted ladies, such individuals comprise a growing and increasingly visible community.  Gay and lesbian ex-Amish maintain chatrooms and websites while gay Mennonites are increasingly reluctant to deny their cultural and ethnic heritage – often bringing their Anabaptist identities with them into churches and social organizations that are more accepting.  Again, as many ethnic lesbian and gay Mennonites are turning to Mennonite pastors to perform marriage ceremonies as religious ones.
    In as much as Anabaptism’s churches and religious hierarchies no longer have any authority over secular or ethnic Mennonites, Amish and Brethren, or their families, gay ethnic Anabaptists are often in the best position to pursue, accept, and validate their own committed relationships as they see fit and according to their own spiritual, political and emotional comfort levels – without permission or negative conference judgments.
    Nor is this a new phenomenon.  Direct historical evidence and more circumstantial interpretations of Anabaptist history indicate that there has been an historical gay and lesbian Anabaptist identity at least back to the early 18th Century.
    Esteemed Russian Mennonite historian P. M. Friesen openly praised the reign of Frederick the Great in Prussia for its profundity, its tolerance and its wisdom – seeing it as a golden age for the Mennonites of Prussia.  Whether or not Frederick had sex with men, he clearly had what we would today call a gay self-identity.  Media coverage and political interactions indicate that both his Mennonite subjects and later scholars such as Friesen would have been clearly aware of his proclivities.  Interestingly, like the pastors of welcoming Churches of the Brethren, Friesen notes the value and inclusiveness of the gay community and its impact on the larger society.
    Perhaps more common to the Dutch Mennonites (from whom the Prussian and Russian Mennonites descend), has been the almost persistent charges against them of sexual non-conformity – meaning that they were often identified by their enemies of rival faiths as being sodomites (practicing homosexuals) and even polygamists.  In fact, I have only just recently come across a recent blog maintained by a bloke in Saskatchewan who is still repeating these age old rumours.
    While most of these charges were untrue, based in politics and economic rivalries rather than in reality, they do indicate that a dialogue had to be engaged on the matter.  At the same time, it is almost certain that more credible charges were in fact investigated and dealt with – yet what is not known is the extent to which such charges would be investigated or the consequences they would have on the individuals within their congregations or the gemeinde.  In his book Sodomy and the Reformation, Poof indicates that many Medieval homosexuals were accused of being Anabaptists as well as sodomites and burnt at the stake.  At least one of the gay martyrs was burnt at the stake for having had homosexual relations with an Anabaptist.  Given the detail of such trials, it is likely that there were indeed gay and lesbian Mennonites and Amish from the earliest days of the Reformation.
    The published diaries of J. D. Epp, a mid-Nineteenth Century Bishop to the Mennonites in Chortitza and Molotschna, Ukraine, records several instances wherein Russian Mennonites (Russländer) confessed to and were disciplined for having committed homosexual acts.  Interestingly, they, as homosexuals, were seemingly tolerated and allowed to return to the congregation and participate in the community life of the gemeinde – as long as they did not confess or were not caught up in gay sex.
    Heterosexual marriage requirements for land ownership or professional standing ruled out the possibility for viable gay lifestyles to be established in the so-called Russian Mennonite colonies – let alone same-sex marriages.  Even recently widowed spouses with families were forced to rapidly remarry in order to protect their ability to own land and thereby provide for their family.
    At the same time, as the topic of Queer Anabaptist studies finds its feet, more and more Mennonite families are rediscovering traditions of unmarried spinster aunts or uncles who never did find a mate, many remaining in the homes in which they grew up, thereby diminishing their dependence on establishing a normal heterosexual identity for economic and social survival.  Similarly, the strong attachments of certain personalities to same-sex assistants or life-long friends statistically rules out the idea that homosexuality was not quietly observed and thereby tolerated amongst these peaceful folk.  At the same time, attempts to nail down such stories and to clearly identify individuals from the past as “gay” must remain purely speculative.  Even today, most Anabaptists, nor anyone else, do not agree as to what or whom a gay or lesbian person is.
    That being said, the greater consequence of Prop 8’s being overturned will probably be social rather than spiritual, at least in the immediacy.  Changing social norms lead to changing social expectations leading to changing pressures on congregations, conferences and churches to conform, change or accept difference.
    Acceptance of dating between rival Mennonite or Amish factions or between Christians of differing traditions or of different races was often slow and organic, as was the acceptance by Mennonite congregations of divorce and divorce and remarriage.  The true import of no-Prop 8 will probably be in the slow evolutionary social exposure to and individual acceptance of same-sex marriages.  Mennonites, Amish and Brethren who work in the professions, attend university or interact with the media will increasingly come into contact with those 125,000 same-sex California couples and be forced to socially tolerate if not accept gay marriage.
    Even the Mennonite Brethren have entered into narrow dialogue regarding gay rights.  In questioning the MB Conferences choice of Shane Claiborne as a 2010 youth conference speaker, Menno-Lite published the following quote from the National Catholic Report revealing and in opposition to Claiborne’s views on same-sex marriage:
… we said that what we could agree on was we want to support monogamous, married couples and their children and celibate singles”…
    He said the statement did not attach gender to the monogamous couples. “The different communities would resolve that in different ways. I’m not a pastor so it doesn’t come out that people would ask me to marry them in a same-gender relationship. Personally, I would not be able to do that if I were a pastor, but I also don’t have any shame in saying, ‘I’ve got a pastor friend who would love to marry you.’ ”
He said he considered his view an example of the non-dualistic thinking that
Rohr speaks about. “This is how I feel and I’m unapologetic about that, but there may be more than what I see.” Claiborne more than once makes the point that he and other young monastics don’t claim to have all the answers and deeply distrust those who make that claim.” – www.
    In a response published in the Mennonite Weekly Herald (18 Oct 2010), Sheldon Good reports of Wendell Loewen’s response to the criticism (Loewen was co-director of the national convention) – “As Loewen talks with people, he [Loewen] said, most concerns [regarding Claiborne] turn out to be political or social rather than theological,” (reference below).
    Most Mennonites tend to forget that in the 1940s, Mennonite Brethren and Evangelical Mennonite Brethren (EMB), by mutual agreement, were still not allowed to date, let alone marry.  Marrying outside the ethnic-faith community (the gemeinde) did not become a viable option until the late 60s, early 70s.  Most Russian Mennonite congregations did not even deal with divorce until the late 80s but by the 90s, were allowing divorced members to be remarried.  Change does happen, and when it does, it seems to happen fast and for the right reasons.
    My grandmother used to tell me a story about how the Brüderthaler (EMB) Mennonite church in Montana became desegregated.  For four hundred and fifty years, Mennonite men went in one door of the church and worshipped on one side of the sanctuary while Mennonite women went in a separate door (with the children) and sat on the opposite side of the sanctuary.  Blessed with a toddler and a set of infant twins – my grandmother gave my grandfather an ultimatum – either he took the toddler over to his side of the church and kept him quiet, or he would have to sit with her on her side and help her control the kids.  Wisely, grandfather broke with hallowed ancestral traditions and sat beside his wife in the women’s section.  Two weeks later, a few other young couples perceived that if Bert could sit with Ethel in church, then there was no reason they could not do likewise.  So within three weeks and with no votes being taken or debate being engaged, the Bert Walls, the Irvin Walls and the Herb Rauch’s desegregated the Brüderthaler Church. 
    There is an important corollary to this story.  Not all members of the congregation felt comfortable with the new arrangement.  However, instead of stewing over it and fighting it out at regional conferences, a few of the men elected to remain together on the former men’s side of the sanctuary, a few women chose to continue sitting together on the old women’s side of the church and everyone else was allowed to disperse themselves elsewhere or amongst as they saw fit.  Opinions were held and respected, but not allowed to interfere with the fellowship and community of the believers.
    The state has the right to force such confrontations by nature of its existence and its responsibility to preserve the rights and equality of all citizens.  Individuals and individual congregations can seek to separate themselves further and further from such contacts but such separation is becoming increasingly hard to achieve.  Even today, separatist Mennonites in Belize and Mexico are increasingly doing business with American tourists – including gay couples from California.  Hutterite Anabaptists from Montana are selling chickens and produce to gay couples from California moving to Helena, Missoula and Billings.  Just as the Walls and Rauchs observed the establishment of a new social understanding and adapted to it – Anabaptists of all stripes will at some point adapt to the new social realities of no-Prop 8, just in their own time and each to his own understanding.
    Nor is the question of accepting gay marriage in states such as Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, the District of Columbia or the provinces of Canada, Argentina or the Netherlands dependent only on the soundness of and respect for traditional doctrinal issues.  The Mennonite Brethren USA, one of Anabaptism’s most Fundamentalist sects, has recently reversed equally controversial and longer-held doctrinal positions in recent decisions to accredit former military personal as pastoral staff, the acceptance of divorced members, or even that most holy of holies doctrine – relaxing the requirement that all members must be baptized as adults and only through immersion prior to membership. 
    Even in such conservative conferences, acceptance of gay marriage is unlikely to come about by court decree, but rather, as it has every place else, through exposure, individual acceptance and changed social expectations – condemning your openly gay daughter to Hell and refusing to allow her to bring her same-sex spouse to holiday dinners doesn’t quite carry the cache it once held.
    The power to shape these changing social realities is the true power and heritage of the overturning of California’s Proposition 8.  California simply has too many gay marriages to unleash on the larger North American society and such couples will increasingly help redefine the reality of marriage in the US and Canada, and probably even Belize, Mexico, Bolivia and Paraguay.  California’s reality is simply our reality too.  Just as attitudes towards baptism, inter-faith dating and for most people, interracial couples have changed over time, so too will the true heirs of Prop 8 be found a decade or so from now – probably in the greater majority of Anabaptist congregations.  Genetics is pretty blind to matters of religion, ethnicity or political persuasion.  The issue is sure to come up.

     (According to, California is home to 16 self-identified Mennonite heritage congregations mixed amongst roughly 24 Church of the Brethren congregations, 83 Mennonite Brethren Churches and 36 Mennonite Church-USA congregations, for a total of 143 impacted congregations.) 

English (en): Laws regarding same-sex sexuality
Homosexuality legal
   Same-sex marriage1
   Other type of partnership (or unregistered cohabitation)1
   Foreign same-sex marriages recognized1
   No recognition of same-sex couples
Homosexuality illegal
   Minimal penalty
   Large penalty
   Life in prison
   Death penalty
1May include recent laws or court decisions which have created legal recognition of same-sex relationships, but which have not entered into effect yet

Deutsch (de): Rechtlicher Status der Homosexualität.
Homosexualität legal
   Gleichgeschlechtliche Ehen
   (Offizielle) gleichgeschlechtliche Partnerschaften
   Anerkennung ausländischer gleichgeschlechtlicher Ehen
   Keine (offiziellen) gleichgeschlechtlichen Partnerschaften
Homosexualität illegal
   Kleinere Strafen
   Empfindliche Strafen
   Lebenslängliche Haft

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