by Gwen Groff
The Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse is a strong, unequivocal statement about sexual abuse in our families, churches and broader culture. When I first read the other statements about sexuality to be discussed at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City, I internally responded with reservations and disappointments, noticing places where they sound like they were written by a committee struggling to satisfy conflicting interests, places I felt the statements didn’t go far enough or went too far. When I read this statement on sexual abuse I responded with unequivocal affirmation and deep gratitude.
This statement was written in response to the church’s institutional mishandling of the sexual abuse perpetrated by John Howard Yoder. It is part of a process of lament and repentance, but it also addresses the need for actions that will have broad beneficial effects on congregations and other church institutions. The tone of the statement is remarkably positive given that its subject is heinous and anxiety producing. It does not perpetuate an illusion that healing is easy or quick, but it does point to the constructive goals of truth-telling, education, and prevention.
The resolution is beautifully written. It makes simple, clear statements. It declares “human bodies are good.” It commits us to developing and teaching “healthy, wholesome sexuality.” It equates inaction with sin. It acknowledges links between sexism and racism. It draws distinctions between sexual immorality and sexual abuse of power.
The statement identifies the need for concrete action. It reports that 21 percent of women in Mennonite Church USA congregations and 5.6 percent of men reported having experienced sexual abuse or violation. Those who have been sexually abused can hear their voices reflected in this statement. Those who are in leadership in congregations and church institutions can hear this as an explicit call to action.
As I read the statement and its three invaluable appendices, “Actions and commitments,” “Lenses for understanding sexual abuse,” and “Resources,” I recalled working in Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) Peace Office when MCC was drafting a peace statement. As the Peace Office presented a finely wordsmitedh draft, one board member lamented that although all the parts of the statement were sound, the document didn’t “sing.” He wished the words were more resounding and poetic. Reading this document I felt that some sentences of this sexual abuse resolution do in fact sing: “Our spirituality and our sexuality are not disconnected or competing aspects of our lives but express our longing for intimacy with God and with others.” Not quite sing-able, but certainly true and beautiful.
I wondered who wrote this powerful statement on our behalf. Who are these individuals on the “Mennonite Church USA Discernment Group”? The MCUSA web site names them as Carolyn Holderread Heggen, Regina Shands Stoltzfus, Ted Koontz, Chuck Neufeld, Linda Gehman Peachey, Sara Wenger Shenk, and Ervin Stutzman. Their brief bios explain their passion for this work. They represent Mennonite institutions that are committed to necessary change. I look forward to personally thanking some of them in Kansas City.
The work is not finished with drafting and affirming these words. The statement calls us to take very difficult action. It commits us to careful theological work, for example, exploring how our peace theology might contribute to tolerating abuse: “Examine religious teachings that make it difficult for victims to protect themselves or speak up when they have been violated and hurt,” being “especially alert to teachings that advocate … suffering and bearing the cross as signs of discipleship.”
The statement also calls us to tough and sometimes tedious concrete work that might seem contrary to our usual trusting ways of relating in the church. Do we really have to put “windows in all interior doors” of the Sunday school rooms and require “screening for all staff and volunteers”?
Finally the statement calls us to careful, thoughtful work in our institutions. Leaders of institutions often see it as their primary job to protect the institution, sometimes at the expense of victims of abuse committed in the institution. This statement confesses that leaders “have often responded with denial, fear and self-preservation. We have tended to listen to voices who have positional power, rather than to those who have been violated and those who are most vulnerable.” Institutions are good at self-preservation. Doing the patient, transformative work that this statement advocates is the best way to preserve what is worth preserving of our institutions.
Gwen Goff is lead pastor at Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater Corners, VT. This article is part of a series that the Conference has invited in considering responses to the resolutions for Assembly at Kansas City 2015.