Winston Churchill reportedly once quipped that Americans and Brits are divided by a common language. Or maybe it was Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw. Or Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain.
In any case, the expression comes to mind often in matters of religion. Mennonites are only the latest group who could be described as being divided by a common faith.
They began 2018 by formalizing a long-expected schism. The Lancaster and some smaller conferences separated from the Mennonite Church USA, and some individual congregations split off as well.
At issue was the role of LGBTQ persons and whether to endorse or oppose same-sex marriage. Conservative and progressive groups alike saw biblical precedent for their stances, but their differences proved irreconcilable.
Mennonites form a small but deeply committed and devout part of the American religious landscape. The Mennonite Church USA, which had close to 100,000 members a couple of years ago before the schism, represented only about a third of all Mennonites in the United States.
They range from highly separatist -- marked by conservative modes of dress and limited use of technology, almost to the extent of their theological and historical cousins the Amish -- to highly assimilated, to where you wouldn't notice too much of a difference in walking into their churches versus that of any other mainline or liberal Protestant church.
Speaking of which, there's a familiarity to the news. Mennonites are relatively sparse in the western part of Pennsylvania compared to the hub around Lancaster, yet they're breathing the same cultural air as other religious groups.
In the past decade, hundreds of congregations have calved off the mainline Episcopal Church USA, Presbyterian Church (USA) and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Many of them joined (respectively) the new Anglican Church in North America, based in Ambridge; the new ECO or older Evangelical Presbyterian Church; or the North American Lutheran Church.
In each case, those departing were conservative congregations opposing their denominations' endorsement of ordaining gays and/or blessing their unions.
In the Mennonite Church USA, the main issue was the national body's opting for a policy of "forbearance" amid disagreements, as opposed to disciplining LGBTQ-affirming congregations.
Theology professor Scott Holland of Pittsburgh Mennonite Church sees deeper factors behind the tensions in these denominations as well as others in the peace church tradition, such as Quakers and Brethren. He's professor of theology and culture at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind., which is affiliated with the Church of the Brethren and is in partnership with the Quaker-affiliated Earlham School of Religion.
Mr. Holland said the debates come amid accelerating declines in membership of many religious denominations.
“It’s not necessarily a question of authority or LGBTQ. It’s part of a larger question of what is the meaning of religion in our lives today,” he said. “The trend of being spiritual-not-religious is getting a lot of traction. Does one need to be part of an established church or congregation to be a spiritual person?”
Many, particularly young people, he said, are saying, “Not necessarily.”
The debates offer "a window into a larger fragmentation of congregations, of conferences, of denominations," he said. "I think we’re seeing tremendous shifts in recent years, and this comes at a time when those of us in theological education are gasping at how rapidly churches are in decline or dying." Long-established seminaries are closing, too.
"So we’re seeing enormous shifts," he said. "It seems to me that the grasping after religious authority by some traditionalists and linking it to LGBTQ issues is symptomatic of greater anxieties that many in the church world are feeling."