A 96-year-old Mennonite pastor has had his ministerial credentials revoked after officiating the marriage of his gay son, reigniting debate within the Christian denomination over homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
Chester Wenger has been a pastor, missionary, and church leader based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for sixty-five years, operating as an ordained clergyperson since 1949 within the Mennonite Church USA — a denomination with around 1.7 million members. Although not necessarily a crusader for gay rights during that time, Wenger is no stranger to homophobia within his religious tradition: Wenger’s son was excommunicated from the Mennonite church 35 years ago for being gay.
Wenger “grieved deeply” about the church’s decision to expel his child, but when same-sex marriage became legal in Pennsylvania in May, his son asked him to officiate his wedding to his partner of 27 years. The retired pastor “happily agreed,” openly defying the established rules of his tradition in order to perform the union on June 21.
After he reported the marriage to the Lancaster Mennonite Conference credentialing committee, however, church authorities convened on September 10 and formally retired Wenger’s ministerial credentials. They argued his actions violated established church guidelines, which read “Pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant ceremony.”
L Keith Weaver, moderator of the Conference, told Lancaster Online that the process of revoking Wenger’s credentials was “mutually gracious and respectful.” But the issue drew broader attention last week when Wenger submitted a lengthy Op-Ed to The Mennonite explaining his decision to oversee his son’s wedding.
“I know persons will accuse me for my transgression, but my act of love was done on behalf of the church I love, and my conscience is clear,” Wenger wrote. “When my wife and I read the Bible with today’s fractured, anxious church in mind, we ask, what is Jesus calling us to do with those sons and daughters who are among the most despised people in the world—in all races and communities? What would Jesus do with our sons and daughters who are bullied, homeless, sexually abused, and driven to suicide at far higher rates than our heterosexual children?”
Wenger went on to charge the church to rethink its stance on homosexuality and embrace same-sex marriage.
“We invite the church to courageously stake out new territory, much as the early church did,” he wrote. “We invite the church to embrace the missional opportunity to extend the church’s blessing of marriage to our homosexual children who desire to live in accountable, covenanted ways.”
The controversy comes in the midst of ongoing debate within Mennonite church over homosexuality. Some churches have cut ties with the Mennonite Church USA in recent months, citing concerns that the denomination is moving towards greater acceptance of LGBT people and same-sex marriage. Homosexuality is also said to be a major topic of discussion at the denomination’s upcoming national assembly, which is scheduled to convene next year in Kansas City, Missouri.