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The suggestion that female pastors might be accepting of LGBTQ people has created an absurd controversy in a small Christian sect after a passage from a new book was censored.

It involved a book published last month called On Holy Ground: Stories By and About Women in Ministry Leadership in the Mennonite Brethren Church. The title is self-explanatory. The book compiles essays from female pastors in the Mennonite Brethren Church in the hopes that it’ll inspire other women to seek a similar path in their future. The CBC notes that the book “was commissioned by the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission, which falls under the leadership of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (CCMBC).” In other words, this isn’t some independent publication. It’s something blessed by the denomination’s higher-ups as a way to highlight the various perspectives of women in church leadership. That’s fairly important for a denomination with about 500,000 adherents worldwide.

One of the 15 essays in the book was written by Mary Anne Isaak, a pastor from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who reflected on her 26 years in the ministry. She wrote about her personal evolution over that time… including one particular issue that came up at each of the three churches she worked at: LGBTQ inclusion.

Isaak had been fairly conservative on that issue, supporting the church’s belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman. But she said that, over time, she felt joy at seeing a Christian woman marry her same-sex partner and her own views began to shift. “As I study the scriptures, I think there is room for a gay couple to get married,” she told the CBC.

In her essay, the relevant portion of which is reproduced in full here, she writes how she “began to question my own understanding of God who preferred divorce for a gay couple rather than celebration of decades of hard-won growth in loving relationship.”

To be clear: She wasn’t demanding that the church change its official stance. She was simply sharing her own perspective in the hopes that it would spark discussion among her peers. It’s not that different from how she was raised to believe women had no place in church leadership only to change her position on that too (with support from the church).

But after the first copies of the book were published this past spring, with Isaak’s full essay, the CCMBC and USMB Executive Boards called for the removal of the three pages in which she talks about her shifting position on LGBTQ people. The existing books were destroyed and new copies were published excluding that portion of Isaak’s essay.

The boards justified that decision in an article published in the Mennonite Brethren Herald:

… 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.

So they wanted to hear her reflections on ministry… just not anything that might conflict with the church’s own bigoted Christian propaganda. They even said in their letter that they feared keeping the passage in the book would “reinforce the damaging stereotype that embracing women in leadership leads necessarily to an affirming stance on gay marriage for Christians.”

Such a nasty, nasty stereotype… that inclusion of one kind might lead to (*gasp*) inclusion of another kind.

The irony is that, by censoring the material, a passage that might have done nothing more than raise an eyebrow among some devout believers is now the only thing anyone’s talking about regarding the book—and, let’s be honest, the entire denomination. (I’d bet good money this is the first time many of you have even heard of the Mennonite Brethren Church.)

Adding insult to injury, the church didn’t even tell Isaak or the book’s editor they were removing the passage. They claimed that decision was due to “the urgent timeline of the original book printing/distribution and the complexity of working as a joint USMB/CCMBC team.” What exactly was so urgent about this book? Who the hell knows.

For her part, Isaak’s biggest frustration is that the censorship has overshadowed what she believed is an otherwise worthwhile collection of essays:

Isaak says she feels sadness over how the situation played out because the book is meant to help women in a male-dominated role find ways to validate their experiences and be heard.

“I think the saddest thing would be if this controversy over-shadowed the voices of all 15 of the authors,” she said.

The editor of the book, Dora Dueck, however, isn’t as charitable. In a comment left underneath the church’s defense of their decision, she writes that she was “stunned” and “angry” by the move.

… 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.

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!

In summary, a book that was meant to celebrate female leaders by raising their voices has, instead, silenced one of its most important voices on a vital issue. This book is now a case study for why so many people are rejecting bigoted religious sects.

The church alienated the writer, the editor, and countless people who were already critical of organized religion. Was it really worth it?

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.