(RNS) -- The nation's two leading Mennonite denominations formallycemented their new relationship as one family on July 5,making the new Mennonite Church USA the largest Mennonite body in the country.Meeting in Nashville, delegates approved the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church. The merged denomination will have about 125,000 members in 1,100 churches.Although the merger was approved in 1999, differences in governanceand membership standards had to be worked out. Church leaders said thenew relationship is nothing short of historic."It's very significant for our two denominations because we've beencooperating for some time, but we've had some significant differences inpolity and practice," said the Rev. Ervin Stutzman, the moderator, orpresident, of the new church.Mennonites are best known for their peace work and commitment tononviolence. They are theological cousins of the Amish but have adecidedly more integrated lifestyle and do not shun modern life. Thepractice of "believers," or adult, baptism is also a key tenet.Both the Mennonites and the Amish trace their roots to 16th centuryGermany and Switzerland, when a band of "radicals," or Anabaptists,largely rejected the Protestant Reformation and were persecuted fortheir beliefs. Their name comes from an early Dutch leader, MennoSimons.Even though they are more integrated in society than the Amish,Mennonites cling to a simple lifestyle and holy living. Stutzman,however, said his church is entirely mainstream."The Mennonite Church is a very contemporary church," he said."These are not people who are living in the past. These are people wholook in many ways like people on the street and are dealing with most ofthe same issues as anyone else in school, work and family."
Concentrated in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and Indiana, the churchhas a growing ethnic population of Asian and Hispanic members who havechanged the racial makeup of the church. Stutzman said at least 20percent of all board members are non-Caucasian "people of color."One of the largest stumbling blocks toward merger was membershipstandards -- particularly on the issue of homosexuality. The twochurches took different approaches to decision-making, but Stutzman saida middle ground was forged by both sides.The Mennonite Church historically gave local conferences more leewayin determining membership standards, while the General ConferenceMennonite Church allowed local congregations more influence. Thecompromise will give greater authority to local conferences but leavemembership standards up to individual congregations, in "consultation"with their conferences.Progressive factions within the church had urged a more welcomingattitude toward gays and lesbians, while conservatives threatened not tojoin if traditional teachings opposing homosexuality were not upheld.Some liberal-leaning congregations have lost their local conferenceaffiliations because of their openness to gays and lesbians.Under membership guidelines approved Thursday, the church maintainshomosexual activity -- along with premarital sex and extramaritalaffairs -- is "a sin" and marriage is a "covenant between one man andone woman." The church also calls for "dialogue with those who holddiffering views.""There may be diversity within the church about how decisions aremade or how membership is determined," Stutzman said, conceding that thenew rules could lead to a patchwork of different standards within thechurch.
The denomination will consist of 21 regional conferences, althoughmany are overlapping and nongeographical. The headquarters will continueto be in Newton, Kan., and Elkhart, Ind., with two additional offices tobe located in urban areas on the East and West coasts.