Wenger family

Chester and Sara Jane Wenger, seated, at the wedding of their son, Phil Wenger, standing at right, and Steve Dinnocenti.

The Lancaster Mennonite Conference has terminated the credentials of a long-time pastor, missionary and church leader for officiating at the June 21 wedding of his gay son and partner.

Chester Wenger, 96, in an online commentary for "The Mennonite," a publication of Mennonite Church USA, says he happily agreed to officiate at the wedding of son Phil Wenger and Steve Dinnocenti.

"I know persons will accuse me for my transgression," Wenger wrote, "but my act of love was done on behalf of the church I love, and my conscience is clear."

Wenger, former pastor at Blossom Hill Mennonite Church in Manheim Township, said he is at peace with the action taken Sept. 10 by the Lancaster Mennonite Conference's credentialing commission, but he prays for greater church acceptance of gays and lesbians.

"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," Wenger said.

Contacted by phone, Wenger of East Lampeter Township declined to give an interview until his commentary is published in "The Mennonite" magazine.

But he did say, "I love the church and I love the church officials, and I have a good rapport with them."

Wenger's son, Phil, said he would never have requested his father officiate at the wedding if he had foreseen the repercussions.

Respectful process

L Keith Weaver, moderator for the Lancaster Mennonite Conference, in an email said the credentialing commission terminated Wenger's retired ministerial credential after a review process "that was experienced as mutually gracious and respectful."

Weaver said the action was based on Mennonite Church USA guidelines stating, "Pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant."

Phil Wenger said his father is worried that Mennonite Church USA may splinter over acceptance of gay members and pastors and wrote the commentary out of that concern.

"My father's overriding passion has been to speak to his fellow Lancaster Conference Mennonites and to do that with a message of love and a desire to share his perspective after a long life of studying the Bible and looking at this very challenging issue in our community," Phil Wenger said.

Chester Wenger, with his wife, Sara Jane, was a missionary in Ethiopia for 17 years, where he founded the Bible Academy of Nazareth, Ethiopia.

He was the first chairman of Ethiopia's Meserete Kristos Church, now the largest Mennonite church in the world.

He later was the director of home ministries and evangelism for Eastern Mennonite Missions, Salunga, before becoming pastor at Blossom Hill.

Small, non-church ceremony

Wenger signed the marriage certificate after officiating at the simple wedding of Phil Wenger and Steve Dinnocenti in the back yard of the men's West Chestnut Street home. Only a handful of people attended the ceremony.

"We sat in small circle in the back yard and told stories about love and commitment," said Phil Wenger, founder of the Isaac’s restaurant chain. About 25 guests then arrived for a reception.

Chester Wenger titled his 1,600-word commentary, "An open letter to my beloved church."

"When our gay, young adult son about 35 years ago was excommunicated from the Mennonite Church by a church leader, without any conversation with him or his parents, my wife and I grieved deeply," Wenger wrote.

He said he began meeting and reading the Bible with the parents of other gay children.

"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?" he wrote.

Of 29 reader comments posted as of Friday to Wenger's online piece, 24 wrote in support of his stance.

"What a powerful testimony from a wise elder who I hold in high regard!" Dick Benner wrote. "How could anyone gainsay these gracious words of love and magnanimity."

But Sarah Gingrich wrote, "Lord, have mercy. Dear ones, please turn from heresy."