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YORK, Pa. — The Lancaster Mennonite Conference has left the Mennonite Church USA denomination, and differing views on homosexuality were a major reason for the division. 

The Lancaster Mennonite Conference is a group of more than 170 churches located mostly in Pennsylvania. It was the largest of 19 conferences that made up Mennonite Church USA.

The denomination is one expression of the Mennonite faith, which includes a wide variety of traditions — some of the most conservative share many similarities with the Amish.

Mennonite Church USA issued a statement about the separation on Jan. 5, saying the denomination was "disappointed that Lancaster Mennonite Conference made the decision to leave MC USA, because it is painful to separate from part of our body in Christ." 

The statement also notes that the separation had been planned for two years and formally was completed Jan, 1.

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In 2015, the denomination, passed a resolution of forbearance — or tolerance — as it relates to human sexuality. 

“We don’t agree on everything on human sexuality," summarized ​Terry Shue, director of leadership development for the denomination. He said congregations and conferences under Mennonite Church USA disagreed on issues such as whether gay marriages could be conducted by a Mennonite church.

The resolution ​was attempting to "hold the edges of the church together," Shue said. But he acknowledged critics think it amounts to tolerating sin.

He said the denomination also reaffirmed traditional marriage. 

​Shue said sexuality was the “elephant in the room” when it comes to the separation of the Lancaster conference.

He said the Lancaster conference was traditional in its views and also had reservations about other issues, such as women in leadership roles in the church.

Steven Nolt, who teaches at Elizabethtown College and has written numerous books on Amish, Mennonite and Pennsylvania German history and contemporary life, said other issues were also at play in the separation, including disagreements on church organization.

The separation of the Lancaster Conference from Mennonite Church USA is unique because of the structure of the Mennonite Church.

"​We didn’t own anything together ... ​it was Lancaster’s right and privilege to choose to leave," explained ​Shue.

While many Christian denominations own the real estate for their congregations and carry out functions such as ordaining ministers, those functions have historically been carried out by the Lancaster Conference itself, Nolt said.

He also noted that the term "Mennonite" includes a diverse number of organizations and beliefs.

Mennonite Church USA would consider itself on the more progressive side of the spectrum, according to Shue.

The denomination was formed in the early 2000s after a significant reorganization of two major Mennonite denominations, Nolt said. The Lancaster Mennonite Conference traces its roots to the early 1700s.

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