Leaning Yes to an Anabaptist alliance

Myron Augsburger, president emeritus of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and well-known Mennonite statesman, has a new vision for Mennonites in North America.

He’s proposing an Alliance of Anabaptists.

In an article in the current issue of Mennonite Weekly Review, Augsburger says that some 60 years of ministry among diverse groups of believers have shown him that Anabaptist denominations are “too small, too exclusive and too institutional.”

“I’d like to see something far larger, more diverse, more open to others who differ – and also a fellowship of shalom rather than a structural organization,” he says.

Augsburger is not talking merger, but alliance – for “fellowship and witness.”

He suggests benefits such as a greater impact on our society, unity in diversity, support for “our common quest to walk with Jesus,” and a sense of belonging.

Two other bloggers have already responded to this proposal at “The World Together,” one leaning yes and the other no.

As for me, I’m leaning Yes. Oh, there’s a flurry of questions that immediately arises in me and pessimism that such a thing could ever be launched, let alone flourish. And yet I find something intriguing in this vision, something compelling, something that needs to be given space for solid consideration before I let myself bog down in questions and fears. (It’s a personal tendency, I’ll admit). A kind of dreaming space where visions can root, a space to absorb all the reasons this idea is both wonderful and timely.

I’ll start by affirming the reasons Augsburger has already articulated and in addition, offering the following reasons I like his proposal.

1.The fresh theological articulation of a broad, yet core, understanding of what it means to be Anabaptist today is well underway. And, what’s significant about this articulation is that it’s coming from places outside, and/or larger than, individual denominational statements. I’m thinking of the work done by the Mennonite World Conference in their What We Believe Together by Alfred Neufeld and The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray, for example, as well as non-Mennonite articulations of Anabaptism in other parts of the church such as Emergent.

2.The “third way” of Christianity that Anabaptism represents is, by many reports, increasingly relevant and attractive today. But it will need a new wineskin for the twenty-first century, one shaped not only by the traditions and histories of those already in the Mennonite family but by a new generation within Mennonitism and by those coming to it new and unencumbered from the outside. Today’s global culture, technological realities, and ecclesiastical challenges not only require new ways of thinking and being but could make it possible for such an alliance to succeed.

3.Working together across denominational lines works. I have no 60 years of experience on the Mennonite scene as Myron Augsburger does, but I know this from my own small experience of inter-Mennonite cooperation. I’m part of Jubilee Mennonite Church, a congregation that belongs to two long-contentious denominations (the Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Church Canada, formerly known as General Conference), still alive and well after 15 years, and have watched what’s happened over 10 years at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, which merged schools from the same two often-contentious and sometimes dissimilar denominations. Such ventures do not allow for “same old” and both involved many questions, fears, resistance from the powers-that-be and/or the constituency, and many challenges. I still remember my own fears, inner resistances, and doubts. The new that results is — yes — different, but it’s “good new.”

(I know Augsburger dares wish for no structural amalgamation but if “more with less” is a Mennonite credo, just think, for a moment of a publishing house that operated out of Anabaptist Alliance ownership instead of denominational ownership. The creative potential – the reach, the resources! — for all groups and the wider church would be enormous.)

4.For Mennonite Brethren, I think, there would be two additional advantages in such an alliance. First, it would solve the problem of the MB name. Both “Mennonite” and the non-inclusive “Brethren” are currently significant barriers in Canada (compounded, in our Quebec churches, by Catholic scandal that attaches itself to the word “brothers” in the name.) Many congregations avoid the label, or reference it in such small print that it’s scarcely to be found. Imagine being able to say, below one’s church name, “an Alliance of Anabaptists in North America congregation” instead. Second, since the MBs have had, and continue to acknowledge, an identity problem, it would force (or allow) clear occupation in their acknowledged large main house. And if they wish to set down in the house’s “evangelical” wing, so be it, but at least it could be said, this is where MBs live. Mennonite Brethren could begin to define themselves from within that alliance name/ID, instead of working backwards towards and through MB-ness in a continuous quest to sort out and measure the denomination’s constituent components.

What do you think of Mr. Augsburger’s idea? Why not register a response to his article at MWR, “The World Together,” or here?

7 thoughts on “Leaning Yes to an Anabaptist alliance

  1. I would probably lean toward Yes as well. I think there is much to be gained from sharing resources and “officially” working together under a big tent—especially in a cultural context where Anabaptism in broad terms seems to be increasingly attractive. You articulate this well in points 1 and 2 in your post. As you say, our traditions and histories as MBs (or other expressions of Anabaptism) may not be best suited to address the growing cultural interest in a “third way.”

    At the same time, like Alan Stucky, it’s not entirely clear to me how such an alliance would differ from inter/cross-denominational work that is already being done (the MCC example he cites is a good one). Does working together with people of diverse understandings and theological emphases lead to the broadening of perspectives and willingness to change our views? It can, but it certainly doesn’t always do so. If the MB church, for example, decided to occupy the “evangelical wing” of the Anabaptist house would it be much different than how we self-identify right now? Perhaps our identity articulation and understanding would proceed from a more healthy perspective if it were part of such an alliance. Perhaps it would just be a different way of labeling an existing reality.

    Having said all that, I couldn’t agree with you more that a happy outcome of such an alliance would be losing the word “Brethren” from our handle. I can usually explain the word “Mennonite” satisfactorily enough, when queried about my denominational affiliation, but “Brethren?!” Not so much. I, for one, would certainly not be sad see that word in the rearview mirror :).

    • Thanks for your comments, Ryan. I’m not quite sure either how such a beast would differ from current associations such as MWC and MCC, although somehow it “feels” different, as if it’s more identity-related. And you’re probably right that joining such an alliance probably wouldn’t affect our self-identification that much, unless (and this is in dream mode, of course) we began to think of ourselves by that label first. To borrow a residence analogy again, if one lives in an apartment building, one would describe the building as a whole to tell people where one lives, and only later might visitors become aware of how one’s individual apartment differs by way of furniture and decoration than the one beside it. In a single house, one is defining something much smaller and more particular. — It seems to me that the possibility of something like this presuppose that denominations are losing their relevance, so in any case they have to change, perhaps drastically, or new forms will have to emerge that may take up some of what denominations do now or alternatively, some of the things they do will perhaps simply not need to be done. — As you already noted (at the MB Forum), Mark Van Steenwyk’s new post at the “The World Together” blog has some interesting things to say on the topic.

      • The apartment metaphor is a good one, and I think at its best this kind of Alliance could look like that. I guess one of my worries is that those who occupy this or that room in the building would gradually come to identify with their particular wing or section more than the building itself, and gradually come to grow suspicious of those folks in other wings who we kinda have to live with but who are just too different… I think that would be just more of what we have now, and wouldn’t do anybody any good.

        But again, I’m leaning (hopefully) in the same direction as you on this one.

  2. Just a note in response to say I like the discussion, and am encouraged that persons are working at the issues involved, but must add, all theology is perspectival and we have a unique perspective to offer the larger church.
    Thanks to Murray, the discussion is underway, and we need to recognize that it is perhaps our western institutionalization that is our larger hurdle. We want to seek honestly an understanding of the character of the church the Spirit is creating. Myron

  3. As well, I am leaning toward yes. Simply because I feel that we have to have a “new wineskin for the twenty-first century.” We have to intentionally not become institutional with a new movement. The Mennonite church has an important life saving message to share. The Gospel of Jesus Christ. Distictives are important.

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