Speaking of women…

In a kind of offshoot from my previous post, I find myself checking in at my 2006 journals, to see whether my memory of the awe, even euphoria, I felt when the Mennonite Brethren conference I was part of passed a resolution freeing women for ministry leadership (this after a long process of debate and study over many years) is accurate or if it has been imagined into stronger color over time.

I find it’s accurate enough. I was trembling through the final discussions of that particular convention, I noted, because it mattered that much, and then came the surprise, even shock, of the resolution passing, solidly enough (the news report here), a sense of “wow” as it began to sink in. “I feel that something has been loosed on earth, as we prayed…” my private pages said, bursting with gratitude.

Nearly six years later, I confess I’m disappointed in the “since then.” My impression — anecdotal, I realize, since I’m no longer involved in the conference — is that while women’s participation goes on a-pace in some congregations, the ethos of the Mennonite Brethren denomination as such has not changed to reflect that decision — or “the spirit, the direction” it represented, as one of the men who worked hard on that process put it to me recently. Perhaps it’s even regressed. Continue reading

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?

A 15th birthday celebration

Yesterday, our congregation celebrated its 15th birthday.

Granted, fifteen years isn’t really that long in terms of most church or even congregational histories. There are a few factors in our case, however, that make this both unique and significant.

Jubilee website photo

Jubilee Mennonite Church represents the coming together of two congregations with their own particular earlier histories (dreams, successes, struggles) which extends the story back a couple of decades. To make these individual long stories short, the one group (Northdale Mennonite) had a building but for various reasons had seriously declined in membership. The other group (Valley Gardens Community Church — MB) had people, including a lot of children and youth, but had been meeting in a school and longed for a place to call home. (Although this group had purchased land, it began to doubt the wisdom of mortgaging the future to an expensive new building.) A casual conversation between friends from the two congregations over an evening bonfire resulted in the beginning of talks, and eventually the chartering of a new entity with 77 members in 1995.

The merger was described yesterday as “a marriage of convenience,” and in many respects it was. It solved the problems of two groups, and produced something stronger than either of them alone could become, something viable for the future.

But the phrase hides how carefully both congregations approached the merger, for there was another factor in all this that needed study and honest conversation. The two “courting” congregations happened to be from different Mennonite denominations — the Mennonite Brethren (MBs) and Mennonite Church Canada (formerly known as the General Conference Mennonites or GCs). We were the first, and are still, as far as I know, the only “dual conference” church of these two groups in the province, and I don’t think there’s more than two or three in the country.

To the casual eye, this may appear unremarkable. Isn’t a Mennonite a Mennonite a Mennonite? Yes, in a way, but like many broad movements of faith, the Anabaptists too splintered and then splintered some more. At the founding of the Mennonite Brethren in 1860 in Russia, and hence separation of the two streams that our two founding congregations represent, relations were anything but cordial. (I realize I’m over-simplifying things a little, as the General Conference, now called Mennonite Church, was founded in the U.S., also in 1860, but because it was this conference that many of the Russian Mennonite immigrants from the main Russian Mennonite church joined when they came to Canada, differences originating in Russia were brought along to the New World, and perpetuated in further ways.) Alike as they may have been at the root, each group developed its own culture over time, not to mention negative stereotypes of one another.

These separated groups were now contemplating becoming a congregation that would choose to be not one or the other, but both. We set up various task forces to look at our confessional statements, polity, and so on. We consulted with conference leaders and asked the advice of ministers from each conference who had worked in churches belonging to the other. I recall some resistance at the national level of the MB conference, but since it was provincial jurisdiction to accept new churches and provincially, both denominations, were supportive, our proposal to merge won approval.

I’m glad it happened. The dual part of it is important, both symbolically and for the resources we have at our disposal, but more so the life we’ve shared and shaped together for 15 years. The fact is, denominational identity doesn’t seem to be a huge deal for the younger generation anyway. We’re still a relatively small church, in the 130-person range, and we’ve had our share of ups and downs as I suppose any congregation does, but I was reminded again yesterday of how much we’ve learned together, perhaps from the blending of our respective traditions, but more often just in the simple process of being church together.

I appreciated too the reminder of our pastor Dan Nighswander in his sermon on Hebrews 12:1,2 and 12-17 and its instruction to keep our focus on Jesus. (This was one thing the Anabaptist reformers got right, he said, this insistence on the centrality of Jesus — an emphasis, he went on, that is proving especially relevant for the church in a post-Christendom world.) Such a focus will shape our identity (for primarily it must be that we’re a group of people following Jesus together), our character, and our relationship with God.

There was a great spirit of celebration yesterday, in the service and the lunch that followed. Happy birthday, Jubilee!