Robert J. (Jack) Suderman flinches every time I, or anyone representing Canadian Mennonite, uses the word “independent” to describe who we are as a publication. The characterization apparently grates on his pastoral instincts to think, even for a passing moment, that we are not an integral part of the “body of Christ” as it is expressed in the institution of Mennonite Church Canada.
For Suderman, the former general secretary of MC Canada, and for the editor/publisher and 12-member board of Canadian Mennonite, his instincts are right on. He is absolutely right. And we would have it no other way. In a letter earlier this year, Suderman objected to some of the concepts I articulated in an April 1 editorial, “Whose voice are we?” in which I employed such words as “editorial freedom” and “critique vs. propaganda” and “diversity vs. husbanded control.”
Suderman was referring to a broader discussion in the mid-1990s, when he was on a task force charged with envisioning our ownership structure. “These dichotomous categories do not capture the spirit of the debate at that time,” he recalled.
Not wanting to extend this debate, let me simply say this tension between two major institutions created by Mennonites in Canada is not new. It has surfaced numerous times during the publication’s 42-year history; indeed, it was a pivotal issue when a board was originally formed in 1971 to carry on the work begun by D.W. Friesen & Sons Publishing Co. of Altona, Man., and its first editor, Frank H. Epp, some 18 years earlier—referenced in my Sept. 16 editorial, “A magazine is born,” the first in this series.
As late as the 2004 MC Canada assembly in Winkler, Man., a resolution was brought to the floor that read, in part: “Although we seek to inform and explain that the Canadian Mennonite is not the official voice of MC Canada and its area conferences, the frustration persists. Being the majority financial supporter of the news magazine, we believe there should be direct, official ownership of the Canadian Mennonite by the member conferences of MC Canada.
“We, the delegates at Assembly 2004, direct the General Board to negotiate with the area conferences and the Canadian Mennonite Publishing Services Board to change the Canadian Mennonite from an independent news magazine to a church-owned news magazine, and that negotiations be complete by Dec. 31, 2004.”
The motion was defeated.
While this issue is always right below the surface, the primary preoccupation of the publication’s founders was to “fill the communications gap” left by the cessation of the Manitoba-based paper, according to the historical account in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia (GAMEO): “A group of 65 Mennonite leaders in Ontario, led by the late Aaron Klassen, then chair of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, pledged funds to begin a new paper.
“While the focus [of the reincarnated publication] was on news, articles ranged from devotional material to features on the arts to analysis of social and political issues. Letters from readers provided lively debate.”
Also in the wisdom of the founders, this was to be carried on “at arm’s length” from the official governing bodies that would provide a certain journalistic integrity, the freedom to critique as well as to affirm core Anabaptist beliefs. This was all to be carried out within the hermeneutic fabric of the Mennonite Confession of Faith. And it was to lean towards pushing the edges of our faith, rather than to maintain the status quo. It was, to use an overworked cliché, to be “prophetic.”
Ralph Lebold, one of those early leaders, recalls that there was an excitement about new expressions of faith, new theological understandings, new paths opening up on our collective faith journey.
Canadian Mennonite is still operating in the glow of that vision. Where the publication’s “control” lies is second in importance. We consider ourselves, with heavy board representation from MC Canada and each of the area churches (formerly called conferences), to be very “inter-dependent,” rather than “independent” from the body.
“Where do we go from here?”