“Those of us who discovered Anabaptism experienced this encounter, as I did, as a homecoming,” wrote Stuart Murray in his now-famous book in our circles, The Naked Anabaptist (2010). “Here were other Christians who shared our convictions about discipleship, community, peace and mission.”
Murray is back—as the keynote speaker at the upcoming annual meeting of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, to be held in Leamington, Ont., on April 29 to 30, 2016, and at Canadian Mennonite’s annual meeting and fundraiser at Rosthern (Sask.) Mennonite Church on April 23. No doubt this modern-day advocate for our core beliefs will remind us again that, while some of us want to abandon the name “Mennonite” because it seems too sectarian or too cultural, or a hindrance to evangelism efforts, we should rather return to our spiritual roots with more enthusiasm than ever.
“Although Mennonite scholars during the 20th century embarked on a quest to rehabilitate Anabaptism, their passion and insights have not yet had the impact they deserve,” he laments. “Many Mennonites seem more interested in purpose-driven churches or the Alpha course.” Others outside our denomination are “urging Mennonites to value more highly their own heritage and to recognize its contemporary significance.”
For some of us, this is good news from this British-born prophet who came to our faith roots through his own study and search for a faith-expression workable in a post-Christendom age. For others, it is something they’d rather not hear and want to write off as an aberration.
But we ask all of us to heed his warnings and to emulate his passion, a dynamic especially needed in our own time of transition and change of structuring. Never before in recent history have we needed a renewed mooring in our own core beliefs to keep the ship afloat during the rough sailing that lies ahead.
While structures are important, our identity as a distinctive Anabaptist-Mennonite faith community is primary as followers of Jesus. It gives shape and form to all aspects of our faith expression; is a voice and imprimatur to all our worship and teaching/preaching, and a guidepost for our children and developing adults; provides techniques for parenting, and comfort and hope for the aging; and offers foundational learning in our church-sponsored schools, universities and seminaries.
It should be part of our DNA when facing the cultural/political issues of nationalism, militarism, restorative justice in the criminal system, integrating our indigenous neighbours and caring for creation. Yes, planet warming is a reality we must face squarely and seriously, and with some urgency change our lifestyles.
How are we doing with our core convictions? In a feature by Evelyn Rempel-Petkau three years ago entitled “Rethinking peace,” she quoted a member of a Manitoba congregation as saying “In the last 15 or 20 years, I have heard only one sermon on peace.” Earlier, Gordon Allaby, then a Saskatchewan pastor, was asked to do an audit of Mennonite Church Canada, and found “it surprising how many congregations, and even provincial churches, were kind of drifting away from a passion of connecting peace and justice to following Christ, almost as if peacemaking is being relegated or diluted to more humanistic reasoning.” (See Allaby's peace audit report here.)
Not good indicators.
Why are we “drifting away” when Murray reminds us that a “commitment to peace is one of the gifts the Anabaptist tradition brings to the wider church”? “It represents a recovery of the practice of the early churches, a natural expression of what it means to be followers of Jesus in post-Christendom culture where the church is no longer compromised by its partnership with wealth, power, status and control.”
There are hopeful signs, however. If our recent readership survey is any indicator, our young people are “very interested in more Christian and theological teaching in responding to current issues.” They desire a stronger Anabaptist presence in our publication, more wrestling with the issues from the perspective of our spiritual roots.
This is profoundly good news, as are the efforts of the newly formed Emerging Voices Initiative, coming out of a group at Canadian Mennonite University that is gathering together younger voices from all across the country to test and stimulate conversation around the recommendations of the Future Directions Task Force.
More power to them. This is a sure sign that our spiritual DNA is strong and enduring. Praise be to God!