The year was 1963. D.W. Friesen and Sons of Altona, Man., publishers of 10-year-old The Canadian Mennonite were struggling to keep the first English-language, inter-Mennonite publication financially afloat. The conferences were slow to accept this new communication venture, which had the purpose of “serving the interest of all the groups for the purpose of bringing them closer to each other so that their respective contributions might complement each other,” as described by Ted Friesen at the 1999 annual meeting of The Canadian Mennonite.
The paper, launched in 1953, had already seen several incarnations. Friesen and his family had invested heavily in this enterprise, but the burden of continuing was getting beyond their capacity to hold on. They would have been happy if the paper had broken even financially, he said, but that didn’t happen. Every year saw a substantial deficit.
They were happy they hired the young Frank Epp, a “person of enormous energy, great capabilities and organizational skills,” as editor. His editorials, Friesen said, “challenged the Mennonite people of Canada to come to terms with either being separate, or being salt and light in Canadian society.”
The paper “died” as of 1971, according to a 2003 historical account written by Margaret Loewen Reimer, managing editor, but the vision didn’t. Immediately after its demise, people began to fill “the communication gap” with a new periodical. “Among the first to take action was the late Aaron Klassen, chair of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, who found a group of 65 people ready to pledge funds to begin a new publication.” The first issue of the Mennonite Reporter was published in Waterloo, Ont., on Aug. 3, 1971, with Epp again named as editor while also serving as a professor at Conrad Grebel University College, later becoming its president.
There is much more to this chequered history, but most important, despite its several manifestations, is that the vision has prevailed, using the words of Friesen as “challenging the Mennonite people to come to terms with being either separate or being salt and light in Canadian society.” That vision is just as applicable today as it was 62 years ago, even though we are far more integrated into our culture now.
Today, Mennonite Church Canada and its area churches are at a crossroads, not Canadian Mennonite. The publication enjoys the endorsement and financial support of MC Canada and the five area churches (formerly conferences) through a Partnership Covenant that supports an Every Home Plan, so all who desire can receive biweekly issues. For the denomination, though, diminishing financial support has forced it to take a hard look at restructuring.
One of the options brought forward by the Future Directions Task Force is to fold MC Canada into a federation, of sorts, of the five area churches. There would be no central office for Witness and Christian Formation efforts, among other functions. These functions would either cease to exist or be picked up in some form by the area church offices. A Leadership Council will take a hard look at this at a Nov. 13 meeting in Abbotsford, B.C.
If this option takes root, there are many details to be ironed out. The process will not be easy; painful decisions will have to be made.
But just as in the troubled history of the survival of Canadian Mennonite, it is the vision that has carried it through all of the upheavals. Yes, even as the ground shifted beneath our feet, what survived was that undying impulse to keep alive a narrative that nourished our spirituality, formed our identity as a people with a unique Anabaptist heritage of core beliefs, and sustained a communication vehicle that kept us, despite our theological and cultural differences, in conversation.
It’s the vision, not the structure, that sustains us. Where there is vision, there is energy. Where there is no vision, the people perish; Proverbs 29:18 is ancient biblical wisdom that still applies. Without vision, structures are empty artifices, sometimes echo chambers.
In Canadian Mennonite’s case, it is the continuing conversation that forms our narrative. No matter the cultural and religious changes, no matter what the communication form, no matter if coming to you on printed pages or accessible digitally through our website, it is the inspiration, the connections, the diversity of views that give it life.
We will watch carefully how the structure serves the vision in the upcoming days. But we hope that the vision stays intact.