I have always been part of the Mennonite world, having been called to Jesus Christ in my early years; active in the fellowship of the church throughout my youth; and trained by the church through Canadian Mennonite Bible College, Winnipeg, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, N.Y. I was ordained into pastoral ministry in 1964, just at the time of transition to professional ministry in Canada. As a pastor, I participated fully in the larger fellowships of the Mennonite church in North America, including numerous levels of integration decision-making meetings. I retired in 1999, having served four congregations during my tenure.
I view the Future Directions Task Force proposals as a swinging of the pendulum, rather than an attempt to discover something new in structure and intent of the church. What I observed over my ministry was high-energy participation in the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, as it was then called. I observed over the decades an increased concentration of decision-making at conference by leadership, a decrease of cross-conference conversation and substantial debates over issues of life and mission.
With this shift, delegates tended to feel less valued in attending and supporting the conference-wide mission. An increasingly bureaucratic system was being built up, with less interest in the local congregation’s well-being and vitality. Less money from the local congregations meant that more funds were sought from individuals, especially for larger national and international projects. From this point of view, a renewed focus on congregational life is certainly a healthy corrective.
However, the other side of the coin has to do with the vitality of a national fellowship in which decisions and mutual support constitutes part of what “church” is. You could say that you can’t keep the family together if you don’t have meaningful family gatherings, where things are debated, discussed and learned in the framework of that meaningful context.
Although the rather defensive attempt by the study group to explain the “myths and realities” of the Future Directions project, the very attempt at making a new proposal is suspect by virtue of it being initiated by the national church from the beginning!
The loss of a meaningful national fellowship is precisely the reason a group like Evana is waiting in the wings to usurp its place. Unfortunately, this movement seems to have spiked on the issues of sexuality and the struggling attempts by the larger national body to find some common ground. A stronger congregational polity would allow congregations to follow the leading of the Spirit as they were able. And a more loosely meaningful wider fellowship would allow congregations that freedom to be different while remaining in fellowship.
We are already five years too late in re-studying and revising the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Church pastors are now using this tired document as a prescriptive statement of our faith, rather than as a descriptive statement of our faith when it was written.
There has been a growing decrease in financial support for the so-called national church. This has been a problem for some time, and is a symptom of something deeper going on. It is fine, and very necessary, to search for renewal in the church, and if that comes, financial issues resolve themselves. Just watch how the Evana budgets will flourish as our own global mission is forced into decline.
But that success is not evidence of spiritual renewal as such, but is simply the taking up of the political space of something that was there before. Fortunately, Evana is honest enough to admit that its whole project is precipitated on the “one man-one woman” definition of marriage in the Confession of Faith. Everything else seems not to be at issue. And that is where I find it problematic.
Let me also add that stronger regionalism has brought about the weakening of the national reality. I have had increasing sadness about the whole integration process in our region. I always objected to the region named Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, which always implied a Mennonite Church Western Canada.
The concentration of area church programming and leadership trying to fill the broader mission will also eventually falter with the eventual reduction of resources, as has happened in the Canadian and American contexts.
The issue is, as the Task Force rightly identifies, a confusion of identities. But throwing the baby out with the bathwater has not been the solution here. Solutions might lie in the regular gathering of the church nationwide, if not to make decisions, then at least to worship and commune together like Mennonite World Conference, so that we can feel the fellowship.
In addition to such fellowship, Canadian Mennonite is the one major instrument that gives us a sense of identity across Canada. If we lose that, too, we lose any meaningful identity of our Mennonite family across Canada.
Waldemar Regier is a member of the Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church in Waterloo, Ont.
Other recent viewpoints on the Future Directions proposal: