Six people who have been meeting virtually for the last two years via videoconference gathered together in person for the first and only time this summer to speak through and listen to the worship resources that will be part of Voices Together, a new hymnal to be published by MennoMedia in 2020 for Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church U.S.A.
The Central Practices Committee has been gathering and assessing the words that accompany baptism, communion, footwashing, child blessing, marriage, healing/anointing, funerals, membership and leadership rituals. The committee refers to these acts of worship collectively as “central practices” because of their central role in expressing and forming Anabaptist Mennonite identity for individuals and congregations.
“We sing songs about who we are, but we also use words and actions to express our faith in congregational worship and at significant moments in our lives,” says Sarah Kathleen Johnson, worship resources editor and co-chair of the committee. “These are resources congregations turn to again and again. When we baptize, we use water and words. When we share communion, we eat and drink, and we use words. We are caring both for what is said in worship and for instructions that aid leaders in preparing.”
Irma Fast Dueck, the other co-chair, says, “It is a daunting task to attempt to find language that accompanies an experience such as baptism or communion, for these are practices whose meaning dwarfs any words that could possibly be said. And these words may be repeated by the church for the next 25 years or more. That’s overwhelming, and yet as I work alongside this group on these practices, I felt a remarkable sense of connection—to those working with me and the deep and rich tradition.”
Johnson, and members Adam Tice and Allan Rudy-Froese are also part of the Mennonite Worship and Song Committee working on the new hymnal. Other members of the Central Practices Committee are Isaac Villegas and Heidi Miller.
The group started by talking through the theological and practical core of each practice and identifying the types of resources to include in Voices Together to support each practice, says Johnson. Writers, mostly pastors and scholars, have been creating drafts of these resources since April 2018. The three-day gathering in August allowed the committee to workshop and hone them, thinking through the practical ways in which someone speaks while holding a child or sharing the cup.
It is work that could not have happened in the same way in a video chat. “You can’t read corporately online,” says Johnson.
Versions of these resources will be available later this fall for several months of testing, according to Johnson. “We wish to give communities the opportunity to explore, test, and respond to these resources before they are published,” she says. Those interested in having their congregation test these worship resources, should email editorial assistant Karen Gonzol at KarenG@MennoMedia.org by Oct.1, 2018.
Central worship practices can be a source of tension and division within the denomination. Mennonites, like other denominations, are wrestling with the large questions of who receives communion, who is allowed to be married and who is able to be ordained. Although Voices Together is a denominational hymnal project, it is local congregations that make choices about central practices that can be divisive in the church as a whole. There is diversity within the Mennonite church, and both the Worship and Song and the Central Practices committees are trying to offer resources for a range of congregations. “We aspire to prepare resources with enough space for local congregations and other bodies to make a range of choices regarding these questions,” says Johnson.
It is in worship that these words will come to life, says Villegas. “This has been spiritual work, intimate labour, to receive the phrases and sentences from faithful people from the broad expanse of our tradition, from the past and the present, and to hone their words into prayers and litanies that will sustain the faith of all of us. My hope is that our people will experience themselves drawn into God’s life when they turn these words into flesh through their worship.”
To learn more about the hymnal go to http://voicestogetherhymnal.org/