Mennonite Church Eastern Canada and diversity

Jun 10, 2015 by

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In May I spoke at the Mennonite Historical Society annual dinner in Elkhart, Ind. I was asked to make observations for Mennonite Church USA from Ontario Mennonite history.

Vernon Leis, MCEC moderator, speaks at the first annual meeting in 1988. — Sam Steiner

Vernon Leis, MCEC moderator, speaks at the first annual meeting in 1988. — Sam Steiner

Mennonite Church USA has been going through difficult times in recent years, as a number of congregations have withdrawn from the denomination and/or area conferences because they believe MC USA has not properly enforced the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, especially the article on marriage that says, “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”

In my presentation to the historical society I noted that Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, since it was formed in 1988, has had no congregation withdraw. I suggested three reasons for why MCEC has had a different experience from MC USA. I characterized them as first, historical diversity; second, unified leadership; and thirdly — resulting from the first two — a greater openness to theological diversity.

The historical diversity comes from the three Mennonite historical streams that shaped Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. The first stream included the Mennonites who came from Pennsylvania in the late 18th and early 19th century. In the 20th century this group became very fundamentalist in theology, and developed a top-down conference structure that gave great authority to male ordained leaders, especially long-serving bishops. This changed in the 1950s and 1960s when younger, seminary-trained leaders emerged who rejected fundamentalism and embraced biblical criticism and the contributions that social sciences make to human understanding.

The second stream was the Amish who immigrated to Canada from Europe in the 1820s and following decades. They remained more rural, and retained decision-making authority within the congregation to a much greater extent. It was not until the 1920s that the Amish organized the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference, and even then they established minimal programming like Sunday school conferences and winter Bible school. By the 1950s some young leaders began to pursue higher education in theology, especially at Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Va. It was only in 1959 that the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference formally joined the Mennonite church denominational structures.

The third stream included the 1920s Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union who first arrived in Ontario in mid-1924. In Ontario they called themselves United Mennonites, and soon affiliated with the General Conference Mennonite Church. Initially they had one bishop for the entire Ontario United Mennonite “congregation” that had meeting places in Waterloo, Vineland, Leamington and Northern Ontario, but gradually they divided into geographically based congregations that became very large and very congregational in their polity. This congregation-centric polity meant an Ontario United Mennonite Conference was not formed until 1944. As with the Ontario Amish Mennonites, there was limited conference programming for many years.

These conferences began to cooperate on projects in the 1960s, including formation of Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, urban mission projects, and inter-Mennonite student chaplaincy at universities. After one false start in 1981, these conferences merged in 1988 to form the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada, now known as Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.

Despite the historical diversity, there was convergence of approach in the three conferences considering merger because leaders were unified on key theological issues. This was evident when understandings changed in the 1970s and early 1980s on accepting persons who had been divorced and remarried, including ordained leaders. It was evident in allowing women to accept pastoral leadership positions in the late 1970s and 1980s. Four years after MCEC was formed, the conference hired a female executive secretary, Mary Burkholder.

The matter of homosexuality has been a tougher issue, but it has been handled similarly. MCEC leadership has remained unified, though individual leaders have held varying personal positions. Although a few congregations have taken public stances as welcoming to LGBTQ members, and many more have been informally welcoming, MCEC leadership has consistently refused to discipline any congregation for variance on this issue, preferring an approach of continuing dialogue. MCEC hosted a “Season of Discernment” process from 2001-04 that resulted in a document entitled “Pointing a Direction on Homosexuality” that was approved by the delegate body. The document said that congregations would not be excluded for being at variance with the Confession of Faith on the matter of sexuality. It did uphold a guideline that stated pastors credentialed by MCEC would not perform same-sex marriages or bless same-sex unions. In the early 2000s MCEC refused to credential a gay man for ministry as a chaplain, and a bit later declined to ordain the associate pastor of the Toronto United Mennonite Church who came out as a lesbian in a relationship. MCEC has not said what the consequences would be if a pastor did perform a same-sex marriage. At least one congregation — my own — has a policy that explicitly endorses same-sex marriage, though none has yet taken place. It is my understanding that same-sex marriage services and blessings have been performed by a few MCEC pastors, though not in an MCEC congregational setting.

This leads to my final brief point on MCEC’s greater openness to theological diversity than in parts of MC USA. I believe this comes back to the greater congregational authority MCEC embraced in its development and maturation. There are MCEC congregations that do not welcome LGBTQ persons. There are MCEC congregations that will not accept a woman in pastoral leadership. There are MCEC congregations with a strong Pentecostal flavor that would be rejected by most other MCEC congregations. There are “seeker” churches led by evangelically minded pastors, and there are “peace and justice” churches. One congregation offers a liturgically focused style of worship, while others give full voice to worship bands, and still others use only denominational hymnbooks.

I make no claims that MCEC has solved the issue of managing diversity. In 1999 MCEC’s membership was 13,500. In 2015 MCEC’s membership is 13,350. MCEC is facing all the issues common to mainline Protestant denominations in North America. Many churches are starving for children and young adults. A large bequest has allowed MCEC to test a variety of ways to help traditional Mennonite congregations re-learn how to interface with their communities, as well as testing new forms of church in our post-modern world. MCEC has worked hard to provide some Mennonite theological training for pastors who have embraced Anabaptism from other theological streams. MCEC also offers basic Anabaptist teaching to immigrant pastors in non-English congregations, but without a heavy hand. MCEC congregations worship in 13 languages, which in itself produces a certain measure of diversity.

Sam Steiner, of Kitchener, Ont., is an author, most recently of In Search of Promised lands. He served as managing editor of the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online until the end of 2011, and continues as an associate managing editor. He writes at where this first appeared.

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