2015 in review: Drawn together, driven apart

World assembly unites global church as Mennonite Church USA splinters

Dec 21, 2015 by and

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Unity and division crossed paths in Pennsylvania this summer as Harrisburg hosted the Mennonite World Conference assembly and Lancaster Mennonite Conference moved to leave Mennonite Church USA.

Amos Muhagachi, a bishop of the Mennonite Church in Tanzania, sings with other Mennonite World Conference assembly participants during a worship service in the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pa. — Jonathan Charles

Amos Muhagachi, a bishop of the Mennonite Church in Tanzania, sings with other Mennonite World Conference assembly participants during a worship service in the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pa. — Jonathan Charles

Word of Lancaster’s proposed withdrawal spread during MWC’s weeklong celebration of global fellowship.

The timing heightened the sense of contrast between Anabaptists drawing closer across national borders and splitting apart within one of them.

Both actions drew motivation from a desire to follow Christ and Scripture faithfully.

An MWC assembly sermon by Tom Yoder Neufeld alluded to the tension between connection and conflict that marked the year.

“The church will test our faith. After all, you and I are in it,” the Canadian theologian said during a July 22 worship service. “But the church is also God’s gift of us walking together.”

Neufeld’s words echoed the assembly theme, “Walking with God.” More than 7,500 people from 65 countries gathered in Harrisburg’s Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex for the global Anabaptist family reunion that’s held every six years.

Participants told of living their faith in diverse contexts.

In Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population, Mennonites face the challenge of building a positive image of Christianity among people who distrust it as a “foreign faith.”

“We live among 150 million Muslims. They don’t want to read the gospel, so we must help them read the gospel in our lives,” said Paulus Hartono, an Indonesian pastor.

In the Netherlands, Mennonites navigate a post-Chris­tian society where spiritual seekers can still be found.

“When people knock on the door and think maybe this is a place to ask spiritual questions, I always say, ‘Yes, come in,’ ” said Henk Leegte, a Dutch pastor.

Perhaps it was a non-Anabaptist representative — Martin Junge of Chile, executive secretary of the Lutheran World Federation — who best summed up the blessing of international fellowship.

“When we witness together to the gospel of Jesus, we are capturing something that no single denomination can own,” Junge said. “We need those others to get a larger view of what this word of God is all about.”

Gathering, splitting

MC USA, North America’s largest Mennonite denomination, felt the pain of division over how to relate to sexual minorities. Its largest conference, Lancaster, decided to withdraw by the end of 2017.

One of the smallest conferenc­es, North Central, also said it would depart, and leaders of another, Franklin, proposed that their conference leave.

Franklin’s statement could have applied just as well to disaffected members of other conferences: “Many of our congregations and members are uncomfortable with MC USA due to other affiliated conferences condoning same-sex practice, and MC USA lacks polity to address the matter.”

At their biennial convention, MC USA delegates tried to solve the sexuality-and-polity problem by passing two resolutions that pointed in different directions.

The assembly drew 4,680 people, including 2,371 youth convention participants, to Kansas City, Mo.

One resolution reaffirmed the denomination’s Membership Guidelines, which support traditional marriage. The other urged forbearance toward those who differ with the church’s stance on same-sex relationships.

Some saw the pair of resolutions as a chance to preserve unity by supporting the traditional position while extending tolerance to progressives. Others found only contradiction in them.

The result was an assembly marked by tension and pain. One observer described people leaving the delegate hall in tears, “some mourning the move toward inclusion and some the lack of inclusion.”

Different directions

Several conferences took actions that reflected MC USA’s spectrum of beliefs.

– Western District gave pastors the freedom to perform same-sex marriages if their congregations approve. The action, unprecedented because it grants permission in advance, put the district in conflict with the Membership Guidelines, which forbid pastors to officiate same-sex marriages.

– Central District became the second conference (after Mountain States) to grant a ministry credential to a gay or lesbian pastor when it licensed Mark Rupp at Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio. MC USA did not recognize the licensing.

– Ohio delegates said the conference would not recognize any request to credential a pastor in a same-sex relationship.

– Franconia pledged to honor MC USA’s forbearance resolution and also affirmed the Confession of Faith’s traditional definition of marriage.

– Lancaster announced it would leave the denomination by the end of 2017. Eighty-two percent of credentialed leaders approved the Board of Bishops’ recommendation to withdraw.

Lancaster faced the prospect of division no matter what it decided. At an October meeting of the MC USA Constituency Leaders Council, Lancaster moderator Keith Weaver cited Lancas­ter’s loss of 70 congregations over the past 15 years.

“How many congregations should we be willing to lose?” he asked. “Should we be willing to lose another 100?”

Among those lost to MC USA in Lancaster’s departure are 30 Hispanic congregations, about a quarter of the total in the constituent group Iglesia Menonita Hispana (Hispanic Mennonite Church). IMH issued a statement that said most of its other congregations would stay as long as the denomination’s Confession of Faith is not changed.

New evangelical group

Division within MC USA prompted the formation of a new Anabaptist group, the Evana Network, whose name combines “evangelical” and “Anabaptist.”

Board member Larissa Moore described the group as “necessary because pastors and congregations need a safe place . . . to uphold the Word of God.”

At an October launch in Goshen, Ind., 30 congregations were said to be in process of joining Evana. The network can be either an alternative or an addition — a new home for those who leave MC USA or a second affiliation for those who stay.

Apology for abuse

A desire to show solidarity with victims of sexual abuse and to repent of past failures prompted unprecedented actions by MC USA and one of its seminaries.

The denominational convention included a solemn service of lament and hope that focused on sexual abuse, held at the Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City.

Convention delegates approved a statement confessing the church’s failure to offer healing for survivors of abuse and vowing to “change our ways.”

One case of abuse stood out and prompted a service of confession at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., on March 22. AMBS held the service as an act of apology for its role in covering up the sexual abuse of women for several decades by the late John Howard Yoder, an AMBS faculty member and one of the 20th century’s leading theologians.

The historical journal Mennonite Quarterly Review published a landmark article by historian Rachel Waltner Goossen describing the Yoder case.

MWC’s wider view

MWC took steps to better understand the diversity of its membership and to broaden the picture of global Anabaptism.

For the first time, MWC counted the Brethren — specifically, the Church of the Brethren in the United States — as part of its triennial membership census.

This pushed MWC’s global membership count to 2.12 million, up from 1.77 million three years ago.

Even with the addition of the Brethren in North America, Africa showed the largest increase of any continent, 35 percent, to 736,801. Leading the way was Ethiopia, with 255,493 members, which came within about 1,000 of passing India for second place on the list of leading countries.

In cooperation with the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism at Goshen College, MWC completed a two-year Global Anabaptist Profile — a study of demographics, beliefs and practices in 24 conferences around the world.

The findings showed great disparity in beliefs about the appropriateness of political involvement — perhaps partly a reaction to political corruption.

Another finding revealed that while some conferences do not allow female pastors, 76 percent of the churches surveyed affirmed women as preachers.

Nigerians resilient

Hayward Wampana, a member of the Nigerian Women’s Fellowship Choir, is in tears as Church of the Brethren annual conference delegates view a video about the crisis of violence that has affected the Nigerian church. — Glenn Riegel/Church of the Brethren

Hayward Wampana, a member of the Nigerian Women’s Fellowship Choir, is in tears as Church of the Brethren annual conference delegates view a video about the crisis of violence that has affected the Nigerian church. — Glenn Riegel/Church of the Brethren

The suffering of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria — whose members have endured years of assaults by the violent extremist Islamic group Boko Haram — was raised to greater awareness in North America at the Church of the Brethren annual conference in Tampa, Fla.

Nigerian Brethren President Samuel Dali expressed thanks for the U.S. churches’ support. He reported that 1,600 churches had been burned, 8,000 members murdered and almost 1,400 pastors displaced from their homes.

Devastation caused by Boko Haram “could well have been the death knell” for the Nigerian Brethren, but the people are resilient as they rebuild their homes and lives, a North American visitor reported.

Christian Aid Ministries, supported by Amish and other conservative Anabaptists, was among those providing aid to displaced Nigerians.

MCC aid to Middle East

Mennonite Central Committee continued its assistance to people suffering due to war in the Middle East, particularly the Syrian civil war. Since 2011, MCC has provided more than $31 million of humanitarian aid and support for peacebuilding efforts in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Displaced families and children in Syria received support through Mennonite Central Committee and Canadian Foodgrains Bank. The agencies fed 6,000 families a month through an MCC partner, the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue. — Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue

Displaced families and children in Syria received support through Mennonite Central Committee and Canadian Foodgrains Bank. The agencies fed 6,000 families a month through an MCC partner, the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue. — Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue

MCC received grants worth more than $2 million to provide assistance to people displaced in Iraq and Syria, including families who fled an advance by the Islamic State.

Another major MCC disaster-response project was aid to survivors of an earthquake that left more than 8,000 dead in Nepal.

Other top stories

– Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College withdrew from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities after their decisions to change their hiring policies and not discriminate based on sexual orientation caused controversy in the organization. Bluffton University made a similar change and withdrew from the CCCU later in the year.

– Central Plains Mennonite Conference extended support to the family of Max Villatoro, an Iowa City pastor who was deported to Honduras in March.

– As the U.S. Supreme Court was preparing its historic ruling on gay marriage, the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches’ Board of Faith and Life wrote to the court asking it to uphold the traditional definition of marriage.

– German Mennonites held a historic conference in Münster to discuss experiences during the Nazi era, including acknowledgement of Mennonite complicity with the ideology, goals and actions of National Socialism.

– In a dispute over finances and authority in a longtime Mennonite ministry, MC USA filed a complaint with the Navajo County Superior Court in Arizona, asking that the Hopi Mission School board be evicted from the school’s property.

– Chortitzer Mennonite Conference, a 10-congregation group in Canada, changed its name to Christian Mennonite Conference.

– The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches reversed a plan to end its magazine, Mennonite Brethren Herald, after members rallied to support it.

– The U.S. Mennonite Breth­ren youth convention, held every four years, drew 780 people to Denver April 9-12 and called youth to recognize the importance of their identity in Jesus.

– The 10th annual Anabaptist Identity Conference in Nappanee, Ind., encouraged theologically and culturally conservative Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites to embrace Christian fundamentals while rejecting certain negative influences of fundamentalism and right-wing Christianity.

– Bluffton University hosted a conference on “Mennonite Education: Past, Present and Future,” including calls for more collaboration and for learning from the life of 20th-century educator C. Henry Smith.

– MennoMedia announced plans for a new hymnal in 2020 to replace the 1992 Hymnal: A Worship Book.

– The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, held its first general conference since 2003 in Tupelo, Miss. About 10,000 people at­tend­ed, making it the year’s largest North American Mennonite assembly.

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