Delegates discuss Anabaptist identity and explore history
By Tim Huber for Meetinghouse, with files from Connie Faber
USMB representatives Ed Boschman, USMB executive director, and Lynn Jost and Dennis Becker, representatives appointed by the USMB Leadership Board, were among the Mennonite World Conference General Council attendees that met together May 20-27 in Basel, Switzerland. MWC delegates discussed funding of the global fellowship, selected a new MWC president-elect and planned for upcoming MWC assemblies.
MWC is a global community of Christian churches rooted in the 16th-century Radical Reformation in Europe, particularly in the Anabaptist movement. Today, more than 1,600,000 believers belong to this faith family; more than 60 percent are African, Asian or Latin American.MWC represents 100 Mennonite and Brethren in Christ national churches from 57 countries on six continents, including USMB.
“There are believers and churches around the earth that find great value in belonging to the global Anabaptist family called MWC,” says Boschman in an email interview following the 2012 gathering. “Multiple times the phrase “we are not alone” flows from hearts of gratitude for the assurance of belonging in the Anabaptist spiritual ‘bloodlines.’”
A fair share
Much of the continental caucus and delegate sessions were dedicated to discussion of proposed “fair-share amounts” MWC members and associate members are asked to financially contribute from 2013 to 2015.
The amounts are based on church membership and each country’s per capita gross national product. For example, Mennonite Church USA is one of the larger churches with 103,245 members, and the U.S. has the highest per capita GNP with $41,557. Based on MWC’s 2013-15 needs of $2.98 million, MC USA’s fair share is 33.75 percent, or $1.008 million.
The USMB share is 11.6 percent or $345,680; the 2012-13 USMB budget provides for $1,000 for MWC support. The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches’ share is 9.13 percent and Mennonite Church Canada’s fair share is 8.67 percent. Those and other North American members’ shares total 78.67 percent of MWC’s requested income.
Most other fair-share percentages are at or far below 1 percent. MWC tends to receive less than half of the fair-share amounts it requests.
Many delegates expressed deep reservations about meeting the expectation. The proposed amounts were only approved with the inclusion of the possibility for negotiations about individual member’s obligations.
“There is some considerable question about whether the current MWC model for calculating each country’s fair share contribution is realistic,” says Boschman. “We have made it clear to the MWC leaders that we will not be able to meet those goals.”
During MWC General Council discussions chief operating office Len Rempel of Canada said, “We recognize that the formula used is not a perfect formula. Using one number for a whole country—we recognize that is not the most accurate approach.”
MWC vice president Janet Plenert of Canada agreed conditions can vary from region to region in a country and hoped some members recognized an ability to negotiate a higher contribution. She also noted widespread desire for a new formula system.
“We will record carefully that we have heard a significant call for that,” she said.
New MWC president-elect
It took three impromptu songs to count the ballots and confirm the results, but Anabaptist leaders from around the world elected J. Nelson Kraybill MWC president-elect.
Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., and was president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart from 1996 to 2008. He will replace President Danisa Ndlovu of Zimbabwe in three years at Assembly 16 in Harrisburg, Pa.
“We almost had a tie, but we do have a simple majority,” Ndlovu said of the choice between Kraybill and Markus Rediger of Switzerland.
It is the first time a president-elect has come from outside General Council membership. The MWC constitution had been modified at a previous meeting to allow a wider field of candidates. Though not a delegate, Kraybill was involved in crafting MWC’s Shared Convictions document.
“I can sense in just the short time I’ve been with you, this has been a worshipful time together,” said Kraybill, who arrived in Europe only a couple of hours before the election.
“I think the most important thing we do as Mennonite people is worship and call people together into a relationship with Jesus Christ,” said Kraybill. “What an honor and challenge to be called to this role.”
Members of the executive committee and the North American delegation offered prayers of support for Kraybill and thanks for two strong candidates. After the prayers concluded, Rediger made his way up to the stage, where the two shared an embrace to thunderous applause.
“In the church there are no losers. There are no losers; there are only winners,” said Ndlovu. “We are all winners in Christ Jesus.”
Assembly 17 Indonesia
Departing from traditional procedure, General Council delegates conditionally accepted an invitation from the Asian caucus to host Assembly 17 in Indonesia in 2021. The Indonesian churches asked nine years early—instead of six—to help with their preparations.
An official decision is contingent upon a feasibility study looking at travel, facilities and infrastructure.
“Only if there are significant problems would we go back and change that,” Plenert said.
Delegates also affirmed the executive committee’s decision to confer the title of general secretary emeritus on Larry Miller, who served as general secretary from 1990 until the end of 2011.
“Larry has coalesced a global family and has facilitated a thorough system of policy and procedures,” says Boschman. “He has reached out to other leaders in Christendom to address some hurts from events of history which had left scars among various traditions of Jesus followers.”
César García, a Mennonite Brethren leader from Colombia, assumed the duties of MWC general secretary in January 2012 and addressed the General Assemble Sunday evening.
The General Council meets every three years. The Basil meetings drew 207 participants from 48 countries.
Faith and Life papers focus on ministry, Anabaptism and fellowship
In three presentations at the Mennonite World Conference General Council meetings May 20-27, theologians and historians revisited the Anabaptist vision in a global context and sought input from meeting participants.
Growing out of conversations at Assembly 16 in Asuncion, Paraguay, in 2009, the series of three papers seeks to respond to a call for clarity about what it means for MWC’s member churches to live in the Anabaptist tradition.
MWC’s Faith and Life Commission appointed Goshen (Ind.) College history professor John Roth project secretary. Pointing out the significance of meeting in Switzerland, home to five centuries of Anabaptist tradition, Roth said the documents are not meant to replace the Shared Convictions, a set of seven foundational tenets adopted by the MWC General Council in 2006.
“We share much with the broader Christian church, but every group has a particular lens through which they understand their identity,” he said. “This is helpful for us to understand how we occupy our corner of God’s kingdom.”
In his piece on holistic vision, Paraguayan Mennonite Brethren theologian Alfred Neufeld offered theological grounds for MWC’s four commissions—Peace, Mission, Faith and Life and Deacons.
One image that has grown out of this paper is how the four commissions work together like the chambers of a heart, beating together, each performing an important role for the living body.
Swiss seminary professor Hanspeter Jecker’s paper on Anabaptist tradition faced the challenge of condensing 500 years of history into three pages. He gave special focus to a section on weaknesses and deficits, which he connected to the concept of the back of a coin.
“Often strengths and weaknesses are related to each other, that’s why I like this expression,” he said.
While some groups have historically emphasized retreating from the world, “others would stress that we are in the world and go into ‘overconformity,’ ” he said.
Neufeld and Jecker had previously gathered input at MWC executive committee meetings in Taipei in May 2011.
Tom Yoder Neufeld, a professor at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont.,and a member of the Faith and Life Commission, presented the third paper, “Koinonia—The Gift We Hold Together.” The document looks at the biblical basis of community, a strong component of Anabaptist identity.
Among the many images of community found in Scripture, Neufeld highlighted the community that happens when Christians join in communion with the divine Trinity.
“Don’t look up at the dome or onto the image on the screen,” he said of searching for Jesus in worship. “Look around, because he is within us. . . . He stands among us and proclaims to God, ‘Here I am, and here are the children you have given me.’ ”
Other concepts included giving and receiving, partnerships and solidarity.
“Paul understood koinonia as we having this vision of being chained together, in chains of peace,” Neufeld said.
“When Christ takes us and chains us to each other, we are tall and short, we are fast and slow, we are inpatient and meek, and together we are chained together and we have to learn to walk together. The koinonia of Christ never walks in a nice way; it stumbles and trips together.”
The documents will continue through more revisions before coming back to the Faith and Life Commission for further polishing.
Walking in steps of Swiss Anabaptist martyrs a powerful experience
Walking along the bank of the Limmat River, Thioro Bananzoro pondered the challenges Anabaptists have turned into opportunities over the last five centuries.
Pausing by the statue of militant Reformed Church leader Ulrich Zwingli on a tour of Zurich, Switzerland, during Mennonite World Conference General Council meetings in late May, the delegate from the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso noted that how a Christian responds to trials can have long-lasting effects.
His own experience started in his Muslim family. The oldest of 23 children, he suffered for 17 years after he became a Christian because his father did not consider Christians to be pure.
Bienenberg Seminary history professor and tour leader Hanspeter Jecker noted a tension that has accompanied Anabaptists around the world in their interactions with neighbors or the state since Anabaptism started in 1525.
Does one be radical and leave, or stay and work for local change?
Bananzoro stayed and worked for change in a different way than Zwingli, whose statue depicts him with a Bible and a sword, representing his death in battle.
“My dad even totally changed his mind,” Bananzoro says. “What he noticed from me is totally different from what he thought about Christians.”
Though Bananzoro’s father is still Muslim, 10 of the 23 children are now Christians.
“My father says to his children, ‘If you cannot be a good Muslim, follow your older brother,’ ” Bananzoro says.
On working to bring people to reconciliation in his West African context, Bananzoro says a Christian should be a witness because people trust what they see more than what they hear.
“People can really persecute you,” he says. “If you don’t fight back—even if you don’t succeed—people will understand and say your God is powerful. This is why we should not fight back.”
Most of the 175 MWC meeting participants who took part in tours had never been to Switzerland before.
Walking in the footsteps of early Anabaptists in places like Schleitheim and the secret “Anabaptist cave” tucked behind a waterfall near Baritswil was a powerful experience.
The outing was of significant value to Ambroise Kabeya Kanda Mwanda of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“It is a big discovery to be here, to get to know my origin of Anabaptism,” he said while standing on the present bridge at the location where authorities read Felix Manz’s death sentence—the penalty for performing renegade adult baptisms.
“I have read a lot in books, but to be in it, present here, to see the places, means a lot to me,” said Mwanda.
His countryman Joly Birakara Ilowa echoed similar sentiments while looking out over the Limmat in the direction of where Manz performed that first baptism on Jan. 21, 1525.
“If I were not already baptized, I’d like to be baptized here,” he said.
Francisco Martínez, president of the Brethren in Christ Church in Cuba, reflected on the relationship of his church to early Anabaptists and a heavy-handed government after visiting Zurich and Schleitheim.
Schleitheim is where Michael Sattler led the first Anabaptist assembly on Feb. 24, 1527, resulting in the Schleitheim Confession, a watershed document articulating a distinctly Anabaptist confession of faith. Sattler was executed a few months later in May.
“To be in Switzerland is to continue the legacy that Christ planted and sowed in the hearts of a group of people who became martyrs for following the teachings of Jesus,” Martínez said. “It feels like a privilege to walk freely in these streets where there were men and women who confessed the same faith we do and suffered oppression because of it.”
He knows a bit about that. Missionaries brought Christianity to Cuba, but after the communist revolution, pastors and church leaders were mistreated and forced to do hard labor.
“Intelligent, wise Christians were not able to complete higher education and be appointed to jobs for which they were qualified,” he said. “Our situation has been improving since the 1980s, though there are still restrictions.”
Nearly half a millennium has passed since the first Anabaptists took new steps of faith in Switzerland’s hills and valleys. While the lives of the European founders remain in the past, their spirit continues today around the world.
“Everything I learned, everything I saw, I am taking back,” said Madeleine Mvele Kikoso Mvele of Kinshasa, Congo. “My daughter has studied and had training, and I will show her. We as Anabaptists have come a long way.”
Tim Huber is associate editor of Mennonite World Review. He wrote this article for Meetinghouse, an association of Mennonite periodicals.