Family Matters II: Some Reflections on Celebration 2010
So, Celebration 2010 (a recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Mennonite Brethren family held in the Vancouver area this past week) has come and gone and I find myself in reflection mode. One of the topics that generated significant discussion and debate was the nature of our Mennonite Brethren identity. Are we evangelical Anabaptists or Anabaptist Evangelicals? What is it, exactly, that we gather around as people from such diverse contexts? Is it theology? A shared history/common story? Is it relationships that have formed between people and communities over time? All of the above? And what happens if/when these individual commonalities and relationships begin to break down, as some see to be the case in the Canadian MB context?
Our denomination invests a lot of autonomy at the local church level. There are good theological reasons for this—Anabaptists have always had a “flat” ecclesiology and have at least claimed to be a community where sharp distinctions between laity and clergy were inappropriate, and where the voice of God was discerned and interpreted through the whole community. This all sounds very good and on one level it is. I am glad that we at least try to allow a diversity of voices to be heard at our provincial, national, and global gatherings. And I am glad that local congregations are allowed to decide for themselves how to deal with difficult, non-confessional issues in a way that is most appropriate for advancing the gospel in their specific context (i.e., the issue of women in ministry leadership coming out of our 1999 gathering).
And yet… All of this makes it extremely difficult to nail down what it is, exactly, that unites us. When our individual churches can and do look very different, both in how they do church and in their theological convictions, in what sense does it make sense to refer to them as belonging to the same denomination? I have had conversations with (non-Mennonite) people who have attended an MB church and been very surprised to discover how un-Mennonite it was. I am quite confident that if they would have attended another MB church in another province or even in a different part of the same province, their experience would have been very different. One of the questions that I came away from this weekend asking was, how much diversity can a denomination tolerate without the denominational identifier becoming unhelpful at best, and meaningless at worst?
The question is worth asking for the sake of those who might walk through our church’s doors each week. People have a right, I think, to have some idea what to expect when they worship at a church that identifies itself as Mennonite Brethren. But it is also worth asking for the sake of those who have been part of the church for a long time, and for the sake of those who find themselves in positions of leadership. The question of identity matters for all of us. We all need to feel like we have some understanding of the group(s) to which we belong and, further, that the stories that are told—the way that reality is narrated and framed each week—resonates with us, personally.
There were times, over the course of the past week, where I found myself nodding and mm-hmming to what I heard. There were other times where I had some questions about what was being presented, but could easily see how this or that interpretation or viewpoint could be held within a consistent Anabaptist worldview. There were other times, though, where this was not the case. During my relatively brief time as a pastor in this conference, I have noticed that we have, at times, some distinctive ways of narrating our story as a people and our ongoing part in God’s story that make me uncomfortable. So, like many, I am leaving Celebration 2010 with some questions:
- Is there a uniquely Mennonite Brethren identity that is consistent and can be helpfully articulated in and for today’s context?
- Does the way that MB identity is currently understood and framed in our context resonate with me, personally?
These are tough questions, but I think they will be important ones, both for our broader denominational family, as well as for me as one little individual that contributes to the whole.
This morning I worshipped at the small Mennonite church my parents attend in southern Alberta. On the way to church, we drove past three relatively large churches with relatively full parking lots. In each of these, either a strong sense of ethnic identity or theological persuasion (or both) are present. Whatever I might think of the theology of these churches, it seems obvious that a lack of clarity about their identity is not among their problems. They know who they are. I am growing increasingly unsure that the same can be said about the Mennonite Brethren church. Perhaps this is a good (or at least a tolerable) thing, perhaps not. It will be interesting to see what the next 150 years holds.
Those who are interested can drop by the MB Herald’s Celebration 2010 blog to get a sense of what the past week looked and sounded like.