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London centre marks 50 years of "living the vision"


LMC director, Vic Thiessen, his wife Kathy and family during LMC’s 50th anniversary worship at Smithfield square - the site of the burning of two Anabaptists by Queen Elizabeth I in 1575.

- Photo by Will Newcomb

June 16, 2003
by Willard Roth

London, England—About 100 international and intergenerational Anabaptists gathered on June 8 for an animated Pentecost 2003 worship to culminate the weekend celebration of the London Mennonite Centre's 50th anniversary. A white banner with the centre's insignia - an intertwined purple cross and dove - issued an invitation: "MENNONITE CHURCH All are welcome."

The Sunday-afternoon worship, planned by Wood Green Mennonite Church, an outgrowth of the centre, culminated the anniversary celebration of 50 years in global Christian ministry radiating from north London. Alongside the temporary chapel, two young saplings take root in memory of John and Eileen Pells Coffman, whose quiet work in Highgate predated by a decade the centre's founding in 1953. Preachers Alan and Eleanor Kreider, the centre's directors from 1974 to 1991, emphasized that the London Mennonite Centre's witness over the years has always stemmed from its mission vision.

"Unless the church is real, it has no future," they said. "God's priorities are unplannable, unprogrammable and, above all, unpredictable. The priorities of God are only lived by the power of God. Let us continue to live this vision as a gift of God."

The London Mennonite Centre's North American partners joined the celebration, via representatives and greetings from Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network (both are successors of Mennonite Board of Missions, the initiating agency a half-century ago) The weekend celebration included a time for people to share memories from the centre's various incarnations: as a student hostel (1953-81), international household (1981-91) and resource centre for radical discipleship (1991 and continuing).

One woman said she had come from Zambia as a 19-year-old in 1974. "Although a Hindu, I was accepted as I was and invited to lunch. My journeying, especially with Alan, in Bible study and fellowship led me to choose to be Christian," she said.

Mark and Mary Thiessen Nation, who were the centre's directors from 1996 to 2002, sent greetings. Mary Thiessen Nation remembered how the centre and church communities walked with two beloved members in the last months of their lives. And seminars on urban mission, trauma, story and spirituality, she wrote, "will always be a source of joy; God's healing presence amid much diversity surprised most of us."

The Kreiders mentioned the centre's garden, prayer hut, library and dining table as important for cultivating the stream of hospitality that flows through London Mennonite Centre. "People experience God at table," they said, "as meal intertwines with worship. This has been a palace of integration, wholeness, shalom, prayer, peace, fun - a cell of God's kingdom at its best, a place of promise."

One centre trustee highlighted its traditional 4 p.m. tea time, while another, David Nussbaum, spoke of the emergence of the Anabaptist Network as a radical reformation study group providing a broader Anabaptist presence without a strategic plan.

The last six years, according to Will Newcomb, a centre staff person, were characterized by two themes: "Cultivating Christian discipleship as a way of life, and the first word in talking about peace is church."

Weekend festivities also included an Anabaptist's walk in London. Beginning with a pre-arranged tour of John Wesley's chapels, home and burial ground, participants made brief stops at Bunhill Fields burial ground (where religious nonconformists such as John Bunyan, William Blake, Susanna Wesley and Isaac Watts are buried); Bunhill Friends meeting house, where Quaker founder George Fox is buried; the monument to John Wesley's conversion at Aldersgate near the contemporary Barbican centre; and the church of St. Bartholomew the Great, one of few medieval churches that survived the great fire of 1666.

Walkers concluded with outdoor worship in West Smithfield Park, recalling the 1575 arrest of some 30 Dutch Anabaptists in nearby Aldgate. Several recanted, one was whipped, one died in prison, and two were burned at the stake.

"This was an era when Christian faith, even particular nuances of faith, were forced upon others at the point of a sword in much of Europe and the Americas," recalled worship leader J. Nelson Kraybill, a former centre director and now president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. "This was a time when the body of Christ was rent by differences between Catholic, Protestant and Anabaptist."

Current LMC director and MC Canada Witness worker Vic Thiessen invited participants to look to the future. "Fifty years is not the end," he said. "I am awed with the contacts and influence of the past. They seem both haunting and daunting to a new director. Yet we move on with new ways, new interests, new ideas. As we build on the past, we will work more directly with our allied partners. We will cultivate connections with other denominations in Britain and with Mennonites in continental Europe."