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World mission conference delegates grapple with reconciliation theme
Mennonite Church Canada/Mennonite World Conference
Athens, Greece — Healing and reconciliation were at the centre of the 13th World Council of Churches (WCC) Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, held here May 9 – 16. Janet Plenert, from Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada), was a delegate representing the Global Mission Fellowship of Anabaptist–related Churches (GMF) at the event.
Plenert is a member of the Planning Committee of GMF, which is facilitated by Mennonite World Conference (MWC). She is also Director of International Ministries and Facilitator for partnerships in Latin America for Mennonite Church Canada Witness.
"Anabaptists are small, but significant, fish swimming in an ecumenical ocean," said Plenert. "Never have I been called on so often to explain our church history, our global church growth, what it means to be a historic peace church or where our name comes from."
The Greek Orthodox Church, part of the Eastern Orthodox family of churches, hosted this conference at the summer retreat centre for the Greek army, a delightfully ironic twist for historic peace church delegates.
Theme for the week–long event was "Come Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile: called in Christ to be reconciling and healing communities."
A symbolic gift for conference delegates arrived in Athens by boat. The crowd, gathered at the dock, watched the unloading of a 5–metre wooden cross, and then joined a procession to the worship centre. The cross was fashioned from thousands of olive wood tiles made from trees cut down in Bethlehem to make room for the illegal separation wall.
"It was a moving and generous act of unity, yet also of recognition that we have so far to go in our attempts to work together," observed Plenert.
Integral to the focus on mission and evangelism were stories of church ministries, spiritual and physical healing, large–scale reconciliation efforts in South Africa and personal testimonies.
Along with a South African missiologist and a Palestinian human rights activist, Plenert, representing historic peace churches, participated in a panel to discuss the ambiguous relationship between mission and violence. The panel was part of a plenary session hosted by WCC's “Decade to Overcome Violence,” an initiative first suggested by Fernando Enns, German Mennonite professor in Ecumenism, and now staffed by Swiss Mennonite Hansuli Gerber.
"It is abundantly clear to me that Mennonites [Anabaptists] have much to offer the ecumenical movement in promoting a biblical interpretation that leads to a witness of Jesus that both disavows violence and forms deliberate peace–building communities," said Plenert. "We have a profound history and significant understanding of peace that we sometimes take for granted. Our message is one of healing, of hope, of reconciliation in Jesus Christ."
John Powell, representing Mennonite Mission Network, mission partner of Mennonite Church Canada Witness, added: "The world churches have seen and experienced the work we have done and are open to hear and be guided by Anabaptist principles. We need to find ways to interject our voice into that common dialogue."
Plenert was also able to articulate an understanding of community that is less hierarchical and attempts to decentralize power and thus minimize abuse of power as beliefs and practices of the faith group she represented.
Powell observed that much can be learned from other churches who are working at issues like AIDS prevention, which he said "has a strangle–hold on disenfranchised communities, both in this country and worldwide." He said, too, that he was struck by a presentation from a Kenyan on how the village, rather than individuals, was involved in caring for the disabled.
"In the US...we oftentimes leave it up to the government to impose regulations. We have to see that we have a responsibility without being legislated into it." said Powell.
In addition to Plenert, Powell, Enns and Gerber, others attending from the MWC global community included Omar Cortes (Witness worker in Chile), Sybout van der Meer (Dutch Mennonite founder of Habitat for Humanity in Western Europe) and Christine Aoukich (Swiss Mennonite staff person in the DOV office).
The 650 participants from more than 100 countries and diverse faith groups included members of the WCC and non–members such as Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and Evangelical churches and networks. Although delegates shared three meals with each other every day, they were not all able to sit together at the Lord's table since some of the faith groups share communion only among their own members. This painful reality cast a shadow over the otherwise inclusive nature of the conference.
Delegates approached discussion of the task of mission and evangelism with a great sense of humility, Plenert reported. The pain and violence of the past, the church's role in genocide and other violent historical mission efforts were named and lamented. The divided situation in the Holy Land and the HIV/AIDS pandemic were acknowledged. There was a clear recognition that world issues like these cannot be ignored when we think about the church's task of mission and evangelism.
"It was refreshing to be a part of a gathering representing a large portion of the world's Christians and to be able to talk about things like peace, non–violence and reconciliation....We cannot tackle the world's issues by ourselves. We must cooperate with other initiatives to be more efficient and effective," concluded Plenert.
Reflections on the WCC conference on world mission and evangelism
– by Janet Plenert
Athens, Greece — Standing at the foot of the Areopagus in Greece, I couldn't help but wonder about the Apostle Paul on the day he stood there and preached to the people of Athens (Acts 17:16–34). Did he have any idea that the message he was preaching would one day reach two billion people in all parts of the world? Or that 2,000 years later 650 people from more than 100 countries would gather in that very spot to worship his God?
Maybe he would have found it tragic that the church, still in its infancy in Paul's day, had grown into hundreds of denominations so diverse in faith, practice and understanding that they could not share the Lord's supper together. Maybe he would find hope in this group's gathering to discern, in spite of their diversity, their common calling to mission and evangelism, and that the theme was "Come Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile: called in Christ to be reconciling and healing communities."
As a Mennonite attending the World Council of Churches (WCC) Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, I benefited from the inclusive nature of the conference. Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and Evangelical churches and networks who do not belong to the WCC were welcomed as full participants. Diversity was not glossed over, however.
The most obvious and painful sign of the diversity and need for reconciliation was the inability of this group to be together around the Lord's table. Several faith groups present share communion only with members of their own community.
Nonetheless, seeing the long flowing black robes of the Orthodox priests, the crisp shirts and clerical collars on Lutheran women, the beautiful saris of the Indian women, and faces glistening in every colour; hearing a plethora of languages I couldn't identify let alone understand and English spoken with a great variety of accents reminded me that God's people can come together, even in the midst of diversity.
We can come together around what we hold in common: one faith, one hope, one Lord and Saviour who is Jesus Christ, one Spirit and the tasks of discerning what the world would look like were it to live the fullness of God's word and of living faithfully to the word of God.
Mission and Evangelism as holistic gospel
I wondered at this conference on mission and evangelism how these two critical terms – mission and evangelism – would be held together. How broadly would "salvation" be understood? I was pleased with the assumptions I heard from almost all quarters about holistic gospel. Word and deed were presented as two wheels on one vehicle.
Much time was devoted to the HIV/AIDS crisis; stories of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa were shared and applications suggested for other contexts; the divisions in Palestine/Israel were passionately acknowledged; a member of an Intentional Christian community talked about its outreach through worship and community work.
Intimately interwoven throughout were stories of personal healing by the Holy Spirit, testimonies of people coming to Christ and God enabling the church to grow. Rather than tension between understandings of mission and evangelism, I sensed longing to be the Christian church, repentant of past failures, and to be messengers of truth, healing, and reconciliation between people and God, people and people, and people with creation.
WCC and Anabaptism
I prepared for this conference with a certain amount of dis-ease. Although Mennonite World Conference had been invited to this conference, most Anabaptist denominations in the world are not members of the WCC. Are we welcome in global ecumenical circles? Would anyone have heard of Anabaptists? How can our tiny 1.3 million-member church make a difference – or have a voice – when the host church alone (the Church of Greece) has nine million members? Was there a place at the table for a church such as ours?
The conference began with the words of the General Secretary of the WCC, a Kenyan Methodist, Dr. Samuel Kobia. He implored the gathering to "consider peace and non-violence as gospel imperatives."
My dis-ease quickly dissipated. Not only did I discover eight Anabaptists from three continents in attendance, but there was genuine interest in and welcome of Mennonite-related delegates. The conference moderator noted my name tag and said, "You're Mennonite. There aren't many Mennonites around here but you have a significant presence."
European Mennonites have been responsible for the initiation and implementation of the WCC’s "Decade to Overcome Violence," a program that is gaining momentum globally and that received high visibility at the conference. Being a peace church is a significant, compelling distinctive.
While many churches are involved in peace efforts, Anabaptist tradition has in its very foundation the passion, the systematic biblical reflection and interpretation and the painful history that define us as a peace church, not just a church that does peace initiatives.
This perspective is sought after. Never had I been called on so often to explain what it means to be a historic peace church nor had I ever felt such powerful affirmation and interest by other faith groups for the peace position of our church. We are being asked to help others understand our interpretation and to tell our story. We are not only welcomed at the table; we are needed by the broader church.
I was profoundly moved by a letter drafted at the end of the conference and released to churches around the world. It resonated strongly with our struggle as Anabaptists to understand the broken world in which we live, our diversity, our longing to participate in all forms of healing and reconciliation, our longing for God's kingdom to come more fully. It is a letter that we can feel a part of, as joint heirs and fellow sojourners with the global church on the journey of Christian faithfulness.
I appreciate the closing words of Dr. Samuel Kobia, as he sent us from the Areopagus back to our countries, homes and churches: "Like the Apostle Paul and the disciples of Christ, who heard the good news...and were never the same again, let us allow the same Holy Spirit to come upon us, to convict us and transform us in such a way that we shall never be the same again."