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Being in communion: Should we stay or should we go?
December 27, 2005
Winnipeg, Man. — In the spring of 2004, Mennonite Church British Columbia (MCBC) began a discernment process regarding the desire of some congregations to be provincially active only. And a five year agreement between MCBC and Mennonite Church Canada to offer provincially active only status on a trial basis will expire in 2006.
MC Canada’s General Board has given this issue top priority for its newly formed Faith and Life Committee. The group is working to have a recommendation available for further testing by delegates at Edmonton 2006 – the next time representatives from congregations across Canada will meet.
Rudy Baergen, chair of the Faith and Life Committee and pastor at Bethel Mennonite Church in Wpg., wants to apply theological rigour to the question.
Baergen is keenly aware of the need for congregations to be and feel heard. “We need to respect congregations that challenge the wider church.”
One of the screens the committee will apply to the discernment process will be to identify parallels between congregational and wider church membership. For example, members of the same local congregation may not all be agreed on everything, but can still be in communion with one another.
But even the word membership has baggage, says Lorin Bergen, pastor at Living Hope (Surrey, B.C.) a congregation that is predominantly under age 50. “With that demographic we have clearly seen a hesitancy to become a member on paper of the church. There is a question of ‘Why is membership important, I am coming here, I am putting myself under the authority and accountability of the church, I’m going to a small group regularly, I am ministering and using my gifts,’… we’ve got people who aren’t members who are more committed than members. We’re seeing a move away from official membership.”
George Hoeppner, pastor at First Mennonite Church Greendale (Chilliwack, B.C.) concurs with Bergen. He says that while some older members in his congregation lament the loss of being connected to a wider church body, “… the younger generation is not tied to anything as far as denomination goes.”
Practical reasons for belonging to a wider church body at the denominational level include considerations like benefits (eg. pension plan) for pastors and congregational staff, teaching resources, Sunday School curriculum, and opportunities to engage in international ministries. But the younger demographic is more likely to research and use supports from a wide range of sources outside the denomination – easy to do in the internet information age.
Although such thinking can help to broaden perspectives beyond the Mennonite body, Baergen says there can be risks. “I’ve seen that in Colombia [where] independent churches run into serious difficulties because they are drinking from so many different wells they get this total mixture of theological understandings within their congregation, and when they develop a problem or crisis it’s really difficult to resolve because you’re just not unified in anything and you don’t have any common ground to stand on.”
Baergen says the discernment of a wider body offers some comfort. “If we can develop a sense of trust with one another in the wider church, then perhaps we don’t need to feel as though every congregation needs to wrestle alone with every issue that comes along. The question is, ‘Are we better off to work at this as part of a larger body?’”
Indeed, there is doubt about the trust issue.
Lorin Bergen says the homosexuality issue is a symptom of deeper disillusionment with the denomination and its polity. “I think there is an incredible lack of trust in leadership and a real dissatisfaction with the polity that we have in MC Canada,” he said, adding, “We find it fairly alarming that our MC Canada leaders can’t approach a church, using the example in Ontario, about a clear break in our confession of faith because that would be stepping on the toes of MCEC, and people would be saying, including myself, ‘I just can’t understand that.’”
Hoeppner adds that the congregationally based structure is unwieldy. “As an organization gets larger and larger, which we did when we became MC Canada, the congregational based system works less and less, in my understanding and that of my congregation and many others, and it just becomes so cumbersome, it just doesn’t work, we have structures but nobody has any authority… And so the [advantage] of stepping out [of the denomination] is so that we could have more structured leadership.”
Baergen acknowledges the accountability/authority issue – and how wearisome it must get for a handful of congregations to be the little fish swimming upstream in a big river. On the other hand, he says, “If we disagree on something, we need to hang in there and keep on insisting that this is wrong, we don’t agree, why are we doing it this way. That’s the accountable thing to do.”
A significant part of the Faith and Life Committee’s work will be studying and discerning what scriptures say about followers belonging to a wider discerning community of believers.
There is some Biblical evidence to support the notion of being one body and holding on to unity, if not official membership, says Baergen, referring to the conference of Jerusalem in Acts 15. “I think the sense is that unity is being asked of the larger body which revolves around how Gentiles will be received in the predominantly Jewish-Christian church. The emphasis that is placed upon maintaining unity in that situation is quite significant… John has Jesus in a number of places speaking about the importance of unity, of being one in Christ, in his prayer in chapter 17… Unity has been an important issue from the very beginning.”
In February, 2004, Mennonite Church Saskatchewan culminated a 2-year season of discernment with a covenanting service where the vast majority of area congregations agreed formally to be in communion with one another. The Faith and Life Committee will study what it means when congregations covenant with one another. “I think we could be a stronger church,” said Baergen.
Should there be some way of formally recognizing when a congregation leaves the wider communion? And what are the expectations of sticking to the hard work of reconciliation?
It’s hard and sometimes painful work, whether churches leave the wider communion or commit to stay with a long view of working at disagreements. Finding respectful ways of dealing with both circumstances is another part of the challenge.
And then there is the concern over the church’s witness to the world when there is disagreement.
“A major part of the good news is the theme of reconciliation… It is the church’s challenge to witness to its ministry of reconciliation. Our task is to find ways of working with one another that transcend our disagreements, so that we can be a witness to the world.” said Baergen.
Members of the Faith and Life Committee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. They are: Rudy Baergen (chair, pastor at Bethel Mennonite Church); Karl Koop (Theology professor, Canadian Mennonite University); Doreen Neufeld (pastoral advisor to Holyrood Mennonite Church, Edmonton); Betty Pries (Senior Associate with PACT Associates, a mediation and training firm based in Kitchener, Ontario, and instructor in Conflict Management at Conrad Grebel Univeristy College, Kitchener); Sven Eriksson (Denominational Minister, Mennonite Church Canada). The chair is also a member of Mennonite Church Canada’s General Board.
Summary of comments from delegates to Charlotte 2005 re: Definitions and Expectations of Membership in MC Canada
Delegates to the 2005 Mennonite Church Canada assembly encouraged congregations inclined toward separation from the national church to stay and continue in dialogue over differences. Below is a sampling of comments from delegates at Charlotte 2006. For a complete delegate feedback, see the Minute Book at www.mennonitechurch.ca/events/charlotte/.