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Anabaptism spreads in the UK

   
 

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Vic Thiessen (second from right) listens intently to a group conversation in the backyard garden of London Mennonite Centre.

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Sargent Avenue Mennonite Church in Winnipeg signed a three year Partnership Agreement with Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers Vic and Kathy Thiessen on December 14. Together with Norm Dyck, representing MC Canada’s Congregational Partnerships, Vic and Kathy, and members of the Missions & Service Team, details of the covenant agreement were finalized with prayer support for Vic and Kathy and their ministry as the main focus. l-r: Vic Thiessen, Kathy Thiessen (MC Canada Witness workers) Ruth Dahl (Mission Elder, Sargent MC), Norm Dyck (MC Canada Congregational Partnerships) Edwin Epp (Senior Pastor, Sargent MC)

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January 16, 2009
-Ferne Burkhardt

KITCHENER, Ontario — The London Mennonite Centre (LMC) has generated an explosion of Anabaptist influence in the UK – and it is one of the UK's best kept secrets, says Vic Thiessen, director of the centre. Supported by Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Mission Network, Thiessen and his wife Kathy recently spent three months in Canada on a North American Ministry assignment unwrapping the “secret” for congregations across the country. They hope to build partnerships with Mennonite Church Canada congregations.

LMC is a hospitality and resource centre situated in a Victorian house in London, England. It offers a variety of services and at any one time houses up to 12 people, including visiting students and guests, in an atmosphere of community.

Bridge Builders, LMC’s mediation skills training program, presents seminars throughout the year to Christians across the UK. The Cross-Currents program sponsors regular seminars on contemporary subjects. Supporting these endeavours are a library with thousands of titles and the Metanoia Bookstore, a mail-order shop. Both venues carry works based primarily on Anabaptist themes.

Thiessen says he has lost count of how many people have credited books purchased at the store with leading them to re-embrace Christianity.

Thiessen credits the distinct Anabaptist influence of LMC to Alan and Eleanor Kreider who came to direct the centre in 1974. When they began teaching the unique insights of Anabaptist theology, says Thiessen, they discovered that a growing number of students felt they were “coming home” to a faith that made Christianity relevant. These students were church leaders and academics who, without having heard the word Mennonite, began “to view Christianity through a Mennonite lens...and to share the good news.”

“Anabaptists in the UK think Jesus-centred. They think of Jesus as practising a non-violent understanding and compassion for the poor,” says Thiessen. “To be an Anabaptist is to be completely Jesus-centred and you can do that in any denomination.”

By 1991, to accommodate the growing number of people curious about Mennonite/Anabaptist theology, the Anabaptist Network was founded. It has grown to more than a thousand members. It distributes regular newsletters, holds theology forums and residential conferences several times a year, and has scattered throughout the UK a number of study groups and libraries with Anabaptist books. Leaders of the Anabaptist Network recently launched the “After Christendom” series produced by Paternoster, a prominent Christian publisher in the UK. The first two books in the series, written by network leader Stuart Murray-Williams are Post-Christendom and Church After Christendom.

“The potential influence of these bestselling books on the future church scene in the UK is enormous and I am convinced it would not have happened without the work of the LMC during the past 35 years,” claims Thiessen.

The LMC also provides a base for Root and Branch Radical Christian Vision Network, founded in 2003. This Network includes 15 organizations which embrace core Anabaptist values and offer a variety of services including a once-monthly weekend Christian studies program; connections for young adults across the UK and in other countries who pray together and campaign for peace and justice; a multi-media think-tank focusing on politics and the media and challenging institutional Christianity; and church planting.

Thiessen sums up the impact of these ministries: “I believe the LMC is one of the most impressive, important and successful mission projects which Mennonites have ever undertaken.”

The LMC was started by the Mennonite Board of Missions in 1953, bringing a new way of doing mission work and offering Anabaptist insights to help revitalize Christianity in the UK.

Now, half a century later in what is being called a post-Christian era, Christianity as we know it is being challenged. Brian McLaren, well-known author and leader in the emerging church movement – but not a Mennonite – says, “We need a form of Christian faith that is holistic, integral and balanced, that speaks of God's grace to individuals and to societies and the planet as a whole.... Anabaptists know more about this than the rest of us.”

Gregory Boyd, a leading voice in the evangelical mega-church movement, says, “Many [seekers]...caught up in this movement, are looking for a tradition they can align with. The only tradition that embodies what this rising breed of Kingdom radicals is looking for is the Anabaptist tradition.” Some Mennonites tend to be surprised that people in other denominations value Anabaptist theology so highly, observes Thiessen. “Will [Mennonites] reclaim it? We need to be proud of our Anabaptist theology and share it ecumenically,” he says – as is being done through LMC's ministries.


LMC Canadian connection

“I believe the Mennonite mission work in London is directly relevant to the future mission work of all Mennonite churches in Canada,” says Vic Thiessen, Director of the London Mennonite Centre. Supported by Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Mission Network, Thiessen and his wife Kathy are eager to tell Canadian Mennonites about the innovative ministries in the UK and help them adapt those ideas to Canadian contexts.

During the Thiessen's recent visits in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario, they encouraged congregations to consider entering into partnership with them. Such intentional relationships could involve information sharing, visits, mutual prayer support and some financial support from Canadians. Each partnership has the potential to evolve individually, based upon the creativity and gifts of the participants, says Rebecca Yoder Neufeld, Missional Formation and Congregational Partnerships facilitator for Mennonite Church Canada Witness in Eastern Canada.

Sargent Avenue Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, which had a prior 3-year relationship with the Thiessens, has now signed a partnership agreement with them.

A visit to Edmonton, where Vic Thiessen grew up, connected the Thiessens to two congregations – including Thiessen’s home church, Holyrood Mennonite – who expressed keen interest in the idea of exporting the LMC model for a similar centre in Edmonton.

Connections are also being made in Ontario. Mannheim Mennonite Church is considering a possible congregation-to-congregation relationship with Susan Haslehurst and Wood Green Mennonite Church. Haslehurst is the part-time pastor of Wood Green Mennonite Church, the only Mennonite Church in England. They met earlier in the year when Haslehurst came to Mannheim for IMPaCT, a program connecting international Mennonite pastors with pastors from Mennonite Church Canada. In addition, Thiessen says that Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church is also expressing interest in further connections.

In Winnipeg, the Thiessens and the Witness team discussed MC Canada's role in UK ministries after the conclusion of the Thiessen's assignment in 2010. Mennonite Mission Network has held similar discussions. Having strong, supportive partnerships solidly in place will be important before a new director is named.

For more information on partnerships, contact , Director of Congregational Relationships, at MC Canada.