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Reframing Anabaptism


Jeremy Bergen in discussion with David Driedger (right, pastor at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg) after his presentation on Learning Anabaptism at the Minister’s Conference for Mennonite Church Canada Assembly 2011.

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July 15, 2011
-Dave Rogalsky, Eastern Canada Correspondent for Canadian Mennonite

Waterloo, ONT. — Under the rubric of Reframing Anabaptism, Jeremy Bergen, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Theology at Conrad Grebel University College, addressed the topics “Unlearning Anabaptism” and “Learning Anabaptism” at this year’s Mennonite Church Canada Ministers’ Conference, held Monday at Conrad Grebel University College.

Speaking to nearly 160 keen listeners, he began with a vivid example displaying a photo of Nancy Heisey, then president of the Mennonite World Conference, giving Pope Benedict XVI an icon of Dirk Willms rescuing his Catholic pursuer. The well known story ends with Willms being executed as a heretic by Catholics. We see ourselves as a martyr people. How might Benedict have received this gift? What would Willms have thought of being made into an icon, something he and the early Anabaptists rejected? In other words, what have we as Mennonites become?

Our self-view is as a persecuted, martyr people, influencing us in receiving the ‘repentances’ which we have been receiving from other Reformation era churches, like the recent one by Lutherans, but we have moved into the mainstream of society. Challenging Stuart Murray’s Naked Anabaptist Bergen quipped that we are all clothed, all located in a time and culture.

Turning to the idea of the tension between the believed or ideal church on one hand, and the experienced or real church on the other hand, he worked with the fact that we are never what we want to be. This includes areas such as how true we are to our Anabaptist forebears. And then he wondered if that is to whom we really want to be true, or whether we don’t want to be true with them to the Biblical texts which informed the sixteenth century Anabaptists. There is much in whom we have become that we need to address, and perhaps unlearn, among ourselves as a variety of Mennonite denominations.

Part of this is to learn the marks of the true church and to live them – unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity – taken from the Nicene Creed. Purity, something that leads to the many Mennonite denominations, is not one of these. Often we name those from whom we separate as non-Christian. Bergen also challenged the common definition of catholicity as universality. Catholicity instead means something more like ‘unity in diversity.’ He spoke to the need to learn from our former persecutors, now sisters and brothers in Christ, and wondered if they have not always been. We have things to offer to the others, and we have much to learn from other Christians. There is a tendency to become known, not for what joins us to other Christians, but for which small issues separate us. We become known for our idiosyncrasies, not for our common belief in God. Bergen went to pains to make sure that he was not speaking to uniformity but rather that we focus on the core of our belief rather than our distinguishing features alone.

After the discussion time Gordon Driedger (pastor from Petitcodiac Mennonite Church in New Brunswick) told the story of a delivery person who asked “what kind of church is Mennonite?”

After a three minute lecture on Anabaptist history and theology the man stopped him and asked, “Do you believe in the Creator God . . . the Son . . . and the Holy Spirit?”

When Driedger answered yes, the man replied, “Then you’re my kind of church.”