European Mennonite leaders seek renewal of identity as peace church

Concluding worship in the Singelkerk in Amsterdam: César Garcia, Henk Stenvers, Andy Martin, Liesa Unger, Otto Bleker. Photo Markus Rediger
Release date: 
Friday, 15 March 2013

Elspeet, The Netherlands – At the annual meeting of the leaders of European Mennonite conferences, interest in creating a centre of coordination was reaffirmed. The conference leaders also gave attention to the renewal of the peace witness and to the varied perspectives of the churches in Europe.

At the outset of the gathering, held 23-25 November at the end of the 2012 church year, Otto Bleker, the chair of the meeting, emphasized the calling of Mennonite churches in Europe to be peace churches. On the basis of Micah 4:3, he sketched out God’s intention for a lasting peace. In Bleker’s view, Mennonite churches are urged to be radical, non-violent communities.

Digging deeper into the theme of peace in his presentation, Fernando Enns of Hamburg explored the social challenge facing the churches of Europe and the importance of a lived peace witness. Membership in the churches of Europe is shrinking, and the voice of the church is growing ever more faint. Despite this, longing for peace remains undiminished. But today religion is no longer central to the identity of Europeans as was the case in the 16th century, when the Anabaptist movement emerged.

To be a movement of opposition, as then, is no longer sufficient since many of the core concerns of the Anabaptists are accepted today. Enns views European Mennonites as facing the challenge of defining Mennonite identity anew. What is the calling of Mennonites in Europe today? Who is working on this, and what is the platform with which to realize such a calling? These questions pertain not only to peace, but to the role of the church today. For Mennonites, God’s comprehensive shalom for both church and world is central to its mission. Peace is thus not an option but lies at the heart of the gospel.

The conversation following the presentations made it clear that there are many opportunities for congregations and conferences for the work of peace in society, and thus to make visible and experiential our calling toward society. The tenor of the discussion indicated agreement that be it in friendship circles, home, or congregation, peacemaking is our opportunity and calling. Despite such clarity of insight, for now the attempt to define concrete steps was not undertaken. For that, the coordination centre for Mennonite conferences in Europe could be of assistance.

Part time position for 69,000 Mennonites

Following the consensus at its last meeting in 2011 to establish a part time position of coordinator for the 69,000 Mennonites in Europe, no further steps could be taken. Interest in such a position was confirmed, including by the Mennonite World Conference and Mennonite Central Committee Europe. Now, however, the reworked profile and the financing of the 20% position is to be discussed by the conferences.

César Garcia, the general secretary of MWC brought greetings and motivating examples from the global Mennonite community, emphasizing the importance of the European sisters and brothers for the rest of the world community. The essential importance of a global community is experienced especially in times of distress and persecution, when we need God and each other most especially, and when we say to each other “You are not alone” – as sisters and brothers in Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Panama, or the Philippines experience today. He invited the Europeans to participate in great numbers in the next global assembly in July 2015 in Pennsylvania, USA. Garcia reminded the leaders of the conferences, “The importance and dimension of global community is understood best by experiencing it.”

Regional/country reports: Congregations are being challenged everywhere

All participants greatly valued the MERK (European Mennonite Regional Conference) conference in Sumiswald, Switzerland in May 2012 as well the enrichment sisters and brothers from around the world brought to the event. Henk Stenvers, secretary, stated in the report of the conference of leaders that, “If we only look at what we do not have, then we will not organize large gatherings such as the MERK. But if we become aware of what we have, and reach out in faith to what we need, then we will receive it, including an event such as a MERK.”

After numerous jubilee celebrations in 2012, the congregations of Holland invested in communication by launching a new periodical and e-newsletter, and refreshing the church’s presence on the internet. In addition, the decision was taken that congregations would devote the next 5 to 7 years to the themes of peace, justice, and identity.

Since the 1980’s there is no longer a conference in Belgium, only one congregation. For a long time the Mennonite Centre in Brussels played a significant role in raising awareness on matters of peace and mediation. When support from North America ended, the centre near the European Union institutions was closed. There are plans to plant a congregation in the area of Brussels. Regret was also expressed at the closing of the Mennonite Centre in London, for many a home and place of inspiration in past years.

In France the youth are experiencing a spirit of awakening. Youth pastors are being hired and new congregations planted. Congregations are also getting involved in interreligious dialogue and in conversation with Muslims.

In Switzerland 2012 was marked by large international meetings, the MERK in the Emmental and the Mennonite World Conference General Council meeting in Basel. Congregational life was enriched by the many visitors and exchanges. The conference has engaged in a renewal process, new leadership is being sought, and structures reworked.

The conferences in Germany are working at various tasks. As in other countries there is a shortage of personnel and financial resources. Whereas for some the theme of identity is central, for others it is dialogue with Muslims and foreigners. The growing presence of the German military in the schools is also a concern. Congregations are concerned to address the youth. Moreover, the AMG (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Mennonitischer Gemeinden) conference has decided to move to a consensus method of decision making.

The meeting concluded with the conference leaders meeting for worship in the Singelkerk in Amsterdam, one of the oldest Mennonite congregations in the world. Mennonites met for worship in the Dutch metropolis already in 1530. Psalm 146 became a focus of worship. The text “God is help and hope of his people” served both to sum up the meeting and to anticipate the future. The visitors each received the congregational brochure, which concludes with the question: “Would you like to have contact with a Mennonite congregation?” Good question.

Markus Rediger, Bern, Switzerland, member of the MWC Executive Committee

(For additional photos, click here)

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