When Conrad Grebel baptized his friends in the evening of 25 January 1525 in Zurich, Switzerland, little did he know that this small act would mark the start of the worldwide family of faith that we now are as Mennonite World Conference. From Switzerland, the Anabaptist movement spread north, to Germany, France, and the Netherlands. After the debacle in Münster and under the leadership of Menno Simons, Mennonites migrated east to Prussia and later Russia and Ukraine. And even later still, Mennonites moved to North and South America, and then to all continents of the world.
And everywhere in the old countries, groups of Mennonites stayed on. Today, there are very old congregations in France, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland – MWC members since the very beginning.
These old Mennonite churches carry the rich history and tradition of the Anabaptists and Mennonites of past centuries. Yet the old churches in Western Europe are going through hard times, this time not because of persecution but because of secularization. Membership drops and congregations disappear because there are not enough new members anymore. But although smaller in number, the churches remain faithful to their Mennonite and Anabaptist identity and to doing God’s work, each in their own context.
The leaders of each national conference and their MWC General Council representatives meet every year to inform, to share and to discuss developments in their countries and in MWC. For the last few years also the younger Mennonite communities in the south of Europe – in Portugal, Spain and Italy specifically – have attended this meeting as well, along with representatives from Austrian and Bavarian conferences and some former Umsiedler communities. A new kind of cooperation in Mennonite Europe is emerging, where young and old communities learn from each other and inspire each other. The young churches are eager to learn about the roots of the Mennonites, the old churches are inspired by the mission, the liveliness and the new methods the younger churches bring.
These developments have convinced the leaders of the importance of intensifying the contact between all European Mennonite churches, and of inviting more European Mennonite churches – such as those in Ukraine and Belarus – to the table. That’s why after some years of discussion, they decided at their October 2013 meeting in Mainz, Germany, to appoint a European Mennonite Coordinator, starting in July 2014. Although not all conferences have yet decided on their level of support, leaders trust that there will be enough backing to finance this position at least for the coming years.
This development is a clear sign of hope. The Mennonite communities in the European countries, although small, have a strong commitment to the Mennonite and Anabaptist tradition, identity and mission. Together – whether more conservative or more liberal, evangelical or pietistic – they are part of the global body of Christ. And working together, each from their own identity and with a wonderful mix of young and old, they learn from, inspire and support each other.
Henk Stenvers (Netherlands) is secretary of the MWC Deacons Commission and general secretary / director of Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit (Dutch Mennonite Church).