Canadian Mennonite
Volume 14, No. 17
Sept. 6, 2010

God at Work in the Church

MWC reports a good year

By J. Lorne Peachey

Mennonite World Conference Release

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

“Mennonite World Conference is in good shape. There are no crisis areas. What we agreed to do, we have been able to do.”

With those words, general secretary Larry Miller, who will leave his post in 2012 after more than two decades of service, summarized the work of MWC to the Executive Committee when it gathered in Addis Ababa this summer for its annual meeting.

New commissions

Finalized in 2009, the four commissions—Faith and Life, Peace, Deacons and Mission—each reported to the Executive Committee that they have begun their work electronically and in person. All have plans for future work:

• Faith and Life Commission is anticipating surveying member churches on practices related to baptism and the Lord’s Supper;

• Peace Commission has plans for a study of peace practices in Anabaptist-related churches globally;

• Deacons Commission has identified two or more global Anabaptist deacons in each continent to be available especially in times of crisis; and

• Mission Commission announced plans to hold a Global Mission Fellowship event in 2013 somewhere in Asia.

Budgets and opportunities

While MWC is currently in good financial shape, it is not yet in a position to simultaneously establish representation and offices on each continent, treasurer Ernst Bergen of Paraguay told the committee. This plan has been listed in MWC’s financial projections as an “opportunity,” along with several other things that MWC will do as funds become available.

Income for current operations is meeting expenses, said Karen Martin-Schiedel of Canada, MWC’s director of finance and administration. But because of additional costs due to changes facing MWC, an “unrestricted fund” budget of $897,000 (all funds in US dollars) calls for $150,000 to come from reserves designated for the transition period.

Engaging youths

MWC’s staff liaison for youth, Elina Ciptadi-Perkins, and Ayub Omondi Awich of Kenya, African representative on the Youth Task Force, met with the Executive Committee to outline plans for a new Young Anabaptists Network to work with young people in five areas: networking, fellowship, capacity building, decision-making and Anabaptist identity.

“Young people are interested in MWC and want to be involved,” Ciptadi-Perkins said.

The group comes with an $85,000 surplus from the Global Youth Summit held in Paraguay in connection with Assembly 15.

Inter-church dialogue

After hearing positive and emotional reports from the MWC representatives who had just come from the Lutheran World Federation event in Stuttgart, Germany—at which Lutherans apologized for the legacy of the persecution of Anabaptists in the 16th century—the Executive Committee approved participation in two inter-church dialogues:

• Bilateral conversations with the World Conference of Seventh Day Adventists on “lifestyles as Christians,” particularly the biblical understandings and practices of peace; and

• Tri-lateral conversations on baptism between the Lutheran World Federation, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity of the Catholic Church, and MWC.

Both dialogues are to begin in 2011.

Representatives from Latin America, while approving, urged caution. “Given the reservations that some of our churches have, because of persecution from the Catholics in the past and statements which continue to this day, it’s very important that the objectives for dialogue be very clear,” said Edgardo Sanchez.

MWC growing

As of this June, MWC member churches totalled nearly 1.2 million baptized members, an increase of 30,000 over the previous year. These members worship in congregations in 99 conferences in 56 countries. Baptized membership in all Anabaptist-related churches, both MWC members and those not members, totalled 1.67 milllion.

The largest of these national churches is Meserete Kristos Church of Ethiopia, which hosted the Executive Committee sessions.

“We now have 189,296 baptized members in 518 local congregations,” MKC chair Tewodros Beyene reported. MKC also has 867 church-planting projects.

MKC executive secretary Kenna Dula described how the church began 60 years ago out of missionary work by the Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite Conference. In 1982, when the church went underground because of persecution by the then-communist government, it had 5,000 members. MKC emerged in 1991 “from the dark time of persecution” with a membership of 50,000. And it has been growing ever since.

“God has been very good to us,” said Beyene. “In spite of the challenges, MKC is now completely self-sustaining with no assistance from outside sources.”

A faith to die for

Recorded to stir spiritual revival and preserve nonviolent ethic, Martyrs Mirror accounts still inspire awe

By Celeste Kennel-Shank

For Meetinghouse

Elizabethtown, Pa.

Jeffrey Bach, left, director of the Young Center at Elizabethtown College, Pa., checks out a copy of the Martyrs Mirror with Diane Windham Shaw of Lafayette College, Easton, Pa., right.

Martyrs Mirror is newer than the Bible and longer than some copies of it.

Like the Bible, though, the book has a powerful message for today, said James Lowry, a Mennonite historian from Hagerstown, Md. “Persecution, dungeons, shackles, chains are not something in our experience,” Lowry told an audience at the June 8-10 “Martyrs Mirror: Reflections Across Time” conference at Elizabethtown College.

Yet people today live in a materialistic age, as Dutch Mennonites did in 1660, when Thieleman van Braght revised and added to previous books and records about Christian martyrs, aiming to spark spiritual renewal, Lowry said. “Martyrs Mirror is the correct medicine for 21st-century Christians, and especially for Mennonites,” Lowry suggested.

More than 60 people from across the spectrum of Anabaptist-connected groups, as well as scholars from other traditions, gathered for the event marking the 350th anniversary of the 1660 edition, called The Bloody Theater of the Baptism-Minded and Defenseless Christians, which tells of martyrs from the early church and persecuted groups in Europe through to the Anabaptists of the 16th and 17th centuries. The 1685 edition added Jan Luyken’s etchings depicting events described in the text.

One story tells of Anneken Jans, drowned in 1539 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, after she was arrested for singing a hymn in public. Another remembers Dirk Willems from Asperen, the Netherlands, who escaped from prison but stopped running to rescue his pursuer, who had fallen into an icy pond, only to be recaptured and executed in 1569.

“These are heroic, mythic tales designed to inspire allegiance to Mennonite identity and conformity to its ethic of nonviolence at any cost,” said Julia Spicher Kasdorf, professor of writing at Penn State University in University Park.

Nurturing nonresistance

In the early 1740s, German-speaking Mennonite immigrants to Pennsylvania ended efforts to gain exemption from military service after colonial authorities directed them to take their request to the king’s officials in England. “Rather than attempt to change public policy, they would publish the Martyrs Mirror,” Kasdorf said.

In 1748-49, Mennonite leaders commissioned a new edition of the tome in Ephrata, Pa. Several hundred copies remained unsold. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental army confiscated some of them to turn the paper into gun cartridges.

After the Ephrata edition, American Mennonite leaders would reprint Martyrs Mirror during times of war, to inspire the preservation of nonresistance, Kasdorf said. “The martyr becomes an alternative soldier, so the pacifist is not seen as a coward, but as a hero,” Kasdorf said.

Martyrs Mirror has power even for those who have not read it, Kasdorf said. She finds it difficult to read herself, in large part because of the antagonistic language used to describe members of the state churches who viewed Anabaptists as heretics. “It can get in the way of conversation with other Christians,” she said.

In the 16th century and today, heresy and martyrdom are a matter of definition, said Sarah Covington, professor of history at Queens College at the City University of New York, N.Y. “One person’s martyr is another person’s terrorist,” she said. “In a sense, martyrs are religious extremists, since they die for what they understand to be one unified truth.”

“Martyrdom resists an ecumenical age like ours,” Covington said. “[Martyrs] represent a pure faith, a faith not watered down.”

Public witness

In Martyrs Mirror, women as well as men testify to their faith and understanding of truth. “Early Anabaptist women facing arrest and execution boldly used their voices and words to shape hostile situations to their own ends,” said Jean Kilheffer-Hess of East Petersburg, Pa., who collects and studies oral histories.

Humility shaped the early Anabaptist understanding of suffering and martyrdom, said Andrew Martin, a doctoral student at the Toronto School of Theology, Ont. “Central to the Anabaptist ethical heritage is a self that was transformed on the journey toward ultimate truth through an encounter with God and the expectation of meeting him face-to- face in death,” he said. “Anabaptists have left us a spiritual legacy that is foundational for Christian ethics today.”

John D. Roth, professor of history at Goshen College, announced that the Mennonite Historical Society in Goshen, Ind., is planning a conference on Martyrs Mirror in 2012, at which time the possibility of extending the collection of accounts to the present day will be discussed.

Meetinghouse is an association of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ publications. Celeste Kennel-Shank is assistant editor of Mennonite Weekly Review, a Meetinghouse publication.

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