At its most recent meeting, the Executive Board asked Ervin Stutzman, executive director, to send a letter of greeting and Christian friendship to Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The letter recounts with gratitude the remarkable developments in Mennonite-Lutheran relations in the past fifteen years. It acknowledges ways Anabaptists, too, have at times misrepresented Lutherans and Lutheran practices. Further, the letter responds to occasional informal questions from Lutheran leaders as to whether Mennonites regard Lutherans as fully part of the body of Christ. Finally it affirms the current three-way dialogue on baptism between Mennonite World Conference, the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican.
John Roth, professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, was part of the formal dialogue with Lutherans both on behalf of Mennonite Church USA and later Mennonite World Conference. He reflected on the content and the significance of the recent letter sent on behalf of Mennonite Church USA to Presiding Bishop Eaton of the ELCA.
Could you put this letter in a broader perspective and reflect briefly on the remarkable shift in the relationship between Lutherans and Mennonites that has happened in the past 15 years?
From a historical perspective of the persecution and condemnations of the 16th century–and the mistrust or indifference that has often characterized our relationship in the centuries since then–the recent dialogues between Lutherans and Mennonites that have resulted in expressions of apology, forgiveness and reconciliation are truly breathtaking. As these statements and actions are understood and embraced by Mennonites and Lutherans in local settings and congregations, they have the potential to transform both of our communities. This recent letter from Ervin Stutzman on behalf of the Executive Board expresses gratitude for these developments and a desire to continue on this journey together.
The letter refers to task forces to follow up earlier commitments. You meet with the Lutheran task force and convened the Mennonite World Conference group. Can you tell us why these groups are important and give us an example of the kind of work they have done?
Making formal statements on behalf of our church bodies is relatively easy. Knowing how to make those statements meaningful at a regional or congregational level is much more difficult. That is why both the Lutheran World Federation and the Mennonite World Conference have each created a task force that will hold them accountable for the commitments each made to the other at Stuttgart in 2010. The task forces are seeking ways to implement the commitments … to ensure that our promises to each other are not ignored or forgotten.
The letter talks about being in the body of Christ together, despite serious differences. It states that “though the body of Christ is fractured, compromised and broken, we are deeply grateful to find our place in that body together with you, our Lutheran brothers and sisters.” Is there anything we are learning from relating to Christians of other traditions that could be useful to us as we work at differences within our Mennonite family?
I hope so! We have engaged in these ecumenical conversations despite our many theological and historical differences. And along the way we have experienced many gifts. The very act of dialogue, for example, has encouraged us to become more attentive to our blindspots, strengthened our sense of identity and purpose, and helped us recognize the work of God beyond the confines of our church. Yet similar conversations with groups closer to us somehow seem more difficult. Ironically, it is sometimes difficult to bring the same level of interest, curiosity, respect, and humility to our interactions with other groups within the Anabaptist-Mennonite family.
Our tradition has experienced many divisions in the past. We have often described these divisions as renewal movements or as a quest to preserve the holiness of the church; but those divisions are just as likely to result from fear, personality conflicts, or a desire for power. My hope is that our growing experience of ecumenical conversations with groups like the Lutherans, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, and Pentecostals could embolden us to take risky steps of conversation with other Mennonite groups. If we are truly serious about healing the broken Body of Christ, then that work should also happen close to home.
The Executive Board expressed their support for a three-way dialogue between Lutherans, Mennonites and Catholics on baptism happening at the level of the global church? What can you tell us about the status of that dialogue and how it is proceeding?
For more than fifty years, Catholics and Lutherans have been engaged in serious ecumenical conversations. Along the way, they have made some significant progress, particularly in a shared statement on the meaning of grace. But in other areas significant differences persist. In light of the independent dialogues that Mennonites have completed with both Catholics and Lutherans in the past decade, several prominent church leaders from both groups suggested that representatives of the Anabaptist tradition be brought into the conversation, with a particular focus on baptism.
In the sixteenth century, baptism was a contentious and visible point of difference (e.g., the word Anabaptist was a pejorative term, meaning those who re-baptize; in 1529 Imperial Law declared rebaptism to be a capital offense). So baptism marked a crucial point of division between the Anabaptist, Catholics and the broader Protestant reform movement.
Morever, even though both Lutherans and Catholics baptize infants, they bring different theological understandings to the practice. So a three-way conversation on this theme has the potential of bringing together representatives of the groups that formed the major church divisions in the sixteenth century.
Representatives of the three groups have met twice, once in the Vatican and once in Strasbourg. Although it is not likely that the dialogue will result in agreement, the conversations are an opportunity to identify areas of theological agreement, to engage in self-critical reflection, and to strengthen the identity of each group. We may not change our theological understandings, but at the very least we could repent of our misconceptions about each other and affirm each other as members of the same Body of Christ.