The idea that Mennonites could chuck the church, let alone should, would alarm many in the American Mennonist tradition, yet, perhaps it is time for them to consider the unthinkable.
The Mennonite or Mennonist church in the United States seems caught in an ideological vise between a liberal Protestantism and a conservative Fundamentalism. While many still reference their Mennonite cultural heritage, fewer and fewer Mennonites from either side still embrace traditional norms of Mennonist religious belief.
Many Russian Mennonites voice an ethnic rather than religious Mennonite identity. Russländer often distinguish between Mennonite Anabaptism or Mennonism and Evangelical or Russian Pietist Mennonite faith. A few Mennonites even identify as Mormon, Roman Catholic or even Buddhist.
A sense of confusion is thus created when groups such as the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) claim to represent the Mennonite faith. Does MCC represent all Mennonites or merely Mennonist Mennonites? Who is “in” and who is “out”? Is it more important to be Mennonist or Mennonite? Does the fact that both the Mennonite Brethren (MB) and the Mennonite Church – USA support MCC mean that they maintain similar religious beliefs or church structures? Ummmm. No. They do not.
Withdrawal of the Sommerfeld Mennonites from MCC-Canada calls into doubt the traditional heritage group’s claim to be a greater Mennonite or pan-diasporaic body. According to sources, and Will Braun’s excellent 07 Jan, 2013, article in MWR, there was minor disagreement over MCC’s statement of belief regarding the Trinity and apparently irreconcilable differences with MCC secular policies regarding homosexuality, the environment, the United Nations, criticism of Israel and inter-faith dialogue with the Islamic community. All of these are American Fundamentalist political values representing a politicization of cultural norms, not traditional Mennonist spiritual values.
One begins to wonder if MCC’s insistence on maintaining a religious authority consistent with modern Mennonist religious identities and contemporary Mennonite social realities is even possible when Russian groups such as the Sommerfeld Mennonites seemingly define their heritage as ethnic and political rather than in spiritual Mennonist terms.
Unless it learns to redefine itself along other lines, MCC is increasingly becoming a specialized “religious” agency of fewer select Mennonist church conferences, lending increasing doubt as to its long-term, independent cultural viability. Mennonites are simply no longer united in their spiritual values or identity. Perhaps attempting to maintain a Statement of Faith is more divisive than essential. Perhaps MCC should be redrawn along ethnic, linguistic and cultural lines.
We have come to an odd situation. Mennonites are unquestionably attached to their church communities – but what roles do belief, unified practice or even shared spiritual motivation play in these associations? Increasingly less and less – and it is not the fault of whom you think.
Naysayers often blame Feminists, gays and “liberals” for the decline of faith and the church. American higher educational ideals, changes roles of women, children and government, and increased economic mobility probably have more impact on church numbers than do types or amounts of faith. Historic Mennonist churches are often cannibalized not by the Liberals, gays or feminists, but rather by Conservative Fundamentalists. While groups such as Pink Menno and Brethren Mennonite Council (BMC) fight to be included, many Fundamentalist Mennonite churches (the Sommerfeld in Canada, the Oklahoma churches in the USA) are willingly and happily chucking their spiritual heritage identity.
I have often queried Carol Wise, director of BMC, as to whether or not her group sees itself as serving the religious Mennonists or cultural Mennonites – and how that understanding impacts their vision statement. In other words, are they fighting for the secular rights and recognition of gay ethnic Mennonites? Do they see Mennonites and the Brethren as representing a co-ethnicity? Or, are they rather attempting to help Mennonist churches create effective outreach to the LGBTQ community? Which identity do they feel is more important – the LGBTQ identity or the Mennonite/Brethren identity?
Local church congregations have and continue to form the heart of both Mennonite and Mennonist identities. American Mennonist congregations have long fostered a “traditional” Mennonite understanding that one’s faith and assurance of salvation are in some way attached to their participation in the faith community. Better said, one’s salvation is personal, but one’s faith is communal in that it is fostered and perfected through the interactions and mutual spiritual support or discipline of the Christian Mennonist community.
Evangelical Mennonites understand the concept of church differently but experience it in much the same manner. Salvation is a personal relationship independent of the church, but the church is necessary for instruction, fellowship and the cooperation necessary for successful Evangelism and Missionary outreach.
Russian and Prussian Mennonites come from what is often called the Kolonie-society, meaning that many Eastern European Mennonites trace their cultural and possibly their spiritual values back to legally, linguistically, socially, spiritually and more-or-less financially separated, distinctive and independent ethnic colonies in Eastern Europe. Where it is seemingly easier for American Mennonist Mennonites to focus on the spiritual, Russian Mennonite culture lacks such clear-cut divisions between the church, the community, the familial, the economic and the social.
Historically, American Mennonist youth could reject the church and choose to merely assimilate into secular “American” society. Prussian and Russian Mennonite youth were legally and financially bound to the church-community (gemeinde), and specific geographic locations. American Mennonites could be Mennonist or not-Mennonist. Russian Mennonites could not “not” be Mennonite and so could only choose between being a “good” Mennonite or a “bad” one. Historians have often pointed to this aspect of Russian Mennonite culture to help explain how Mennonite Brethren, for instance, have retained a strong primary ethnic Mennonite identity while differing greatly theologically from their Mennonist spiritual cousins.
As ties between cultural or ethnic Mennonites and Mennonist churches decline or stretch, one ponders why ethnic Mennonites would continue to support churches with which they disagree or fail to identify and what, if anything, those former ethnic churches owe to secular and ethnic Mennonite culture.
Mennonist pastors and theologians would point to the discipline of being an active member of the church as fulfilling the traditional role of the gemeinde in the life of the individual Mennonite. Such philosophy is inconsistent with most Anglo-American ecclesiastical understandings (church-ology) and with the way most contemporary American congregations seemingly interact with or impact their membership. From the ethnic perspective, if you remove the ethnic from the gemeinde, all you have is an advocacy group.
Traditional Mennonist church discipleship impacts the entire life, both private and public, of the Mennonist – his or her profession, marriage, family, finances, education and etc., to the point that the entire culture becomes unique and different from that which surrounds the group. At a point, the Mennonist will and must evolve into the Mennonite. This task is too complex and too complete for the co-dependency between a religious leader and his or her congregation such as found in modern Evangelical-style mega-churches or even the neo-Anabaptist-ish Emergents, for it is complete and extends beyond the Sunday meeting.
True Mennonist churches tend to evolve into ethnic-religious Mennonite communities. Importantly, the definition of an ethno-religion seems to hinge on the status of being “other” that is only to be found as a minority culture. Protestant religion and its low church Evangelical forms are defined by the state subsuming the religion which becomes its handmaiden. Anabaptism removes the individual from the state entirely, into a distinctive and separate state of otherness, of non-belonging. The core unifying identity of Mennonites and Mennonists is that sense of being a similar “Other” rather than a strong sense of shared values. The traditional Russian and Evangelical Mennonite sense of mutual obligation was that of “der Unza” not that of spiritual outreach (neither social nor evangelistic).
In the United States, and to an only slightly less extent in Canada, the Evangelical church, on the state-church Protestant model, serves to organize, orientate and motivate the individual as to their appropriate and useful participation into society. It does not serve as an alternative society and is opposed to and suspicious of ethnic spiritualities. Interestingly, while the Sommerfelder and Alt Kol’ny conferences are haranguing MCC over Fundamentalist values, most American Fundamentalists view the Sommerfelder and the Alt Kol’nier as semi-cults. That’s the ethnic dilemma MCC needs to crack.
Increasingly assimilated, the Anabaptist or Mennonist church in Anglo-America does not serve to alienate the believer from society, but rather to re-orientate him or her properly into that society – conforming even to Anglo-Anabaptist or Emergent church philosophy, which would then be Anabaptist-like, but not truly Anabaptist, whereas Quakerism would be more akin to traditional Anabaptism.
Rather than being shaped and defined by Mennonite culture and heritage, the English Mennonist church is a tool of Anglo-society for the acculturation of the Mennonite identity into the larger non-Mennonite social structure.
In order for an authentic Mennonite identity is to remain within the English Mennonist or English Anabaptist (Emergent) church culture, the church must develop tools by which pressures from the competing society are mitigated and countered, thus the ethnic social identity.
Returning to MCC, such groups serve as a cultural or ethnic manifestation of the “spiritual” gemeinde, bringing together various churches, faith experiences and church philosophies (both Inglisher and Mennonite) into a common experience based on being an outsider or ethnic. The MCC sale, VS experience and common cultural manifestations such as the “canning truck” are ethnic menes that serve to maintain and build-up the separate, segregated identity of a spiritual gemeinde. The gemeinde then operates on common rules and a common statement of faith or ideals that supersede those of the individual believer or the congregation. To participate in these events (or in the Montana Schmekfest, the Steinbach Heritage Village, etc.), one does not have to be ethnic, but one must behave as though one were and to see oneself as spiritually ethnic. [American-style St Patrick’s Day celebrations whereby everyone, rather literally, becomes Irish for a day might be similar phenomenon.]
Those seeking to preserve a traditional Mennonite spirituality might find it more useful to promote the secular version of the spiritual gemeinde over that of the American concept of the spiritual church. An increasingly diverse and culturally irrelevant church would be relegated to a secondary position more in-line with what was arguably occurring within the modernizing early 20th Century Russian Mennonite tradition. Pan-Mennonite groups and organizations could be encouraged to become more tolerant of and accessible to a greater faith diversity amongst the diaspora in order to preserve the true ethnic spirituality that defines and internally-self-disciplines the ethnic Mennonite believer in the Holy Spirit of the gemeinde rather than the secularizing spirit of the Anglo-American church.
One has the idea that the Amish service similarly manifests the spirituality of the community rather than truly defines the identity structure within the community. One participates in and is included in the Amish congregation because one is Amish and the shape, content and tenor of the worship service is such because it is an Amish service. Amish are not defined as Amish because they attend an Amish service, neither are cultural Mennonites considered as Mennonite because they attend a Mennonist service but rather, a service is considered Mennonist or Mennonite because it reflects the ethnic community within which it is manifest, setting both the service and the church identity as distinct from and irreconcilable with prevailing notions of and participation in the Anglo-American concept of the institution of church.
And that is where the MCC is floundering. MCC is seen as shaping the churches and its ministry to a core set of “religious” (actually often political) values rather than reflecting the shared ethnic values of the shared heritage or ethnic community.
Can Mennonites survive without their churches? Of course. Can the churches survive without Mennonites? Maybe, but probably not for the long-term.
True Mennonite identity forms and shapes meaning, identity and a sense of belongingness (der Unza) incorporating the self-discipline of that belongingness into a cultural community greater than the self. A sense of belonging lends itself to the ethnic structure that manifests itself in the shared experience of the congregation, not the other way around. Mennonism, properly practiced, cannot but help establish, renew and preserve the ethnicity of the Mennonite identity, indicating that in the North American and British contexts, Mennonite cultural spirituality exists outside of, and perhaps despite, participation in the concept of an Anglo-American socializing, conforming church, rending American-style church identities less relevant to the maintenance of traditional ethnic church identities.
In response to declining numbers, perhaps we need to merely liberate our identity and ourselves from cultural shackles (American church notions) we were never meant to wear.