Mennonites hold worldwide gathering in Asunción, Paraguay

Many longtime readers of my newspaper columns are aware that I was raised in a Mennonite home and still identify with that faith tradition on a number of levels. When asked to define the term “Mennonite,” most people in North America reference the black-attired plain folk who populate parts of Ontario’s Waterloo County. Or they’ll allude to their spiritual cousins, the Amish, popularized in the Hollywood film Witness and thrust into the public spotlight during the Nickel Mines massacre in Pennsylvania in October 2006. Surprisingly often, the term gets confused with “Mormon.” In terms of their beliefs, Mennonites are fairly widely known for their positions on issues related to peace, nonviolence and justice.

Mennonites have been sufficiently schismatic over the centuries that it takes a church historian to really delineate between the dozens of religious groups with a legitimate claim to the term. To simplify, Mennonites are the spiritual descendants of Menno Simons, one of a series of Anabaptist (meaning “re-baptizing”) reformers of the early 16th century. Other branches of Anabaptism include the followers of Jacob Amman (the Amish) and Jacob Hutter (the Hutterites). I could go on and list some of the others, but to do so would require a book, not a blog post.

Let’s just say this: Contrary to North American perception, there are now more non-white Mennonites in the world than white. Canada and the United States are home to only about one-third of the globe’s 1.5 million Mennos, and there are significant populations in Europe, Latin America, Africa, Indonesia and the Indian subcontinent. So much for the Waterloo County stereotype.

Danisa Ndlovu and Nancy Heisey

Danisa Ndlovu and Nancy Heisey

The global Mennonite family holds a worldwide gathering once every six years or so under the auspices of an organization called Mennonite World Conference; that event got underway in Asunción, Paraguay, this week. Most of the weeklong celebration is devoted to worship, study and, as you might expect, service projects (someone once said that Mennonitism is Christianity with work clothes on). Occasional live streaming from the conference is planned.

There have so far been two interesting markers at the Asunción gathering. First, Danisa Ndlovu, a bishop in the Brethren in Christ church of Zimbabwe, has assumed the presidency of Mennonite World Conference from Nancy Heisey, an American religion scholar (see photo). Second, representatives of the Lutheran World Federation were on hand yesterday as a gesture of reconciliation and solidarity (warning: more arcane church history follows) for the difficult and ofttimes deadly hatred that stained relationships between the two emerging Protestant groups during the early years of the Reformation. They disagreed intensely over issues such as baptism and ecclesiology (the nature and structure of the church), with the Lutherans hardening their position against the Anabaptists in the Augsburg Confession of 1530. Essentially, the Lutherans agreed that the state (under the sway of the Roman Catholic Church) had the right to execute the Anabaptists for their sedition and heresy.

So the centuries-old rift between Anabaptists and Lutherans is beginning to heal. The same can’t yet be said for the much deeper divide between Anabaptists and Roman Catholics, though dialogue is ongoing at a number of levels.

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