Lutherans and Mennonites celebrate a covenant of peace

Posted on June 22, 2016 by Candice Hill Buchbinder

This piece originally appeared on Mennonite Church USA’s website at www.mennoniteusa.org.

Reconciliation recounted at regional ELCA gathering

SOUTH BEND, Indiana (Mennonite Church USA) — Events in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2010 brought Lutherans and Mennonites to tears and embraces in northern Indiana this month.

During the June 9–11 annual assembly of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in South Bend, Indiana, more than 500 synod members and 25 local Mennonites heard the story of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation that happened between Lutherans and Mennonites at the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) assembly in 2010, regarding the historic persecution of Anabaptists by Lutherans.

“The drama and significance of this 30-year process of reconciliation moved the audience,” said André Gingerich Stoner, director of interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA, who shared the story along with Kathryn Johnson, director of ecumenical and inter-religious relations for the ELCA, during a presentation to the assembly on Saturday morning, June 11.

Johnson told about the hard work done by Lutherans who grappled with the history of persecution of Anabaptists and moved from statements of regret to a posture of repentance. For the 2010 LWF assembly, Lutheran leaders had prepared an action asking forgiveness “from God and from our Mennonite sisters and brothers.”

She shared that at the LWF assembly, LWF President Bishop Mark Hanson had unexpectedly asked Lutherans to express their support for this action by kneeling (rather than raising cards). He also asked ecumenical guests to support the action by kneeling. Johnson recounted how Mennonites at the gathering had shared words of forgiveness and presented a footwashing tub to Bishop Hanson inscribed with the words, “From this day forward, let us love and serve the Lord.”

“Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we moved in a remarkable fashion from repentance to reconciliation,” Johnson said. “No one who was present in that hall that day doubted that the Holy Spirit had been at work.”

It is this action, Johnson continued, “that we seek to bring home to our synods, to our congregations, to the lives of our communities together.”

“This process of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation is not just a matter of the past or an academic exercise for historians and theologians,” Stoner told listeners at the synod’s assembly. “The work that has been done can change us — both Mennonites and Lutherans. It can free us and help us to be more fully who God intends us to be.”

  1. Nelson Kraybill, president of Mennonite World Conference and lead pastor of Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, also brought greetings to the synod assembly. Reflecting on the steps of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, he expressed appreciation for the theologians and leaders who led that process.

“Now it falls on us — pastors like you and me, leaders in all levels of our churches and regional bodies — to resolve that we will love and respect each other and find ways to collaborate for peacemaking and proclamation of the gospel,” he said.

Kraybill held up the example of Leymah Gbowee as an inspiring model of Lutheran-Mennonite collaboration. A Lutheran leader from Liberia who studied conflict transformation at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, she courageously organized women to bring an end to the civil war in Liberia and in 2011 received the Nobel Peace Prize.

A “pick-up” choir of more than 20 local Mennonites from eight area congregations led singing during the presentation and a closing communion service that followed. At the end of the presentation, the Mennonite choir members invited participants to join them in singing the first verse of a hymn written by Menno Simons: “We are people of God’s peace as a new creation. Love unites and strengthens us at this celebration. Sons and daughters of the Lord, serving one another, a new covenant of peace binds us all together.”

Following the assembly, 15 Lutheran and Mennonite leaders toured Menno-Hof in Shipshewana, Indiana, and also celebrated plans for a new exhibit. While some of the exhibits at this Amish-Mennonite interpretive center vividly tell stories of Anabaptist persecution by other Christians, the Menno-Hof board recently approved the development of an exhibit that will tell the story of the recent repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation with Lutherans and other Christians.

Video of the June 11 session at the ELCA Indiana-Kentucky Synod assembly can be found online (starting at 54:30).

Cultivating relationships

Stoner noted that Lutherans and Mennonites have been in dialogue for several decades about the historic persecution of Anabaptists by the Lutheran Church. Mennonite Church USA and the ELCA conducted a formal dialogue from 2002 to 2004 that contributed to the reconciliation at the global level. In 2012, a daylong event at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart brought together national, regional and local representatives from each denomination, including the ELCA bishop and Mennonite conference leaders from the region.

Stoner was invited to attend the Indiana-Kentucky Synod assembly in Indianapolis in 2015 as an ecumenical guest. When Bishop Bill Gafkjen told him the 2016 assembly was planned for South Bend, one county away from a large Mennonite community, they began to plan for some kind of encounter between Mennonites and Lutherans.

Northern Indiana is one of a number of regions in the United States where there is a significant presence of both Mennonites and Lutherans, including more than 80 Lutheran congregations and a Mennonite college, seminary and agency offices.

“This was a remarkable opportunity for Lutherans and Mennonites in a regional setting to live into this new place in our relationship,” Stoner reflected.

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—Mennonite Church USA staff