HARRISBURG, Pa. — During both morning and evening worship sessions on July 22 and 23 at the Mennonite World Conference assembly in Harrisburg, representatives from various Christian communions brought greetings to MWC participants. Nearly all praised Mennonites for their long-standing peace witness.
In the morning worship on July 22, Gretchen Castle of the Friends World Committee for Consultation brought greetings. That evening, Larry Miller, former MWC General Secretary, brought greetings from the Global Christian Forum, followed by Monsignor Gregory Fairbanks of the Roman Catholic Church.
On July 23, greetings came from Elizabeth Miller of the Moravian Church and William Wilson of the Pentecostal World Fellowship in the morning, followed by Isabel Phiri of the World Council of Churches, Martin Junge of the Lutheran World Federation and Diop Ganoune of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in the evening. Junge received sustained applause as he expressed gratitude for MWC extending forgiveness to Lutherans in 2010 for their treatment of Anabaptists in the past.
Several workshops also addressed ecumenical concerns. Jonathan Seiling and Fernando Enns led a July 22 workshop, “Introduction to Mennonites and Ecumenism,” which introduced the reasons and contexts in which Mennonites have entered into official dialogue with other Christian denominations.
That same day, Valerie Rempel led the workshop “The MWC-Seventh-day Adventist Dialogue,” which highlighted the outcomes of a dialogue that happened in 2011-12.
On July 23, Alfred Neufeld, John Rempel and Seiling led the workshop “Trilateral Dialogue: Catholics, Lutherans and Mennonite Conversations on Baptism,” which reported on dialogues between MWC and the Lutheran and Catholic churches, a five-year process that has dealt with the healing of memories, theologies and practices that separate us, the meaning and function of a sacrament and the problem of Christian initiation.
The workshop focused primarily on the dialogue about baptism. The delegation met four times in the past four years, Neufeld said. He reported that while there is a high level of agreement about the meaning of baptism, there is much disagreement about its practice.
He handed out a paper that noted the following:
- For Roman Catholics the topic of what happens to original sin in baptism is still most urgent.
- For Lutherans the topic of divine promise and salvation by grace without works is central.
- To a certain extent, Catholics, Lutherans and Mennonites are re-exploring the meaning of sacraments as signs/symbols.
- In Anabaptist perspective, water baptism is a strong communicating act. All communication happens through signs and symbols.
- All three traditions share an interest in the dialectics of human voluntarism vs. God’s sovereign grace.
- How to practice believer’s baptism for the children of the church is a challenge for Mennonites.
Among the questions that have come to the forefront is this: How do we handle situations when Lutherans and Catholics who have been baptized as infants want to join a Mennonite church?
Catholics and Lutherans have said that Mennonites don’t take original sin seriously enough, while Mennonites have said that Catholics and Lutherans practice “indiscriminate baptisms,” i.e., they don’t pay enough attention to the faith of the parents.
Rempel noted that there are differences within denominations as well as between them. He said there is a great imbalance in Mennonite history between pursuing a perfect church and a united church.
“Splitting is the great sickness of the Mennonite tradition,” he said.
He added that we are not the only normative part of the body of Christ.
“When you see the presence of Christ in other traditions,” he said, “it relativizes your own tradition.” If we say Catholics and Lutherans are Christian, he added, “we have to take seriously their traditions.”