The board of faith and life is to be commended for the 2009 study conference recently held in Saskatoon. It made an excellent choice in the theme and speaker. As I’ve continued to reflect on the three aspects of Christology that Thomas Yoder Neufeld chose to highlight – Christ as wisdom, Christ as peace, and Christ as the least among us – I’ve come to realize just how significant and absolutely critical these particular “answers” are to the question behind “confessing Jesus in a pluralistic world.”
When it became clear that interest and controversy were building around atonement, the conference planners wisely gave it a slot of its own. As unfinished as the subsequent session may have been, it now stands as an important part of a to-be-continued conversation.
The times of worship that bookended the event, especially the recitation of Scripture by Bethany College’s Point of Impact, and then by Ralph Gliege, were wonderful, as was the hospitable atmosphere of Forest Grove Community Church. The fact that the conference was located near Bethany College in Hepburn made it possible for many young people to be involved; their presence felt integral to the event.
So thank you – to all who prayed and planned this study conference into being.
There is, of course, something else our gathering brought vividly to light. What follows is not so much a criticism, however, as trying to find words for a desire that seems to be growing among us. It’s not unique to this event.
This desire concerns how we’re filling the time we spend together and how those decisions about time relate to the notion of “community hermeneutic.” The latter phrase flips easily off our tongues when we talk about what we value as Mennonite Brethren, but how do we actually do it, in practice?
Study of Scriptures by those gifted as teachers, papers prepared and written, smaller groups such as boards working at aspects of what we believe and do, articles and discussion online or in print venues like the Herald – these are surely all aspects of working together at understanding Scripture for the various challenges we face.
But a larger representative circle also needs to be circumscribed around an issue in order to truly say, “It seems good to the Spirit and us.” Sometimes that begins to happen simply in allowing sufficient time after every presentation to ask questions, get clarification, or tease out the implications of what was said. In the recent conference, the brief period given to this for Yoder Neufeld’s teaching yielded some memorable practical insights, but it’s baffling, to me at least, why this happened only once, and not in the public evening sessions as well.
After interaction with Scripture and study materials – listening or working in small groups around tables – shouldn’t it always be time for large group discussion? Following reports of boards and programs, shouldn’t it always be time to talk as a body? (I believe the business at annual general meetings and Gathering also falls under community hermeneutic and that the desire for conversation extends to this work as well.)
Where did it go?
Where did we lose the imperative of this step? Have our new structures, with fewer boards and streamlined processes, made it harder to imagine which questions still need to be answered by the larger body together? Has the institutional side of the conference taken so seriously its mission to “resource” churches that it feels obliged to fill every hour with speakers and workshops? Has fear of disunity tightened control against its public expression?
Stating the question
Large group discussion does not automatically serve to enhance understanding, of course. The crucial intermediary element, it seems to me, is formulating, as honestly and completely as possible, the actual question or questions at hand. This may be done via a recommendation such as the board of faith and life offered after various levels of study about women in ministry leadership. In the recent event, the listening committee identified the trouble spots around which subsequent discussion coalesced.
Something remarkable, and surely of the Spirit, can happen when there are questions raised and addressed in the body. Sometimes a delegate or two will cut even closer to the bone of the question. Sometimes insights, passion, stories, reminders are offered, and as they are, something like a new conclusion, or an old one reiterated, can emerge.
But there has to be time for it. “A calendar,” someone has said, “is a moral document.” Perhaps we could say the same of a conference schedule. May we take the time we need, and use it well in the practice of communal discernment.