“Two solitudes” collaborate in college and conference

“A modern miracle” some call Canadian Mennonite University (CMU), because it was formed in 1999 when Concord College (an MB school) merged with Canadian Mennonite Bible College (a school attended largely by GC Mennonites) and Menno Simons College. As such, CMU was a suitable host for an event celebrating the history and exploring the interactions of Mennonite Brethren (MB) and General Conference (GC) Mennonites, both of which formally organized in 1860. (In 1999, the GC Mennonite Church was integrated with the Mennonite Church of North America, resulting in the formation of two countrywide church bodies – one being Mennonite Church Canada – and the end of the General Conference of Mennonite Churches.)

The grey hair of most of the 90-some attendees at the “Celebrating 150 Years Conference” (June 5) lent credence to the suggestion that young people aren’t all that concerned about denominational lines. Presenters and participants exchanged jokes and anecdotes about walls between GCs and MBs, particularly in the “exploring stereotypes” workshop hosted by Don Peters and Terry Schellenberg, but the content reinforced the impression that these barriers don’t exist for younger generations. Other workshops explored confessions of faith, marriage across the denominational divide, periodicals, and worship. One representative of each denomination facilitated each workshop.

A panel of current or recently graduated CMU students agreed they knew little about GC or MB distinctions before beginning their studies. Now, equipped with some theological and historical background, these students noted certain language, worship styles, and emphases are particular to one or the other denomination, but said the denominational divide is not an issue in their friendships.

Following the student panel, four faculty members – who had taught at Concord or CMBC prior to the creation of CMU – spoke with gratefulness of everything they had learned from fellow faculty of other denominations since the merger. After a childhood experience of the denominations as “two solitudes,” former CMBC professor Dan Epp-Tiessen called his interactions with MB pastors and pulpits subsequent to the merger “a gift.” MB professors Gordon Matties and Cheryl Pauls said they benefitted from their Mennonite Church Canada colleagues’ deep theological approach to worship and Bible study.

The day began with a summary of the founding of the two denominations in 1860. CMU professor Sheila Klassen-Wiebe responded to historian Abe Dueck’s presentation on the MB story with “there is always a mix of good and bad, faithfulness and sinfulness in any new movement.”

After former MC Canada general secretary Helmut Harder’s story of the GC, River East MB pastor Connie Epp highlighted the importance of listening and seeking to understand “the other,” particularly when passions are high. This is essential for integration to happen, she said, as it did when the GC church rejoined the larger Mennonite body of MC Canada.

An enduring stereotype, noted by both the students and long-time leaders, is that MBs are interested in evangelism while GCs are focused on peace and justice work. Several of the students touted the current climate of collaboration and focusing on “what we have in common;” Andrea Dyck added this is an opportunity to learn from the other.

Heads of their respective denominations, David Wiebe (MB) and Jack Suderman (MC Canada) took the stage at the close of the event to respond to what they’d heard, and left some unanswered questions and issues on the table. Suspicion of the other’s approach to Bible study still creates a rift, Wiebe observed. But working with youth and in mission, he said, is the “pathway forward.”

Suderman responded to Karl Koop’s question from the morning concerning whether denominational schism was in essence sin. Noting the history of conflict and pain evidenced in Dueck’s presentation, Suderman called the notion of churches breaking off for the sake of renewal “an ambiguity we feel in our bones,” given Anabaptism’s split from the larger church. He hinted that a reconciliation of denominations may be a worthy future goal.

—Karla Braun

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