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A Mennonite Brethren by any other name

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Names are miserable creatures. I speak from experience. With Toews (pronounced “tayvz”) as a surname, my clan and I spend considerable time explaining our personal disconnect between English phonetics and spelling. “No, it really doesn’t make sense.”
But my name does more than just confuse restaurant hostesses and ticketing agents. It identifies me in both profound and very practical ways.

Practically, I need to be identified. “Mr. Toews, your table is ready.” My name separates me from the crowd in the foyer. That’s a good thing.

Profoundly, my name represents a unique entity. “Mr. Toews” is not just a customer who will eat a meal and may leave a tip behind – he is someone with hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows. “Mr. Toews” represents a life. And not just any life – my life.
And because of the latter, how you use, misuse, or alter my name strikes all kinds of nerve endings. When you use my name you are doing something profound; you are naming a being. The intonation, the prefix you attach or fail to attach, and even the position of my name in a sentence speaks volumes. Mispronunciation is a trivial thing – but I hear it when it’s my name. The curse of phonics!

When my daughter was married she was formally released from her phonetic burden. A year later my son married and his wife took it on. Both the accrual and disposal of a name was layered with ambivalence. It is an ambivalence shared by millions of married women – both those who change their names and those who don’t. Why is it women have been generally asked to change their names? There’s no good answer to that question, just the knowledge that it’s a convention, and that something about it is unsettling.

My grandson has a different “naming” challenge. He was born with one surname, then lived for nine years under the umbrella of another name, and now has been given a third. All this took place without anyone asking his opinion. He, like many of his peers, lives with constant name confusion. While, until recently, he was unaware that his name ever changed, behind the scenes the process was always intense and sometimes painful for the adults involved.

The day will come when he can choose his own name. If he chooses to engage that question he too will have to face the intense and painful conversations that once took place without him.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” cries Juliet. For more that 500 years this cry has been used to capture the frustrations of naming. But her cry is not an insight. It foreshadows the fact that there is no escape from the complications that names bring. She and Romeo will choose to die rather than face these complications.

As Mennonite Brethren we have two complicated names and both call for protracted explanations. Beyond that, we wrestle with what quality or quantity of Anabaptist, evangelical, and now emergent, lies behind our names. Names heaped upon names. And so the debate about what to do with our inherited and given names always creates a high level of energy.

At first Juliet’s implied solution seems appealing. Old names carry old baggage, so why not cast them off like the old wineskins they are. Why drag arcane explanations around? Does a rose need a name for its beauty and fragrance to be enjoyed? Of course not! Let’s just breathe in its fragrance and leave it at that.

And Mennonite Brethren have been shedding their name for several decades now. We were both wearied of explaining its complicated history and ambivalent about the connotation it had in our communities.

We have tried to become nameless but it doesn’t work. We are something – we are Mennonite Brethren. All we have done in this experiment is confuse our communities and ourselves.

We have discussed changing our name. So far that discussion hasn’t taken deep roots, possibly because there is something incongruous about naming yourself but probably also because we instinctively know how hard we will have to work if we even want to seriously talk about our name.

However, unless, like Romeo and Juliet, we choose death, there is no way to escape the name frustration. The acquisition and disposal of names and the pain that goes with this, are part of life. But being respectfully mindful of how deep and complex this process is can’t hurt.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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