Churches in the North and South need each other

Larry Miller (r) presents a pottery plate representing communion in the body of Christ to Pastor Trung for the Vietnam Mennonite Church.

Terry Smith, is the editor of the Evangelical Mennonite Church’s magazine, The Messenger, interviewed Larry Miller, general secretary of Mennonite World Conference (MWC), in September. A longer version of this article appeared in The Messenger October 22, 2008.

Larry Miller was quick to point out that though he serves as the representative for MWC, there are people whom, he believes, would be “better faces” for MWC; including two people recently in Canada – a man from Africa, and a woman from India. He went on to explain the importance of MWC for Anabaptists of all stripes – including Canadian MBs.

There are about 1.5 million Anabaptists in the world, and of these about 80 percent (1.2 million) are officially connected with MWC. (Notable exceptions are Old Colony Mennonites, the Hutterites, and the Amish.)

With Anabaptism’s numbers shifting from the North (North America and Europe) to the South (Latin America, Africa and Asia), Miller credits the South as the reason MWC has “moved beyond being primarily an occasional conference to a communion or community of churches that tries to help link the churches in more ongoing, continuing ways.”

The younger churches are “keen” on meeting every six years, he said, but “they also say it is totally insufficient as a way of continuing relationships with one another.” The Southern churches are younger, less “institutionalized” than in North America, and “see a greater need” for contact and joint activity.

Miller said the “median theology” of churches in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is “a kind of evangelical Anabaptist theology.” He thinks it “will keep the world family focused in that way rather than drifting right or left theologically.”

Growing awareness of influence of South

In the past decade, he sees churches in the North developing “a growing awareness” that what happens in the global Anabaptist family depends as much on what happens in the South as in North America and Europe. The role of the North is not only “to do something for them” [the South], he said, but it involves a “growing balance”; the North also needs to receive from the South.

Where does Miller see the relationship between MWC and the individual church conferences, and where does he want it to go? “The strength of the relationship between Mennonite World Conference and any of its member churches,” said Miller, “depends primarily on what the member church wants to make of that relationship” through its leaders and delegates. Each member conference has “important things to bring” to other churches in MWC.

MWC Assembly 15 (Gathered and Scattered): Come Together in the Way of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:1–11) is July 14–19, in Asuncion, Paraguay. Miller projects there will be about 6,000 participants, about the same as in Zimbabwe 2003: 4,000 from Paraguay (indigenous, German, and Latino) and about 2,000 “internationals.”

There is a travel fund to assist with official conference representatives from Asia and Latin America. Others will have to finance their trips, which means “a concentration” will come from North America and Europe, he said. He anticipates a strong contingent from Canada because of connections with Paraguay.

Representing member conferences

How does MWC effectively become involved with political and social crises such as Zimbabwe, Congo, Darfur, Afghanistan, and Iraq? MWC connects with member churches, Miller responded; nothing has happened with Darfur because it has no Anabaptist (Mennonite) churches.

In Zimbabwe, where there are 30,000 Brethren in Christ members, MWC has tried to express that “the rest of the family of faith is standing with” them by sending a Koinonia delegation; by sending (as requested by Zimbabweans) presidential election observers (from southern Africa); by being in discussion with MCC; and, again as requested, by writing a letter of concern to political leaders in Zimbabwe.

MWC also seeks to represent its 97 member conferences by entering into dialogue with other denominations.
A 10-year process of dialogue between MWC and the Roman Catholic church included theological discussions from 1998–2003, a report entitled Called Together to be Peacemakers (forwarded to member conferences for “their responses, their comments, and their concerns”), and a six-member Anabaptist theological delegation to the Vatican in 2007.

There is a limited discussion happening with the Lutheran World Federation about portions of the Augsburg Confession that speak against Anabaptists, Miller said.

Given diverse views of Anabaptists on women and church leadership, how does MWC balance concerns in this controversial area? Miller emphasized that MWC does not guide conferences, but it “encourages member churches who have different views on this to speak to one another.”

The “vitality” of the church in the South is what keeps Miller going as general secretary until the end of his term in 2012. His hope is that the next general secretary will come from the church in the South and that Northern churches would show trust and “say, ‘Well, at last. It’s about time!’”

Terry Smith

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