What Have We Learned? I

By Nancy Heisey
President, Mennonite World Conference
Bible and Religion Dept., Eastern Mennonite University

1. Why does it matter?

In a spirit of frankness, I must begin by admitting that some people have asked whether, in light of the limited resources and staff time of Mennonite World Conference, it was worth putting this many years and this much money into the international dialogue between the Pontifical Council and MWC. The places outside North American where Mennonites have the most intimate relationship with Catholics (churches throughout Central and South America, Italy) are also the places where delegates to MWC’s General Council raised the most animated concerns about the dialogue.

Other concerns press us. Among many other Mennonite churches, issues of survival as Christian minorities, or of economic survival, or of how to relate to the burgeoning neo-Pentecostal movements all around them, play a much more central role. The imprisonment of Mennonite leaders in Vietnam (there is an awareness, at least among the leaders, that similar struggles face Vietnamese Catholics), the impact of the U.S. funded “Plan Colombia,” the demolitions in Zimbabwe lead to calls for MWC to play a central role in advocacy and information sharing in those settings. Mennonite women want MWC to put more energy into pushing church leaders to make space for theological education for women, and space for them to provide leadership to the churches. People for whom our three official languages, English, Spanish and French, are second or third languages want MWC to work harder at providing more adequate translation of materials and for meetings.

Mennonites, and MWC in particular, need to do more work on the reasons that make the Menno-Catholic dialogue significant to churches around the world, and find better ways to communicate that among Mennonites in the pews.

2. What history?

To almost all of Mennonites outside of North America, (except for a few who work at advanced levels of theological education) events and issues of the 4th century Mediterranean may seem irrelevant if not very far away. It is not that history is irrelevant, at all. But for most Mennonites, historical questions are about their own historical pasts, whether recorded in traditional western forms or not, and how those pasts affect and intersect with their choices to become part of the Christian community. So the traditions concerning the origins of their ancestors, or the religious-political-ethnic history of China, or the reality of the African slave trade, or the relationship between the Reconquista in Spain and the conquistadors in the so-called New World, might all seem like much more relevant history to consider for many.

Further, Mennonite theological education in settings where churches grew, either from missionary efforts or from indigenous movements, came to the topic of church history lately. We must also admit that the “15 centuries of shared history” referred to in para. 26 of the final report were probably never mentioned as Mennonite missionaries developed concern for presenting church history in developing theological education venues. In some cases, the church history taught was of the generic American evangelical variety-Jesus and Paul, triumph of Christianity, Protestant Reformation, missionary movement. Recently some Mennonites in the global south have criticized the way northern Mennonites taught church history because northerners did such a poor job of communicating about our own particular sixteenth-century history. In other contexts, much as we were learning to do through adherence to the “Anabaptist vision” emerging among northern Mennonites after WW II, our story leaped from Jesus and Paul, to Conrad Grebel and Menno Simons and then to our own missionary movement, which took form beginning in the very early 20th century. For Mennonites in the global south, the Anabaptist vision has taken on the most significance among those facing their own particular contexts of suffering, hence, for example, in Central America during the guerrilla wars, or in Colombia in the ongoing context of extreme violence and threats to their own survival.

It is also true that in settings where the Catholic presence is strong or dominant, Mennonites see their own history of coming to active Christian faith, as they or their parents faced stiff resistance from local or regional Roman Catholic leaders, in light of the 16th century European history. They may have a more active memory of Catholic-Mennonite conflict than do northern Mennonites, a reality which sustains para. 61, when it articulates Mennonite doubt that Catholics do not believe in coercion in matters of faith.

Using analogical methods, however, the questions and lessons of Christian history in the Mediterranean and medieval Europe could become of greater interest to Mennonites in various parts of the world. Perhaps open conversations with Catholics regarding the ways that churches intersect with the public good as it is provided for or neglected by governing authorities may also be fruitful.

The observations in para. 65–66 about discipleship traditions (“holy living in word and deed”) emergent in medieval European Christianity could provide fruitful insight to those developing new material for theological education. In the matter of liturgical expression, it is harder to see how the medieval tradition as it is usually represented in western thought relates to the spiritual forms that are ascendant in most southern Mennonite churches. However, the signs and wonders described in the Life of Lioba of Bishofsheim, or the description by 17th-century Jesuit Jerome Labo of Ethiopian Christians singing psalms with much clapping and dancing, seem of direct significance. The latter example also serves as a strong reminder that there are Christian histories and theologies that do not follow a western trajectory, and that they too may provide fruitful ground for reflection of southern Christians, both Catholic and Mennonite.

3. What church?

One of the jokes that people like to make when they learn that I am president of MWC is to call me the Mennonite pope. Everyone knows that this is hilarious, and not first of all because I am a woman, or even that I am a layperson (which, I assume would be the reasons this would be funny for Catholics). The humor is in the idea that anyone could have any kind of central authority over the diverse list of 95 or so communities that make up the MWC family in 50 countries. In contrast to the idea expressed in para. 79, “the bishop of Rome has the office of ensuring the communion of all the Churches and hence is the first servant of unity,” one of the questions that is frequently asked in MWC circles is, “What (not who) exactly is it that hold us together?” This is a particularly poignant question when added to it is the matter of whether there is anything that is distinctively “us” that goes beyond or is different from that which characterizes all Christians.

The reality is that Anabaptist-Mennonite history is a fissiparous one, whether the issues at stake are theological, ethnic, or economic. This characteristic of the ancestors (our practical tradition) may have had more impact in the shaping of the global Mennonite reality than the tradition of the “Anabaptist vision,” with its images of peace, community and discipleship. Take, for example, the reality that more than 20 different Mennonite groups exist in Haiti, and not one of them is a member of MWC.

A second major challenge facing Mennonites in the 21st century is to understand that our koinonia is “global”-a term that is related to but not synonymous with “catholic.” It has been enough of a question for Mennonites in the U.S. and Canada, or between North America and Europe, to determine how much we trust each other and are willing to work together. Indeed, from 1925 to 1962, MWC leaders did not feel safe in offering a shared communion service at MWC assemblies. Adding in the economic and ethnic issues of a global fellowship make things more difficult.

A new gesture of MWC is to develop a brief statement of “shared convictions,” currently in draft, which will be brought to the MWC General Council next March. How these convictions may and will be used, if adopted, is not yet clear (copies of the draft available at I know that some members or interested parties within Mennonite circles are very nervous about MWC playing this role. The discussion promises to be interesting; I must admit that I fear some member churches threatening to withdraw from the fellowship if the “shared convictions” do not reflect their theological understandings adequately.

Thus in my view the very brief paras 108 and 110 regarding catholicity and ministry are among the important challenges for our common future. Whether our differences are too extreme to make comparative conversation helpful I am not sure. However, despite the enormous problems I perceive in the contemporary exercise of authority in Roman Catholic hierarchy, I wonder if a deeper look into understandings of catholicity would help Mennonites to develop some new approaches to leadership and authority in the future.

On that matter, it is important to note that the authority and power of the pope was one of the central concerns raised among General Council delegates in relationship to the Catholic Mennonite dialogue. The other two issues raised in MWC meetings were Catholic teachings on Mary and the place of images in worship. I know the question of Mary was discussed by the representatives to the dialogue and deliberately left off the table. I am not sure what language was used, but as I recall the Catholic participants to the dialogue did not see this matter as definitive. It must be noted, nevertheless, that for many Mennonites familiar with Catholicism, the role of Mary and the use of images are what Catholic practice looks like to them, and what they see themselves as separating themselves from. Thus in a global context, if the dialogue is to continue, somewhere, someplace, these questions should be broached.

4. How peace?

Most Mennonite peace theology of the 20th century was worked out in conversation with governments established in the western democratic tradition, however well or poorly that tradition was lived out. More than half of the world’s Mennonites today live in the global south, with a variety of governmental structures, some of which (we could debates which ones and how many of them) give some or perhaps little attention to that tradition. I believe this is also true of Catholics. To my mind the questions in para. 189 are critical, especially question 4, “How can we meet the challenge of developing common theological perspectives on peace that reflect the diverse voices of men and women from different contests world wide?”

It is in situations of conflict (potential or full blown) and injustice that Mennonites and Brethren in Christ (this is my sub-tradition) have found the most common ground with Catholic sisters and brothers. Mennonites in Indonesia, for example, have responded warmly to opportunities for fellowship and common peace witness with Catholics. Mesach Krisetya, my predecessor as president of MWC, never had any doubt about participating in events such as the pope’s Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi because, as he explained to me, “We have to work together in Indonesia. As part of the Christian minority we need each other.” It is significant that it is also in Indonesia that Mennonites in certain local contexts have worked closely with Muslim leaders at peace-building activities.

Similarly, Brethren in Christ (BIC) in Zimbabwe have expressed gratitude for decades at the outspoken voices of Catholics, first in the Zimbabwe Bishops Conference and most recently in the words of Bulawayo Archbishop Pius Ncube, critiquing the violent policies of Zimbabwe’s leaders. (It has also helped relationships that Archbishop Ncube was born in a BIC hospital-so the extended kin network works everywhere!)

From the perspective of the “unity of the human family” that is referred to in para 189’s sixth question, it would be a blessing, I believe, if the Roman Catholic Church could articulate a different position on contraception, one that would allow a more helpful response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The power of size and authority that Catholics have used for justice and peace in other settings could make it possible for Mennonites and other Christians to openly work toward wider human solutions to this long-term devastation.

While the question of just war (187) is important, I believe that just peace issues in our globe are much broader than ways in which war is traditionally understood. I don’t think it harms the cause of peace-building to include serious conversation about true just war thinking in the mix. But I believe that economic and environmental violence, in which most northern Christians of all stripes are ensnared, offers us the bigger and more significant challenge for further theological reflection and Christian action
As I mentioned briefly before, the identity that draws many Mennonites in the global south is one closer in style and theological understanding to what has been called by many names, but may be recognized as having Pentecostal character. In that setting, it seems to me that an essential gift that Mennonites have to offer is both the historical Anabaptist peace tradition and the contemporary struggle to give the witness to Christ’s way of peace in many different settings. However, this gift is one I have no interest in guarding for my theological tradition. The more Christians following Christ’s way of justice and peace, the better.