What will be the tenor of the conversation at Assembly 2016 in Saskatoon? Writing this 12 days before more than 500 delegates and denominational leaders gather to consider multiple heavy issues, we can only imagine.
We hope the scriptural theme for the event is a good starting point. The word from Jeremiah can be foundational to the many words that will be spoken: This is the covenant. . . . I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. This is a valuable reminder that, despite our diversity, our differing opinions, our standing, our nationality or ethnicity, we are a “covenant people” committed to each other as the people of God. That is a matter of the heart, not of words.
So what are the dangers of this covenant breaking down post-assembly? In a post-Christendom digital environment, a coarsening dialogue can quickly develop despite our best intentions. Here are four potential dangers that can undermine our “covenant”:
• Talking past each other. The intense issues on the agenda for resolution, such as sexuality and future directions for Mennonite Church Canada, have already triggered conversations from deeply held beliefs. We can come into these discussions with our guard up; with a resolve not to be swayed by the debate; to speak persuasively and passionately from our point of view, so as to inform those who, in our view, are less-informed. Unfortunately, that stance only deepens divisions during and after the discussion.
It ignores the diversity of the “people of God.” We are no longer a homogeneous group, indeed if we ever were. We come from different backgrounds and have different histories. We are Russian Mennonites, Swiss-German Mennonites and new Canadians from dozens of countries around the globe. We are academics, factory workers, entrepreneurs, students, farmers, pastors, parents, computer programmers, oil workers and those working in “green” industries. A better way to go is to listen intently to the words of the “other,” to gain a better understanding. That’s the style of “covenant people” with the Word of God written on our hearts.
• The gap between leaders and delegates. It is no secret that there occurs over the life of religious institutions a certain lingo and language by leaders that is understood among fellow-leaders but can amount to generalities and self-preservation to the ears of the laity. The risk is that, as the gap grows, the understanding of the issues can become muddled, resulting in the creation of camps of like-minded persons to react negatively to what they perceive as mostly “spin.” It begins to be seen as protection of the establishment and ignoring the “will of the people.”
A good example of this is the pushback experienced by the Future Directions Task Force on its final recommendations. With only a six-month window for discernment among the five area churches and their congregations, there rather quickly arose a critique of doing away with our international mission outreach, a serious question about the vitality of local congregations taking on the work and vision of MC Canada, and wondering how our national identity as Anabaptist Mennonites would be nurtured and maintained.
• Talking in the parking lot . . . or in the corridors and hallways. Rather than conduct the debate in an open forum, many resort to sharing their innermost thoughts in clusters of the like-minded out of earshot of the larger group, and oftentimes in a grumbling fashion. While that may get things off our chest, it doesn’t help the “body” come to productive resolution, so that we can move on in unity, if not total agreement. This may be from the heart, but it doesn’t serve well the “covenant.”
Delegates should have the courage, both before and after the debates, to express their thoughts in a public way, but with humility in knowing that theirs is one viewpoint among many of those who are also “covenanted in their hearts.”
• Taking attacks to social media, this being the worst possible outcome of a debate. While the Internet has opened up greater opportunities for free speech, it is becoming one of the curses of this open-ended communication tool for many. Our sister publication in the U.S.—The Mennonite—has just declared a 30-day moratorium on online comments because of their vitriol regarding the sexuality issues tearing at the fabric of that communion.
We, as a covenanted people, are better than this. We are hoping and praying that the conversation during and after Assembly 2016 will be exemplary as a people with the Word of God “written on our hearts.”
See another editorial on Assembly 2016: “Assembly: Pray for grace.”