“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps” (Psalm 137: 1-2).
These familiar words from the Psalmist, cited by Cindy Wallace as she opened the worship of Assembly 2016 in Saskatoon, persisted as a lament throughout the five-day event that brought together more than 500 delegates and congregants from across Canada.
“We gather at a tenuous time,” she empathized, giving voice to the many emotions at the gathering. “We are uncertain about our future as a people. We find ourselves divided over questions that shake us down to our roots. If we are honest, many of us have lost a great deal and risk losing more. Some of us are fearful; others are cynical. Some of us are just tired. Maybe we don’t feel the need to weep, but we’d really like to just sit down for a while.”
Despite our anxieties, though, she asked us to remember and re-live the story and instruction of the people of Israel and Judah who, though negligent in observing God’s law, enter into a “glorious new covenant—the covenant that breaks with tradition and writes God’s law on people’s hearts.”
Drawing parallels to our modern dilemmas, she said that we find ourselves “losing cultural power. We find institutions we thought would carry on indefinitely diminished or even dissolving. To be quite frank, at points we find ourselves not so much captive to a foreign land as captivated by a culture of destruction, distraction and despair. Letting go of how things were—of how we thought things would go on—is painful and costly.”
The theme prevailed throughout the deliberations. We hung up our harps in a myriad of ways as the intense debate on issues that matter deeply resonated around tables and at open-mic sessions. The conversation was forthright but gracious. Opposing views on controversial matters were given in measured, but passionate tones, and were received, appropriately, without applause. The openness of the body was remarkable.
All this did not just happen. It had its roots in strong theological underpinnings articulated by our Egyptian plenary speaker, Safwat Marzouk, assistant professor of Old Testament at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., who insisted that we are part of a “covenantal community where differences are received as a gift, not as a threat, and boundaries are not rigid, but rather porous and mutually negotiated.”
He called on us to move beyond a monocultural or multicultural church, to an “intercultural one” that not only respects difference but creates a space for the interaction of diverse cultural groups within a society.
With this refreshing new vision for a new “covenantal community,” it is little wonder that the body could then take down its harps to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, a settler teaching from ancient times that has marginalized and taken rights away from indigenous peoples for centuries.
It allowed, after seven years of discernment, for the Being a Faithful Church recommendation to receive an 85 percent favourable vote to “create space and test alternatives to traditional beliefs on same-sex relationships,” while acknowledging the 50 negative delegate votes and 23 abstentions as legitimate and part of an ongoing discourse.
It allowed for a 94 percent favourable vote on the “amended” recommendations of the Future Directions Task Force that authorize Mennonite Church Canada to develop more concrete plans to restructure national and area churches into a simpler, more integrated body. These plans will come back to delegates by 2018 or sooner.
It resolved to assist suffering Palestinian Christians, in response to their plea for the “global church to come alongside them as they suffer under Israel’s 49-year military occupation of their lands,” while also acknowledging the suffering of the Jewish people in the conflict.
And in all of the deliberations we did take down our harps to sing our laments and hopes, giving a therapeutic outlet for our sorrow and hopes, not to mention the enthusiastic response to the Glowing Embers Ukulele Band from Bethany Manor in Saskatoon. When under stress, or joy, Mennonites sing—in beautiful four-part harmony.
Dan Dyck of MC Canada says this assembly might be a watershed moment in our history. He may be right. In any case, we should take up the invitation by Wallace to “sing the old songs and also write new ones, to dream together—new dreams, free and bold and childlike. The Lord will create a new thing on earth, as Jeremiah promises.”
See more on Assembly 2016:
Hope through lament and loss (overview)
Decision roundup: Assembly 2016
Ready for God’s response? (focus on speaker Cindy Wallace)
Covenant and law: A matter of relationship (focus on speaker Safwat Marzouk)
The Mennonite Church Canada Assembly 2016 has links to reports, videos, news sheets and more.