I was grateful for the opportunity to attend your biennial meeting in Saskatoon in early July. As always, I was impressed by the creativity expressed in your worship services and the focussed, thoughtful discussions in your business sessions, along with the comic relief I’ve come to expect in your gatherings.
I enjoyed the conversations that took place at my table in English, German and Spanish with fellow fraternal guests hailing from your other “sister” churches in Mexico and Paraguay. I was intrigued by your focus on covenant faithfulness at the assembly and particularly by Safwat Marzouk’s scriptural teaching on covenantal relationships.
Perhaps that’s why my most poignant moment at the assembly came when a delegate publicly lamented the way that Mennonite Church U.S.A. had reneged on the covenant we made with your church at the time we divided into two national bodies. Specifically, he blamed us folks in the U.S. for not keeping our promise to meet in joint assembly with you Canadians every four years. He ended his comments by voicing the hope that MC Canada would initiate an “iron-clad” covenant as you make plans for internal structural rearrangements, implying that a stronger covenant might have forced MC U.S.A. to keep our promises.
I held my tongue, not wanting to prove the adage that “it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak up and remove all doubt.” From a Canadian perspective, the delegate was right and I could only have offered a nuanced explanation. In a brief and friendly exchange with this delegate later, I sensed grace in his ready admission that the expression “iron-clad covenant” was an oxymoron.
By nature, the best relational covenants remain voluntary and adaptive to changing needs. That’s why I can say with confidence, yet with a twinkle in my eye, “My wife has been married to five different husbands, and all of them are me.” In my case, the reverse is also is true; my spouse has experienced so much ongoing personal transformation that I can say, “I have been married to five different wives, and all of them are Bonnie.” In spite of dramatic changes in the way that Bonnie and I have related to each other in 40-plus years of married life, our covenant of marriage remains strong.
I’m pressing this point because I watched with fascination as your delegates in Saskatoon agreed to embark on a dramatic process of redefining and restructuring MC Canada with neither a clear path to follow nor an agreed-upon destination. I commend you for your trust and courage to adjust to your changing realities.
I’m not sure what implications your new process may have for our relationship as a sister denomination, but we intend to remain in covenant with you. Although we haven’t initiated a major structural shift such as yours on the U.S. side, we are rapidly changing, and it’s not clear what we will become. We’ve had plenty of discussion—at times accompanied by acrimonious accusations—that groups within our church have broken covenant with each other or the denomination. The definition and understanding of church covenants is itself a contested matter.
I’m encouraged by the way our two national bodies stay in touch with each other, maintain an up-to-date “Partnership Covenant,” and share resources. I’m grateful for the many documents we hold in common, such as the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, “A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership,” and a large number of resources related to pastors and congregations, including the “Ministerial Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedure.” I sincerely hope we’ll find ways to keep supporting each other.
Finally, I pray that God will watch over your national church with covenant love as you embark on the process of change. May you find hope and joy as you seek to discover God’s preferred future.
Ervin R. Stutzman is the executive director of Mennonite Church U.S.A.