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Kevin McAlary and Laura Klassen painting the canvasses
Since I no longer live in one of the Mennonite “centres” like Winnipeg and Waterloo, I find myself sometimes feeling cut off from the larger Mennonite church. Earlier this month, though, I was sent as a delegate to Mennonite Church Canada’s Assembly, “Dusting Off the Bible for the Twenty-First Century,” which was held in Vancouver. I’d never been to one of these gatherings before, so I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I ended up having a great time, and left feeling refreshed and reconnected to the larger church.
One of the profound moments of the weekend for me happened during worship on the Saturday of Assembly. At the beginning of the service, there were five blank canvasses set up at the front of the worship space, and during the first part of the service, while other things were going on, two artists, a man and a woman, were painting: the branches of a tree began to appear on one canvas, a burning fire on another, the arch of a rainbow on another, and so on. Once they were finished, our attention was turned back to the canvasses as Scripture passages corresponding to each image were read, and they were arranged on a large board in such a way that these seemingly unrelated images came together to form an icon of the face of Christ (see photos, found here). This struck me as a poignant image: not only does it represent the way that the diversity of Scripture comes together to show us God’s face, it also echoes the image of the church as the Body of Christ, and the diversity of gifts, ages, and other aspects of identity in each member that come together to image and embody Christ. There are two forms of diversity that I was especially interested in: the presence and role of biblical scholars and theologians and the involvement of younger adults.
This Assembly was a “study” conference, meaning that Bible study and discussion about how we read, interpret, and live out the Bible were central. It also meant that scholars were visibly involved, with three professors being the main speakers. But despite having this central role, I was struck by the way they undertook this task of teaching the gathered church: it was clear that they didn’t see themselves as imposing their knowledge onto the rest of the church, but as offering their knowledge and skills in service to the rest of the church. All three speakers – Gerald Gerbrandt (the just-retired president of Canadian Mennonite University), Sheila Klassen-Wiebe (New Testament prof. at CMU), and Tom Yoder Neufeld (New Testament prof. at Conrad Grebel University College) – raised this issue explicitly.
Gerald spoke about the problem that scholars have come to be seen as “experts” in the Bible, so other church members leave the interpretation or even the reading of the Bible to them alone. He asserted that all of us are called to live out the unfinished drama that is Scripture in a way that involves “both innovation and consistency.” There is a role for scholars to play, he argued, but it is not to be interpreters on behalf of others, but to participate in “a more joyful and loving immersion in the stories of God and God’s people” since the goal is ultimately “not understanding, but living.” In her two Bible study sessions, Sheila emphasized the importance of reading and interpreting the Bible communally through exploring 2nd Kings 22-23 and Luke 24. I’d never really thought about it before, but of course, the Bible itself contains stories of interpreting the Bible, which can help us think about how to go about it! She spoke of the public reading of the Bible as a renewing of the covenant and as a “corporate meaning-making activity that reminds [people] of who they are and how they are to live.” Unless Bible study involves a “so what?” or an application to our lives and practice of faith, she argued, it remains an academic exercise. Tom highlighted the way Jesus was able to interpret Scripture in such a way that his listeners’ hearts “burned within them” (Luke 24:32), i.e., so that their passion for the Scriptures – or better, for the God they met through the Scriptures – was ignited. For him too, scholars are not the ones imposing their ideas and pronouncements on the rest of the church, but servants enabling everyone to use the Bible together.
This sentiment was also evident in the Being a Faithful Church document 4, which was identified as a “mirror” of responses from “congregations, groups, scholars, and individuals” within MC Canada. This document wasn’t formulated by leaders or “experts” in isolation, but reflects lived theology from across the Mennonite church, gathering together our articulations of how we read and use the Bible. I wasn’t aware of how open this process really is, that everyone is encouraged to respond and participate in the discernment. The BFC Task Force will be requesting more responses within the next four years, as the process moves into discussions of various aspects of sexuality, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been inspired to participate more intentionally in this process.
The other aspect of Assembly that stood out to me was the presence and involvement of younger adults, who were apparently there in record numbers (see this article). I met a number of pastors in their 20s and 30s, as well as delegates (some as young as 19), and a few scholars, too. Still, during the young-adults-only event on Saturday evening, some expressed impatience with the slowness of the process (the fact that we’re not yet discussing sexuality itself), and the feeling that their voices and/or the voices of lesbian and gay people are not being heard by scholars and other leaders. While I understand some of these concerns, others left me wondering if we had attended the same conference all weekend!
It’s true, for some congregations and individuals, it may feel like the process is proceeding painfully slowly. At the same time, though, I can understand the difficulty of trying to get such a diverse group on something of the same page concerning the Bible, which lays the foundation for civilized discussion and balanced discernment. MC Canada could probably have stated some of these assumptions more explicitly, to make sure those new to Assemblies understood the reasons for setting up the process in this way. But it seems to me that it’s also up to young adults to make sure that their views and voices are heard and to take responsibility for participating in this open discernment process (something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, given the hierarchical leadership of many other denominations!). Otherwise, the materials and documents that come out of these processes won’t represent the whole church. But concerns about scholars abusing power seemed pretty unfounded to me, given all the evidence that I’d seen of scholars being so deliberate about serving and not dominating. Maybe the messages about limiting the roles of scholars are at times drowning out the corresponding affirmation of the wisdom, skills, and insights that scholars do bring to the table, as resources that can enrich the discussion for everyone. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, but it corresponds to the precarious yet crucial balances of all forms of diversity in the church. Through such balances, all our voices can be brought together, like those seemingly unrelated paintings, into the communal image and embodiment of Christ, as we move forward as a broader Mennonite body into new theological territory surrounding sexuality and faithfulness.