In what Bishop Mark S. Hanson, President of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), described as possibly “the most significant legacy this Assembly will leave,” the Eleventh Assembly of the LWF took the historic step of asking the Mennonites for forgiveness for past persecutions. Delegates unanimously approved a statement calling Lutherans to express their regret and sorrow for past wrongdoings towards Anabaptists and asking for forgiveness.
Hanson described the act of repentance and reconciliation as “communion building and communion defining. “We will not just look back; we will also look towards together to God’s promised future.”
Through the adoption of the statement titled, “Action on the Legacy of Lutheran Persecution of Anabaptists”, Lutherans repented for violent persecution of Anabaptists and for the ways in which Lutheran reformers supported persecutions with theological arguments. The statement asks for forgiveness “from God and from our Mennonite sisters and brothers” for past wrongdoings and the ways in which Lutherans subsequently forgot or ignored this persecution and have continued to describe Anabaptists in misleading and damaging ways.
The statement was based on work done by the Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission, 2005-2009, who produced the report, “Healing of Memories: Reconciling in Christ,” which was approved by the LWF Council in 2009.
Several delegates spoke in favour of adopting the statement. Archbishop Nemuel Babba of The Lutheran Church of Christ of Nigeria told delegates he felt like crying as the full statement was read to the Assembly. “’Forgiveness’ is a difficult word for everyone to pronounce,” he said. “[But] today has marked a milestone for two groups coming together because of the word ‘forgiveness’.”
In introducing the vote, Hanson called on Assembly delegates and others present in the plenary hall to indicate their endorsement of the statement by kneeling or standing in silence. In a watershed moment in the life of the LWF and Lutheran-Mennonite relations, the LWF President announced the statement unanimously endorsed “in a spirit of great humility.”
Mennonite World Conference Responds to Lutheran Repentance
“Today, in this place, we together – Lutherans and Anabaptist Mennonites – are fulfilling the rule of Christ,” said Rev. Dr Danisa Ndlovu, President of the Mennonite World Conference, in an emotion-filled address to the Assembly.
He confessed that Mennonites were painfully aware of their own inadequacy. “We cannot bring ourselves to this table with heads held high. We can only come bowed down in great humility and in the fear of the Lord. We cannot come to this point and fail to see our own sinfulness. We cannot come to this point without recognizing our own need for God’s grace and forgiveness.”
In a symbolic act of reconciliation and servanthood, Ndlovu presented Hanson with a wooden foot-washing tub, saying that it represented the Mennonites’ commitment to a future “when the distinguishing mark of Lutheran and Anabaptist-Mennonite relationships is boundless love and unfailing service.” Ndlovu described how, in some Anabaptist and Mennonite churches, the practice of foot-washing has long been maintained. “It is in our vulnerability to one another that God’s miraculous, transforming and reconciling presence is made visible in the world.”
Accepting the gift, Hanson said, “In this and so many other ways, we will continue to follow [the Mennonite] example, and in this most significant day in our life there may be no more public example of reconciliation.”
Remembering, Forgiveness and Envisioning the Future Together
In a solemn and powerful service of repentance, the LWF Eleventh Assembly, along with members of the Mennonite community, came together to reflect on the painful past that has caused divisions between Lutherans and Mennonites for hundreds of years. The order of service called worshippers to “remember how Anabaptist Christians knew suffering and persecution, and how some of the most honoured Reformation leaders defended this persecution in the name of faithfulness.”
The service, which followed the unanimous approval by the Eleventh Assembly of the statement, “Action on the Legacy of Lutheran Persecution of Anabaptists,” included testimonies by Mennonites about the persecution and its legacies, including the impact on small communities, and the ways in which Lutheran leaders – sometimes against their own best insights – gave theological support to civil authorities who persecuted Anabaptists.
Also providing a testimony was Rev. Dr Larry Miller, General Secretary of the Mennonite World Conference and Co-Secretary of the Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission. He spoke of the power and burdens of the martyrs’ stories within the Mennonite context as they continue to live in contemporary communities. “From the beginning of the movement, Anabaptists interpreted their persecution as a confirmation of faithful Christian discipleship,” said Miller. “Over the centuries and around the world, stories of faithful suffering became a vital shaper of Anabaptist-Mennonite identity.”
Miller confessed that Anabaptist-Mennonite communities are also “in need of healing and forgiveness. In this action between us there is, for Anabaptist-Mennonites also, the promise of release and renewal.”
Following prayers of confession, led by Rev. Dr Ishmael Noko, LWF General Secretary, the service moved into “envisioning the future together” and sowing the seeds of reconciliation and peace. Testimonies were shared on the witness of the promise of cooperation between Lutherans and Mennonites in Columbia, witness to Lutheran interpretation of the Augsburg Confession, which makes explicit the changed relations with Anabaptist Christians, and witness to the promise of new collaborations in Canada.
In their testimonies, Rev. Susan C. Johnson, National Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada, and Janet Plenert, Executive Secretary, Witness, Mennonite Church Canada and Vice-President of the Mennonite World Conference, spoke of how Canadian churches have worked together for years through ecumenical forums in the areas of advocacy, peace, and relief and development.
“Now we feel a call to deepen this relationship,” said Johnson, who described how the two churches have begun to develop a joint congregational resource that will assist in learning more about the shared history between the churches and help to forge new ways of collaboration.
See the Assembly Web site for more information and resources including the theme video for downloading and other video reflections; news stories, features, photos and blog feeds; the handbook, Assembly Updates and Study Materials: www.lwf-assembly.org
About 1,000 people – including 418 delegates from member churches – are participating in the Assembly which takes place in the Liederhalle convention center in Stuttgart. Participants also include invited ecumenical observers, official visitors, interpreters and translators, stewards, members of the LWF staff and co-opted staff, accredited journalists and volunteers. The event is hosted by the Lutheran Church in Württemberg.
The Assembly is the highest decision making body of the LWF, held approximately every six years. The last Assembly was held in Winnipeg, Canada in July 2003 on the theme "For the healing of the world".
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The LWF is a global communion of Christian churches in the Lutheran tradition. Founded in 1947 in Lund, Sweden, the LWF now has 145 member churches in 79 countries around the world, representing more than 70 million Christians. LWF acts on behalf of its member churches in areas of ecumenical and interfaith relations, theology, humanitarian assistance, human rights, communication and the various aspects of mission and development. Its secretariat is based in Geneva, Switzerland.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada is Canada’s largest Lutheran denomination with 152,500 baptized members in 607 congregations. It is a member of the Lutheran World Federation, the Canadian Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.
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