In anticipation of fall semester I have done some reflection on theological tendencies of students at the small liberal arts University I attend. This is what I have noticed:
Fatigue and Complaint:
I don’t exactly know when this shift began, but increasing amounts of students have expressed their fatigue with the lack of “high church” elements in much of Protestant or especially Anabaptist/Mennonite worship. This has resulted in two main courses of action: a) an increasing number of CMU (Canadian Mennonite University) students have begun to regularly attend urban churches (St. Benedict’s Table and St. Margaret’s are popular. And they are fine churches; I don’t want to categorize them as “post-modern” or “alternative” or “emerging church.” That wouldn’t be fair or accurate) with a more local, intimate, community atmosphere and congregation, as well as more authentic(I also have trouble with the authenticity argument here, but I wont go into that in this post) worship (the Eucharist, and Taize influenced music and singing, are among the highlights). And b) an increase in intentionally ecumenical theological reading (theologians such as William Cavanaugh, Rowan Williams, John Milbank & Co. are prominent). Or, perhaps it is this ecumenical reading which has spurred students to reflect and act on the apparent lack of the sacred, the authentic, the sacramental practices in their Anabaptist/Mennonite traditions.
Ecumenicism, Anabaptism, and False Conclusions:
I praise the educationally ecumenical pursuits of the Faculty at CMU, and the ab0ve expression of fatigue is real. However, I think that calling Anglican forms of worship, for example, more authentic than Mennonite ones is not actually true. The problem with the complaint is this: that high church denominations have rituals in which one’s whole body performs and participates in and receives the sacrament. While Mennonites take communion, the ritual is often criticized to be funeral-esque and theologically bland. It is not viewed as a performance or an act. While this might be a common reality, it is not necessarily the way it seems. That is, it does not represent the Anabaptist theology of communion. And that is what is really at stake here. (Not that Anglican worship is full of Eucharistic theology and Anabaptism is not. That is not the proper question. Rather, what is a Mennonite theology of communion?! And what is it’s modus operandi?!) On that note, I want to share a significant story that a professor of mine (Harry Huebner) shared with a class. He writes:
“We were sitting around the dunner table with the meal fully prepared and waiting for Father. But he did not come. I knew that he was sitting in the car talking to someone from church. 12 year olds are impatient especially at meal time and so I pushed Mother to let us eat. She said we should wait. Then I asked her what was so important to talk about that Father would make us wait for dinner. She said, “There’s communion on Sunday.” Full stop! And I knew immediately what that meant. For communion was a concrete right-making act. In other words, two grown men and God were at work in that car, healing what was broken. And impatient hungry boys better not mess with that! This had never been explained to me in any formal way, but I had learned from observation that communion was a three-week event when God was effectively at work at community-building through the liturgy of the church.”
A mere generation ago (and still in some congregations today this is still practiced) communion in the Mennonite church was a practice, a participation between people of making things right before God through. In receiving the reconciliatory power of Christ this was possible. Communion, being practiced 4 times annually (in the majority of Mennonite Church Manitoba churches today) was announced several weeks in advance and the congregation was thus sent on a journey of confession between brothers and sisters in Christ which during the actual communion service later on took them to the last supper table, and foot of the cross itself, where the body of Christ is remembered and received, binding the reconciliation done on earth in heaven also.
My problem, therefore, is certainly not with students attending myriad denominations but rather the basis on which they often do so. What the fatigue with Mennonite worship (at least in Manitoba) and the lament of the lack of the sacred call for is a remembering of various Anabaptist/Mennonite traditions. And considering that perhaps the way things are isn’t the way things have always been…
Winnipeg Mennonite Liturgical Church is an interesting response to this fatigue and they express the called for pursuit well, I think, when they write: “We are rooted in church history and liturgy and are open to learning from other Christian traditions while understanding ourselves as Anabaptist.”