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2009-11-17 issue:

Lutherans express regret for persecution

World Federation statement addresses the way Anabaptists were treated.

by Ferne Burkhardt

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The Council of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) has taken another critical step toward reconciliation with Anabaptists.

At its October meeting near Geneva, Switzerland, the council unanimously recommended that the LWF 11th Assembly adopt the statement "Action on the Legacy of Lutheran Persecution of 'Anabaptists'" when it meets in Stuttgart, Germany, in July 2010.

The Lutheran World Federation  Council approves the statement "Action on the Legacy of Lutheran Persecution of Anabaptists." Photo by H. Putsman Penet.

The statement expresses "deep regret and sorrow" for the 16th-century violent persecution of Anabaptists by Lutherans. It asks for forgiveness from God and from Mennonites for past wrongs done to them, for having forgotten or ignored this persecution and for continuing to describe Anabaptists in damaging ways.

The statement also speaks to how Lutherans will remember this persecution and how the Lutheran confessional legacy will be interpreted in the future.

This action comes in response to the work of the Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission, established in 2002. The joint commission's report, based on its work from 2005 to 2009, and the LWF council's action will be sent to Lutheran churches for discussion and response before the 2010 assembly.

Larry Miller, Mennonite World Conference (MWC) general secretary, a guest at the Geneva event, welcomed the action "in a spirit of celebration and prayer."

He brought greetings from the 15th MWC assembly in July, when 6,200 Anabaptists from around the world gathered in Asunción, Paraguay. Ishmael Noko, LWF general secretary, and Kathryn L. Johnson, assistant general secretary for ecumenical affairs, brought news of the expected move toward reconciliation to the Paraguay assembly.

Miller told the Lutheran council that the message Noko delivered was "one of the most sacred moments of that assembly."

Lutherans are not the first Christian world communion to address the execution and persecution of Anabaptists by Christian authorities, noted Miller.

“But the honesty, carefulness and compassion with which you are doing so seems to touch the Mennonite heart in a way I have not previously seen,” he said.

"The air was electric with anticipation," said Ronald J. Mathies, who went on to describe 'the drama that was unfolding on the stage at Assembly 15." Mathies is interim president of Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., and a former executive director of Mennonite Central Committee.

"Pray that further significant steps toward reconciliation will take place," he said.

Rainer Burkart from Germany said he felt thankful "that God has brought together ... two churches that have resulted from the turmoils of the European Reformation."

Burkart is cochair of the International Study Commission and a member of both the MWC Executive Committee and the MWC Faith and Life Commission. He sees two main differences between Lutheran and Anabaptist faith and practice: baptism and matters concerning church and state relations, including the use of force for humanitarian purposes.

These two issues will be on future agenda for MWC’s Faith and Life Commission, he said.

Burkart served as secretary in the conversation between the Lutheran and Mennonite churches in Germany from 1989 to 1993. The German dialogue resulted in a declaration of mutual Eucharistic fellowship.

He said the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Mennonitischer Gemeinden, one of two MWC member churches in Germany, does not require rebaptism when Lutherans transfer to Mennonite congregations. Other dialogues have occurred in France and the United States.

MWC officers met in Ontario in early November to draw conclusions from the International Study Commission joint report and the decisions made by the LWF council.

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