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Lutheran statement expresses 'deep regret' for Anabaptist persecution

Ferne Burkhardt - 10/30/09


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

At its October meeting near Geneva, the council unanimously recommended that the LWF Eleventh Assembly adopt the statement "Action on the Legacy of Lutheran Persecution of 'Anabaptists'" when it meets in Stuttgart, Germany in July 2010. 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 LWF Council approves the statement "Action on the Legacy of Lutheran Persecution of Anabaptists." Photo by H. Putsman Penet.

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 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 when 6,200 Anabaptists from around the world gathered in Asunción, Paraguay in July. 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.

LWF President Bishop Mark S. Hanson speaks a prayer of thanksgiving and blessing for the journey of reconciliation between Lutherans and Mennonites. Larry Miller of MWC stands on the right.  Photo by H. Putsman Penet.

Miller told the Lutheran council that the message Noko delivered was "one of the most sacred moments of that assembly." Noko's words, his conciliatory spirit and expression of hope to walk with Anabaptists on a path of healing and reconciliation brought the entire assembly to its feet. People wept.

The same thing happened the previous day when Noko and Johnson addressed the General Council, MWC's governing body.

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.

Noko's message in Paraguay continues to command attention around the world and is frequently reported in churches and in the North American Anabaptist press.

"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, Ontario, Canada and a former executive director of Mennonite Central Committee.

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

Dominant emotions at the Geneva LWF council meeting for Rainer Burkart from Germany were joy and thankfulness "that God has brought together ... two churches that have resulted from the turmoils of the European Reformation."

Burkart is the co-chair 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 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 1989-1993. The German dialogue resulted in a declaration of mutual Eucharistic fellowship. He said that 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 who will meet in Ontario in early November will begin drawing conclusions from the International Study Commission joint report and the decisions made by the LWF council. They will consider sending the report to MWC member churches for study and response and undertaking discernment on issues raised by the report especially around baptism as well as further dialogue with the LWF. The officers will also consider how to acknowledge a request for forgiveness, should it come from the LWF Assembly in 2010, with granting mutual forgiveness in a spirit of reconciliation and humility as the goal.