Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Lutheran Repentance at Stuttgart and Mennonite Ecclesial Identity

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Lutheran Repentance at Stuttgart and Mennonite Ecclesial Identity

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Lutheran-Mennonite reconciliation celebrated in 2010 at Stuttgart represents an opportunity for Mennonites to rethink their place within the Body of Christ. This essay warns against interpreting Lutheran repentance as the triumph of the Anabaptist position or vindication of Mennonite denominational identity, dangers that attend to a focus on the Lutheran violence against Anabaptists rather than a shared confession of the disunity of Christians. Analysis of other instances of ecclesial repentance shows how the events at Stuttgart evoke the communion of the saints, call denominational identity into question, and point to God as the true agent of reconciliation. In light of the forgiveness of historical persecutors and as a further step toward the visible unity of the church, this essay concludes by inviting Mennonites to consider whether and how Anabaptist martyrs are witnesses for the entire church.

The repentance for past persecution of Anabaptists enacted by the Eleventh Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (L.W.F.), meeting in Stuttgart in 2010, was a significant event for both Lutheran and Mennonite communions and a notable ecumenical landmark. While the action was not unprecedented, (1) the preparatory work done by various Mennonite-Lutheran dialogues, the high public profile of the Stuttgart assembly, and some of the initial responses render it a notable opportunity for Mennonite church bodies--especially Mennonite World Conference (M.W.C.) and its constituent members--to move into deeper relationships with other Christian traditions. Nevertheless, there is also a danger that Mennonites will receive the reconciliation event at Stuttgart as a vindication and confirmation of the status quo. Though Mennonites have long recognized Lutherans as faithful Christians, the events at Stuttgart may nevertheless foster complacency among Mennonites about the divisions within the Christian church and impede a true transformation of relationships toward visible unity in Christ. However, I will argue that the process of reconciliation that culminated in Stuttgart represents an important opportunity for Mennonites to rethink their place within the Body of Christ and their relationships with other Christian traditions in light of the current divisions. I will develop this claim by examining some of the assumptions reflected at Stuttgart about religious violence, martyrs, and the division of the church and by comparing the commitments of reconciliation that took place there with other acts of ecclesial repentance for historical wrongs.

On July 22, 2010, the Eleventh Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, meeting in Stuttgart, Germany, approved an "Action on the Legacy of Lutheran Persecution of 'Anabaptists'" that expressed regret for sixteenth-century persecutions and the justification of those persecutions by Lutheran theologians. Representatives of Mennonite World Conference responded to this action by invoking the "rule of Christ" (Mt. 18:18-22, "whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,") and presenting a wooden foot washing tub as a gift, a sign of hope that future Lutheran-Mennonite relationships would be characterized by "boundless love and unfailing service." (2) Immediately following this exchange, the assembly convened a service of repentance. Structured in three parts, the service heard testimony about the suffering of Anabaptist martyrs as well as how some Lutheran leaders defended the persecution. The second part consisted of corporate confession, a petition to God for forgiveness, and a ritual in which individuals used oil to make the sign of the cross on the hand of the person sitting next to them. The service concluded with testimonies and prayers for a peaceful future together.

The Stuttgart service of repentance was a culmination of discussions that began three decades earlier in 1980 when Lutherans invited a delegation of Mennonites to participate in the celebration of the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession. …

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