The next two churches that I visited were a very different experience for me because I intentionally visited churches that I knew would push the envelop for me. I chose churches that are more conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist Christian. It took me a while to build up the inner strength to do so. But I got there, at least I hoped so. My hope was to be able to attend more as an observer, almost as a cultural anthropologist, there to learn.
6) Sunday, February 5th. Meadow Brook Fellowship (Mennonite Brethren), Leamington, Ontario Canada. Usually when I go home to visit my family, I attend the church I grew up in, Faith Mennonite. My parents switched our family to this church in the late 1970s because it was the most liberal Mennonite church in our area. Women could preach, pray, serve communion, vote at congregational meetings, and serve on church council. It was also theologically progressive. There was just a lot more room. I go now because I know so many people and they love me. Many of them also came to our wedding, which was a tremendous gift to me and my family, because we weren’t sure who would come.
But this time, I decided that in the spirit of sabbatical, I would go to a Mennonite church I had never attended, the Mennonite Brethen Church. Let me give some context. In the Russian Mennonite immigrant community that I grew up in, which was formed by two waves of refugees fleeing the Soviet Union, there were two kinds of Mennonites – the United Mennonites and the Mennonite Brethren – the result of a politically and emotionally charged divisive split 19th century in the Mennonite colonies in the Ukraine. The Mennonite Brethren split from the United Mennonites, saying the latter had become complacent luke-warm Christians. There was probably some truth to that The MBs were reform spirited and highly influenced by the movement called Pietism, which emerged in Germany. The split was explosive. The United Mennonites did not recognize the Mennonite Brethren and vice versa. They did not recognize each other’s baptism, would not serve each other communion, and viewed intermarriage between the two groups as a bad thing.
I grew up in the United Mennonite Church and from a very early age learned that we were not like “those MBs.” When I asked what the difference was, the answers ranged from “they’re louder than we are,” to “they are more fundamentalist and evangelical.” It took until the 1980s in Canada for intermarriage between the groups to be considered kind of o.k. Even among the older generations, there is still tremendous resistance. However, things have gotten better. The United Mennonites now recognize the baptisms of MBs and will serve them communion if they come to UM worship services. However, it has not gone the other way. MBs do not recognize UM baptisms, saying they aren’t real because they aren’t full immersion. MBs do the immersion thing. UMs do the sprinkling thing.
So, I decided to go to the MB church to see for myself. A few interesting notes before I even start talking about my visit. MBs have been heavily influenced by the American Evangelical Movement. They are highly focused on conversion. Some MB churches are getting rid of the term “Mennonite” in their names because they feel it is bad branding. It prevents them from evangelizing. The church in Leamington changed its name from the Mennonite Brethren Church to the Meadow Brook Fellowship, still has the MB in the name but not the actual word “Mennonite.”
I called ahead to see if there was a difference between the 9:30 and 11:00 service. No, they were the same. I arrived as late as I could, hoping no one would recognize me. In Leamington there is no anonymity and I am known by some as the one who caused a ruckus when I decided to have a gay marriage. (And I think to myself, I caused the ruckus by wanting to get married? Maybe they caused the ruckus by having a problem with it!) Anyways, I digress. I just wanted to be invisible because I know the MB church is very against homosexuality. And they are against women’s ordination. They ordained women for a short while until the late 1980s or early 1990s, and then reversed their decision and unordained all women and forbade further ordinations.
I arrived for the 11 a.m. service to a full sanctuary. I was given the bulletin which did not have an order of service, but rather announcements about the coming week’s activities. The windows were blocked out and at the front were two large flat screens that offered a countdown to when worship began, kind of like what you see on TV New Year’s Eve. It was three minutes and 20 seconds to worship when I sat down. The usher must have realized I was a guest and welcomed me warmly and started witnessing to me. She was very kind about it and I appreciated the experience. When the stopwatch hit “0:00” the band began to play. They were good and played Christian contemporary worship music. We all stood and sang three songs over the course of 25 minutes, with the lyrics projected overhead. I don’t think anyone in the band was older than 35. As I looked around the sanctuary, it was hard to find many people over the age of 50. Sometimes people would raise their arms as they sang. I wish I had written down the lyrics. The first song was all about comfort. “Jesus is here for me. He holds me and loves me. There is nothing he can’t do and therefore nothing I have to fear.” The later songs were about glorifying God. “You are the strongest, the highest, the most mighty, the most powerful. You are our God. We will worship you. You are our Lord and our Ruler and we give you everything.” That kind of stuff. There was a prayer and the offertory, followed by another song, and then the sermon, which lasted about half an hour.
This, of course, is what I was most interested in. The focus was on the second and third books of Leviticus, one of the books of the law. The minister started with a story from his own life, of when he went to France and visited all these cathedrals, and he said that Leviticus is like a cathedral, filled with detail, and you can see its beauty when you step back and see it in its entirety. Don’t be scared by the detail, it all makes sense. These two chapters are about how to make a proper sacrifice, and his point was to show how both chapters show how God expects to receive our best, not our second best, not what’s left over at the end of the day, but our best, because he is who gave it to us in the first place. He didn’t give a lot of details about what it was we were to give, but he hinted at money. And also at lifestyle, etc. All in all it wasn’t too bad, actually.
Then something changed. On this Sunday they were holding communion, and the minister clearly stated, “This communion is not for everyone.” and then he gave the conditions you had to meet in order to take communion. You had to be in a right place with God. You had to accept Jesus Christ as your ruler and sovereign. You had to accept that Jesus died because of your sins and for your sins. You had to accept you were a sinner.
I often take communion in Christian churches because I can very easily translate what is being said into my Unitarian Universalist theology. I went to a Christian seminary and trained as a chaplain in a Catholic hospital. I encountered many different forms of Christian communion and came to deeply appreciate it, especially if I was partaking with people I knew and cared about.
I decided I would not participate in this communion. First of all, I really didn’t fit their criterial. I might have been able to translate their terms, but that would not have been welcome at this church. I may disagree with their theology, but as a church they have the right to decide who takes their communion and who doesn’t. They explicitly articulated this in order to set boundaries and I was going to respect them. Secondly, I found myself not wanting to affirm that kind of exclusion. I don’t believe that communion is only for when you are “right with God.” I believe communion can be and should be a healing process in itself. We are wanted and needed at the table even when we make mistakes, even when our hearts are troubled, and sometimes, I think this is especially when we should be welcome, because isn’t it when we are at our lowest, at our most vulnerable, that we most need to be welcome at the sacred table of communion?
This is actually quite personal for me. My grandfather had a brother whose wife left him. We have some ideas of why she left, and it was probably best for her and the children. But the impact on him was horrible. The Mennonite community at that time saw divorce as one of the greatest sins and he became a marked man. His personal life was one of constant torment and guilt. Several times he checked himself in to a mental asylum for shock therapy to try and rid himself of the demons in his mind. My father had a special place for him in his heart and my uncle would often simply drop in and come into the house even if we weren’t home. We would find him in the living room playing guitar, and then he would start reciting poetry – German and English – often for hours at a time. He had so much to say and he couldn’t use his own words, so he used song and poetry to speak of his life and beauty he wished to touch and couldn’t.
My uncle would not take communion. He did not believe he deserved it because he was a marked man and not worthy of the bread and wine. He did not take communion until his wife died, 40 years after she left. Only at that time, did he consider himself forgiven, because now he was a widower, not a divorcee. Then, he took communion.
So you bet I take it personally when there is a deliberate attempt to exclude, to say some people aren’t good enough Christians, or don’t believe the right things about Jesus, or “aren’t right with God.” Who are we to say who is right with God and who isn’t? Who are we to deny anyone a seat at the table? Who are we to say who is worthy?
The MBs certainly have a right to decide who gets and doesn’t get to take communion, but those of us who disagree also have the right to speak to the damage this practice does to ordinary people, to ordinary women and men who are being denied the experience of a ritual that was intended to bring people together in the spirit of love, not separate them into the damned and the saved.
Alright, so what did I learn? For all that made me uncomfortable, I couldn’t help noticing how young the gathering was and how many men there were. Most mainline churches are filled with older women. Not that there is anything wrong with older women. I’m going to be an older woman. But we don’t have a lot of younger people or men in our pews. What does this church have that we don’t? The contemporary music is a big part of it and one reason why I worked over the course of 5 years to get a worship band at Emerson. If you are going to be relevant, if you’re going to have a future, you have to speak to the upcoming generations in their language, and part of that language is music. Our congregation is a lot younger for it. At the same time, you can’t overlook the needs of your elders. I learned after the fact that Meadow Brook just had a big split. Is there a reason I see so few elders in the congregation? Did they just decide to write them off? Sometimes I worry that I, as a young minister, have not spoken as well to my older members as the younger ones. How important it is to treasure the voice of experience and tradition and wisdom. Some of our elders have left as well. Sometimes partings need to happen, but I will be thinking for some time to come if the ones that happened in my congregation could have been averted with a bit more sensitivity. We must look to the future, but not at the risk of alienating our present.
There were also a lot of men. Why is that? I think that became clearer at the next service I visited, back in Ellisville MO.