Mennonite Church Eastern Canada–a Synopsis of its History

This past weekend (April 28-29, 2017), Mennonite Church Eastern Canada held its 30th annual meeting. It seemed appropriate to reflect on the history of this assimilated Mennonite regional body affiliated with Mennonite Church Canada. I reflected earlier on how this conference differed from its counterparts in the United States.

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The moderators and secretaries signing the merger documents, 1987. Seated (L-R): Robert Snyder (lawyer); Roy Scheerer (WOMC secretary), Ed Epp (UMC secretary), David Kroeker (MCOQ secretary); Standing (L-R): Gerald Good (WOMC moderator), John Cornies (UMC moderator), Lester Kehl, MCOQ moderator). Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo 1992-1-42.

In 1988 three assimilated conferences (Western Ontario Mennonite Conference (WOMC), United Mennonite Churches in Ontario (UMC), and Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec (MCOQ)) merged to form the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada (later Mennonite Church Eastern Canada). At one level this was a logical progression, as the three largest assimilated Mennonite groups in Ontario overlapped geographically and each had lost its distinctive symbols of separation from the larger Canadian society. The boundaries between the Ontario Amish Mennonites and the Mennonites who originated in Pennsylvania had always been porous, even in the 19th century, as they shared many religious and cultural values, cooperated in petitioning government on matters of joint concern, and frequently intermarried. The Mennonites who immigrated in the 1920s had been hosted by these earlier groups for varying periods of time when they arrived in Canada, but their variant historical and cultural experience led them to soon establish their own churches and social communities.

World War II had brought a measure of cooperation among all the Ontario Mennonite groups through the Non-Resistant Relief Organization and the Conference of Historic Peace Churches. Certainly this experience served as a bridge to the cooperation that followed. Four other factors brought these three assimilated groups together. One was the increasing urbanization that sprinkled Mennonites into urban settings that were often disconnected from their traditional communities. Mennonite communities in Kitchener-Waterloo and St. Catharines were still compact enough for members to locate their particular group there. But Mennonites living in Toronto, Hamilton, London, or other urban areas had to commute long distances to find faith compatriots.

The second factor was the emergence of Conrad Grebel University College. The decision of the Mennonite Brethren and the Brethren in Christ to opt out of this project in 1962 left the three conferences that would eventually merge working together on a highly visible and symbolic cooperative project.

The third and most important factor was the renewed emphasis on urban missions. The Valleyview Mennonite congregation in London, Ontario, emerged from cooperation between the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. By 1963 the mission boards of these two conferences had worked out a “policy on cooperative church extension” that also included the United Mennonites. It emphasized mutual respect and acceptance in cases where practice or doctrinal details differed. In 1965 they established an inter-Mennonite mission committee that in 1967 became the Mennonite Mission and Service Board, which had already sponsored a joint service project in Sudbury.

A fourth factor was Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener. This congregation had emerged out of the 1924 division at First Mennonite Church. It joined the U.S.-based Eastern District of the binational General Conference Mennonite Church in 1946. By the late 1960s it seemed more appropriate to nurture Mennonite connections closer to home. It became an early dual-conference congregation by joining both the United Mennonites and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in 1969. Perhaps as much as anything, this initiative stirred discussion on the possible union of some of the Mennonite conferences.

By 1974 an Inter-Mennonite Executive Council (IEC) formed, composed of the three conference moderators and secretaries, the Conrad Grebel College board chair, the chair of the (by then named) Inter-Mennonite Mission and Service Board, and chairs of the joint education committees. Although this group never had independent authority, it attempted to become a clearinghouse for inter-Mennonite activity, sometimes including the Mennonite Brethren.

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Newton Gingrich (standing right), talks with Jesse B. Martin, at the time that Gingrich became moderator of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in 1961. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo 1984-1-229

The individual working hardest for this cooperation was Newton Gingrich, who was moderator of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario from 1961 to 1970 even while he pastored a congregation in the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference beginning in 1966. Despite limited education (he left school at age 13, but eventually completed junior college-level studies at Eastern Mennonite College), he had enormous organizational skills. He chaired the Inter-Mennonite Mission and Service Board beginning in 1970, which put him on the Inter-Mennonite Executive Council. At the time of his sudden death in 1979 he was the strongest advocate for formally merging the three conferences, and he chaired a committee exploring that possibility. His death slowed the merger process since most other conference leaders were more cautious and preferred what came to be called “organic growth” in cooperation.

The path to merger was not smooth. The Western Ontario Mennonite Conference and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario began to share staff positions (conference minister and office staff) and began to hold their annual meetings at the same time and place. This distanced them from the United Mennonite Conference, which had less shared history and was seen by the other two conferences as more independent in its polity and more aggressive in asserting its positions.

This ambivalent state continued until the United Mennonite Conference’s moderator, Ed Janzen, prepared a study paper called “Blowing of the Wind,” which suggested that new urban congregations be permitted to join the joint (unincorporated) Inter-Mennonite Conference (Ontario), which formed in 1974, without having to join one of the three existing conferences. The paper caused a stir among the conference leadership with its suggestion of a fourth super conference, but its recommendations were ultimately dropped.

This seeming retreat from merger outraged the church planting leaders of the three conferences, who felt they were left with unwieldy structures that forced new Mennonites to make unnecessary choices between three similar conferences. In 1984 the three conference executives agreed to take another look, and at a meeting on December 19, 1984, they agreed to move toward an integrated conference that would be launched in 1987.

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The first Executive Secretary and first Conference Minister for MCEC were Peter H. Janzen (left) and Herb Schultz (right). Sam Steiner photo.

Delegates from all three conferences overwhelmingly approved an integration proposal in March 1986. A formal structure was approved in fall 1987, and the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada (MCEC) came into formal existence in February 1988. Congregations were given a six-year period of associate membership in the North American denominations in which they were not already a member, whether the Mennonite Church, the General Conference Mennonite Church, or the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. It was understood they would become full members of the denominations after the associate period. Thus MCEC became the first “dual-conference” regional conference, as discussions began on merging and realigning the denominations, which would take place a little over a decade later.

There were glitches and tensions in the early years of the merger as historical polity differences generated concerns and reactions. The former smaller Western Ontario Mennonite Conference sometimes felt its voice was lost in the larger conference and that its family ethos had been taken away. United Mennonites sometimes believed their congregational autonomy emphasis was threatened by a top-down administrative structure. Also, individual leaders from the United Mennonite background sometimes articulated their views in confrontational language, which was not the style of communication among most of those of Mennonite Church background. A large $6.3 million fund drive for building expansions at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate and Conrad Grebel University College, and for the missions program, fell well short of its goal. But despite these limitations, pastors began serving in congregations without regard to the denominational “lineage” of the pastor or of the congregation. This cultivated a sense of comfort in the new structure.

As Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (as it became known in October 2001) exists in 2017, it has maintained relative health, albeit with a reduced number of program staff and tightening budgetary concerns. Some new congregations emerged, especially in urban settings and non-English contexts. Some church plants provided alternatives to traditional congregational styles, usually without the Mennonite name.

To learn more about Ontario’s 30-plus Mennonite denominations, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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