US Lutherans apologise to Mennonites and other Anabaptists for past persecution

The coordinating body of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has publicly rejected past statements attributed to early Lutheran church reformers and expressed “its deep and abiding sorrow and regret for the persecution and suffering visited upon the Anabaptists during the religious disputes of the past.”

The Church Council, which met last week, is the ELCA’s board of directors and serves as the legislative authority of the church between churchwide assemblies. It will next convene from 6-11 August 2007.

The council acted because past statements have become problematic for the ELCA’s present-day relationships with the Mennonite Church USA and other Christians who trace their heritage to the 16th century Anabaptist reformers, according to the council’s background materials.

In the action, the council declared that the ELCA “repudiates the use of governmental authorities to punish individuals or groups with whom it disagrees theologically.”

It rejected the arguments of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, two 16th century church reformers, “in which they hold that governmental authorities should punish Anabaptists for their teaching,” the action said.

The council’s action repudiated similar statements in the Formula of Concord and declared that condemnations in the Augsburg Confession directed at the Anabaptists do not apply to today’s Mennonite Church USA. The Formula of Concord and Augsburg Confession are among the Lutheran confessions written in Europe in the 16th century.

Finally, the council said condemnations in the Augsburg Confession related to Anabaptist baptismal faith and practice and participation in the police power of the state “are properly the subject of future conversation between our churches.”

The Rev Joseph G. Crippen, chair of the council’s program and services committee, Northfield, Minnesota, introduced the proposal to the council.

“This is incredibly well done and has been received well by the Mennonite Church,” he said. “We have to honour our confessions, but we have new realities we have to address.”

“The purpose of the declaration is, first, to apologize for the persecution of the Anabaptists who are the forebears of the Mennonite Church in the USA and around the world, and also to acknowledge that the situation of the 16th century no longer applies in the 21st century,” said the Rev Randall R. Lee, executive, ELCA Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Affairs, in an interview with the ELCA News Service.

“The condemnations that are contained in the Lutheran confessions may have been very important at that time, but have receded in their importance for this time and in the future.”

Lee explained that the importance of the declaration now is that it will provide a foundation for international conversations between the Lutheran World Federation and the global Mennonite community. “Our action will provide energy to that conversation in the hopes of furthering our work together,” he said.

The Rev Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, added that the council’s action reflects “wonderful, collaborative work” that will move the ELCA forward ecumenically while it retains its integrity as a confessional church.

There have also been global talks between Mennonites and Roman Catholics recently. In the 1980s there was a dialogue between Mennonite representatives and the Church of England.

During the Reformation Anabaptists, who dissented both from Catholicism and state Protestantism, were harassed, imprisoned and killed for their beliefs – including freedom of religious profession, believers’ baptism, holding goods in common and non-resistance.

Today Mennonites, along with Quakers and the Church of the Brethren, constitute the ‘historic peace churches’, and are well known for their witness to the way of Jesus, nonviolence and biblical patterns of social justice.

There is one Mennonite congregation in the UK, at Wood Green in North London. But Mennonite ideas have been influential through the work of the London Mennonite Centre and the Anabaptist Network UK.

LMC’s book service, Metanoia, works in partnership with Ekklesia. All are linked through the Root and Branch Network.