Lutherans apologise for past persecution of Mennonites and Anabaptists

By agency reporter
October 29, 2009

The governing body of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) has approved a statement that prepares for a significant action of reconciliation with churches of the Mennonite and Anabaptist families.

The statement expresses “deep regret and sorrow” for the legacy of violent persecution of Anabaptists and especially for the ways in which Lutheran reformers supported this persecution with theological arguments.

It asks forgiveness, “from God and from our Mennonite sisters and brothers,” for these past wrongs and also for the ways in which later Lutherans have forgotten or ignored this persecution, continuing to describe Anabaptists in misleading and damaging ways.

The statement then makes commitments to treat with respect remembrance of the violent history of persecution by Lutherans and the manner in which the Lutheran confessional legacy will be interpreted from now on in light of this action.

With the LWF Council’s endorsement, the statement ‘Action on the Legacy of Lutheran Persecution of Anabaptists’ is recommended for adoption at the July 2010 LWF Eleventh Assembly in Stuttgart, Germany.

This LWF action has been based upon the work done by the Lutheran-Mennonite Study Commission, 2005-2009. Their report ‘Healing of Memories: Reconciling in Christ,’ was received by the Council, which commended the Commission for “its thorough and important work.”

Receiving recommendations from the Programme Committee for Ecumenical Affairs today, the Council also agreed that the International Lutheran Council (ILC) is informed about the report and statement, and that ILC’s participation is invited in affirming regret and sorrow over the Lutheran persecution of Anabaptists.

The Council requested the LWF General Secretary to send this report and statement to the LWF member churches for information, study, discussion and possible responses. Both documents would also be made available to pre-assembly delegates for discussion at their meetings.

After the unanimous vote, the Rev Dr Larry Miller, General Secretary of the Mennonite World Conference (MWC), welcomed the action in a spirit of celebration and prayer. The July 2009 MWC Assembly meeting in Asuncion, Paraguay, had warmly received the news that Lutherans might take such an action and had promised to “walk with” Lutherans in their process. Miller said that this request for forgiveness would require that Mennonites also would change.

“You are not applauding for yourselves,” said Miller. “You are applauding for the grace of God in our midst. Mennonites have learned from Lutherans that we are justified by faith alone, because we know that justification produces not only relations between oneself and God but also communion between the churches.”

LWF General Secretary Rev Dr Ishmael Noko congratulated the Commission for its work, and expressed his hope that the Stuttgart Assembly “would be a landmark,” in view of the anticipated action. “Our children will be proud of this day,” Noko remarked. He noted that Lutherans and Mennonites already are working together around the world; this action would move such cooperation to a new level.

Referring to the Mennonite World Conference global gathering in Asuncion, attended by the LWF General Secretary and his assistant for ecumenical affairs, Dr Kathryn Johnson, Noko added, “[We] wept like children in Paraguay when we saw how the Mennonites would embrace us.”

The dialogue reconciliation process began in 1980 during the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, when representatives of Mennonite churches raised questions about how they could join in celebrations of a document which explicitly condemned Anabaptists and their teachings.

In 1980, the LWF Executive Committee expressed sorrow for the pain and suffering caused by the condemnations and called on member churches “to celebrate our common Lutheran heritage with a spirit both of gratitude and penitence.”

In 2002, the LWF Council established the Lutheran-Mennonite International Study Commission in partnership with the MWC.

During its work, the Commission had discovered that the history of persecution consistently intervened in their efforts at theological discussion. Telling the history together would in itself be an act of reconciliation, they declared.

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