Monday, May 19, 2008

French Mennonite Conference, May 17-18, 2008, Villeneuve le Comte and Hautefeuille

I was privileged to observe this weekend's meeting of delegates to the Association des Eglises Evangeliques Mennonites de France. Many of the conference's 31 churches are in or near the Alsace, but this meeting was unusual in that it was hosted by the three congregations located in the greater Parisian area. The delegates met both at a new church in Villeneuve le Comte and at Domaine Emmanuel in the tiny village of Hautefeuille, about 40 minutes east of Paris. Domaine Emmanuel was an ambitious project begun jointly by the North American Mennonite Board of Missions and French Mennonites about 40 years ago in order to offer suitable assistance and dignified living conditions to adults with mental difficulties. This establishment is now fully supported by public funds, but still seeks to maintain an unofficial relationship to the French Mennonites.

Although there were similarities with Mennonite conference sessions in Canada, there seemed to be a number of interesting differences. For example, since delegates gather twice a year in France, the budget can be fully considered by them in two distinct stages (the proposed budget is presented to the delegates in November and in May they verify the previous year's accounts). Delegates are expected to take proposed budgets back to their congregations, which will discuss how much they can contribute. Congregations (or their councils) instruct their delegates how to vote, and delegates are expected to honour those instructions. Last year, when the conference wished to reach a truly major decision, it took the additional step of asking each congregation to discuss the issue fully and have all members vote (which recalled a somewhat similar recent debate on a different issue within the Conference of Mennonites in Canada). I also noticed that although the business sessions were populated primarily by Mennonites of French origin, Sunday's worship was more interracial. My sense is that immigrants to France are expected to learn French (or they have come from former French colonies), can more easily integrate with the French-speaking congregations, and are not seeking to create their own congregations for linguistic reasons.

Sessions also provided opportunities to hear brief but interesting reports on conference-related projects, recent publications and on summer retreat opportunities (e.g., Bienenberg, a Mennonite/Anabaptist centre in Switzerland which offers courses and retreats). If time permits, some semiannual gatherings feature the activities of one congregation. The Eglise Evangelique Mennonite de Chatenay Malabry was highlighted this time. This type of reporting helps to inform people what other churches are doing, facing, or hoping to accomplish. There were also times set aside for reflection, testimony on faith and life, and prayer, and a concert was presented Saturday evening. It was fun watching friends greet each other, and gratifying to be accepted by people, in spite of my linguistic limitations.

Unlike some conferences I have attended in North America, meals here were not rushed, for food and conversations are to be enjoyed in France. This conference definitely receives my highest commendation for understanding the importance of food being accompanied by wine. It was a pleasure to see how the Syrah rose (this software does not enable accents) and Cotes du Rhone mingled with the flavours of the various dishes. Indeed, if you want good food at a church conference, skip North America altogether and head straight for continental Europe.

Sunday morning was open to the public and devoted entirely to worship (about 250 participants; out of respect for the act of worship, I did not take any photographs). This included a very thoughtful communion service (excellent fresh bread and wine from the Luberon), congregational singing, lots of scripture reading, a sermon, and music provided by a joint choir and instrumentalists from the three 'Parisian' churches. Since those congregations are inter-racial (one has people from 9 different countries), one of the morning's themes appropriately stressed the oneness Christians should experience in practice and faith, regardless of their ancestry--a timely theme for all of France, and indeed, for the world.

Quite a few delegates from Alsace came together by bus, and reports indicated that they certainly enjoyed their time together. I found that all of the sessions exhibited a delightful combination of purposefulness and home-spun joviality. Since there are only about 2,500 Mennonites in France, it is conceivable that some of the faithful attendees may learn to know a high percentage of the country's Mennonites by attending these semi-annual meetings.

I was pleased to learn of the interests French Mennonites have in donating money to relief work and helping others in various ways. From a Canadian's perspective, they appear to devote a higher portion of their charitable giving to projects which benefit others than to those which would primarily benefit themselves. (This is a model I hope North American Evangelical Christians will examine more closely. ) They accomplish this, in part, by (1) not having enormous complexes of church buildings which require substantial mortgages or donations, (2) by being lay-led and (3) by many members donating countless hours of volunteer work to the local congregations rather than leaving those tasks to paid pastors and staff. In keeping with this, the conference's executive is comprised entirely of volunteers (none are pastors, this year's moderator is a full-time farmer), though a secretary is hired part-time to keep the office going. Only 12/31 congregations have any paid leadership whatsoever (of those, merely 5 are full-time) and several congregations share a pastor. Consequently, some of their young people elect to attend seminary for a year or two, not because they expect to become paid pastors but because they hope to assist their congregation as trained laity. Since the last time I attended this conference (1989), the leadership seems to have shifted to those in their 50s to early 60s (with exceptions on both ends of the spectrum), women are now more visibly involved (several have been ordained as either elders, deacons or preachers--French Mennonites distinguish between these three categories) and people generally seemed to be well-informed and interested.