UK Mennonites board the love train

By staff writers
April 22, 2006

For most people in Britain, Mennonites are one of the historic peace churches originating from the Anabaptist wing of the Reformation and are still an unknown quantity. If they ring a bell at all, it is with Amish beards and buggies from the Harrison Ford film, Witness.

But now two members of the only Mennonite congregation in the UK, Wood Green Church in North London, have upped the denominationís profile by making an appearance in the regular We Love Each Other column from The Guardian newspaper, in which couples describe their often unexpected mutual attraction.

Veronica Zundel is a writer and her husband, Ed Sirett, set up Make, Do and Mend, a property maintenance business. They were both Anglicans when they married, but were attracted by the Mennonites' commitment to equitable living, social justice and peacemaking. Veronica explained to the Guardian that they are modern Mennonites, not Amish or old order, as some assume when the word is used. But she adds: "There are valid reasons for the way [the traditional groups] look. They wear beards with no moustaches because moustaches were traditionally worn by soldiers and Mennonites are pacifists. They wear braces because belts held holsters.

Ed and Veronica met at a Christian conference where she was giving seminars on feminism, a cause she has championed for many years. Veronica stresses that whereas women in some historic Anabaptist communities play a more passive role, at Wood Green Mennonite Church they preach and share leadership. She told The Guardian: "This guy came up and said, "I think you're fascinating. "The first time he asked me to marry him was at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. I burst into tears. It was a shock. I said, 'I don't know but you can ask me again.'

"I was in love with someone else and that someone else was gay, which was very difficult. Ed was supportive. There were three more proposals. We were staying at my parents' place in Coventry. I had a little empty water jar from Cana in Galilee, where Jesus turned water into wine. I put in a little piece of paper that said 'yes'". Ed continues wryly, "I fished it out. I had asked her that morning, but it might have said 'For Demo Purposes Only', or 'Made In Israel'"

Both Veronica and Ed had been members of a number of churches before, and he had grown up in the Christadelphians, a group which, unlike the Mennonites, is not accepted as a mainstream Christian denomination.  Ed commented: "When [Veronica] suggested we try the Mennonites, I was very sceptical. I had spent most of my life dealing with one small, cranky sect. There was no way I was going to go back to another small, cranky sect. But when we showed up, we were in tears. There still aren't many Mennonites in Britain, but we knew it was home for us." 

In fact there has been a Mennonite Centre in North London since the 1950s. Specialising in peace and justice concerns, it has had a significant impact on Christian thinking in the UK ñ giving rise to Bridge Builders, a highly-rated conflict transformation network, and the Metanioa Book Service. Wood Green Mennonite Church, where Veronica and Ed are involved, grew out of the London Mennonite Centre, which also plays a key role in the Anabaptist Network UK. Ekklesia, the ecumenical think tank and news service is part of the Root and Branchí association of radical Christian groups which the Mennonites helped establish.

There is also a link to Christian Peacemaker Teams UK. Both Ed and Veronica have contributed essays to Coming Home, edited by emergent church expert Stuart Murray, and Christopher Rowland, a scripture professor at the University of Oxford. It gives an account of the influence of Anabaptism (and especially Mennonites) on people in Britain. The couple have also been involved in A Year of Living Generously, an online experiment based on a shared hunch that looking after this planet and its people is what we are all here for and that if many of us can make small changes in our everyday choices, then over time we can make a big difference for everyone.

The Guardian hasn't always given a positive image to Mennonites. Regular columnist Zoe Williams picked up a particularly pejorative impression when she interviewed author Miriam Toews back in 2004, and has since used the name as a cipher for unattractive religious dogmatism. Ed and Veronica no doubt hope that their appearance in a light hearted Guardian column will put a more representative face on the Mennonite label for those unfamiliar with it.

*Veronica Zundel's books include Time of Our Lives: Connecting the Bible to Today and Eerdmans' Book of Famous Prayers. [Also on Ekklesia: Mennonites and Catholics seek to cooperate on peacemaking; Ethiopian Mennonite leader delves into politics; End scandal of poverty in churches, says Mennonite leader; Peace workers hold a key to Iraq solution, says think tank; Churches join US rallies to support justice for migrants; Mennonites lend support to the hurricane clear-up; Christian peace activists launch in the UK; Episcopalians and Mennonites provide support to Hurricane Rita victims; Peace anchors Gospel witness, church leaders told; Christians in army resort promote non-violence; Christians attempt to stop attacks on Muslims; Violent God, Nonviolent Jesus, Violent Christians: The Tragic Logic of Biblical Violence (seminar); UK Mennonites call for reflection after 7/7]

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