An Indianapolis Catholic parish has asked me to consult with them on several issues of organizational structure and performance. The parish contains about 600 Catholic families. One of its big projects is the running of a Catholic school.
This assignment has placed onto the agenda an issue that has also been a Mennonite conundrum for as long as I can remember. I still recall that my home congregation in the late 1940s and early 1950′s made it “a test of membership” to own no radio or television. I seem to recall that one was not to have a life insurance policy. Plain clothing as defined by the church affected some congregations more than others. I was not given a letter of transfer because I did not wear the regulation “plain coat.” My niece, in the 1960′s left a congregation at the point of baptism rather than to promise to wear a prayer veiling at all times. Military service was proscribed and attendance at places of worldly entertainment was strictly discouraged. “You have to draw the line,” we heard many a time.
As one decade led into another, the issues changed. People began to buy TV sets, but the church “put down its foot” on the matter of divorce. Clothing styles changed, but the matter of same-sex orientation brought to the fore arguably the largest controversy of the past century. Many churches divided on this issue.
The Catholic parish faces a different particular. Parents of children who attend the Catholic school are given a discount if they are “members” of the parish. But what does “member” mean. Must one have been baptized and confirmed Catholic? Must one go to church? Must one go to confession, read the Bible, pray? Must one participate in church activities? Must one put money in the basket?
Working with these good folks has given me perspective as I think about the nature of a Mennonite congregation, the real test of membership, and the consequences of membership. I doubt that I will ever be able to pontificate on the topic, although I have developed an aversion for “the line,” as in “we must draw the line somewhere.” The line that Jesus drew in the sand did not show the difference between Mennonites and non-Mennonites.
I am far more inclined to think of the center of the church, rather than the so-called outer edges where some people are eager to chalk the line.