Conferences discuss history, consider future in forums

by Emily Ralph,

Jim Musselman and John Ruth
Jim Musselman, left, and John Ruth, unofficial historians for Eastern District and Franconia Conferences share the history of the 1847 split. Photo by Emily Ralph..

Members of Eastern District and Franconia Conferences of Mennonite Church USA met on March 29 at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale, PA, to continue conversations about a shared future.  This gathering, the first of two forums planned for Spring 2012, focused on developing a deeper understanding of the 1847 split in Franconia Conference that led to the formation of Eastern District Conference.

Although some people think that the merger between the two conferences is a done deal, that couldn’t be further from the truth, according to Ron White, moderator of Eastern District Conference and member of Church of the Good Samaritan.  Conference leadership has been following the delegates’ directive from the 2011 Assembly to move forward in exploring and listening, he said in his welcome.

When White asked how many people from each conference had attended an event or service in a congregation from the other conference, nearly every hand in the room raised.  “See, we’ve already been working together,” said White, “we just haven’t called it that.”

Jim Musselman, Zion congregation, and John Ruth, Salford congregation, unofficial historians for the two conferences, shared presentations on the history of the 1847 split, the tensions leading up to it, and the fallout in the years following it.  The progressives (a group which broke off to later become Eastern District Conference) were looking for modern administration, freedom in dress and conduct, education for pastors, and the creation of publications, said Musselman, Eastern District historian.  The years following the split were tumultuous for the new conference, he said, with further division as differing theological strains emerged.

“Almost every positive thing that the Eastern District leaders wanted eventually came to Franconia Conference,” said Ruth, Franconia Conference historian.  “It just took 100 years longer. . . . It would have come sooner to Franconia Conference if they all would have stayed together.”  In the end, said Ruth, both sides lost: “There was not much creativity in finding ways of love and respect for each other.”

After the presentations, participants talked around their tables to ask questions and reflect on the history. Photo by Emily Ralph

To this day, remnants of the 19th-century division remain in attitudes toward one another.  Eastern District Conference congregations often accepted into membership people who had been disciplined by Franconia Conference congregations, gaining them a reputation as a conference who will “take anybody,” said Musselman; Franconia congregations worried that this acceptance watered down the purity of the church body.

Following the presentations, the gathering broke into table groups to talk about what they had heard, formulate questions, and discuss together the implications of a shared future.  In reporting the highlights of their table conversations with the room, members of both conferences expressed concern about navigating theological differences within conferences and congregations, overcoming generations of “us/them” mentalities, and working through organizational and structural differences.

The group also wondered how there could be healing of the personal wounds that people still carried from the tension between the conferences.  “How can we gain empathy for each other’s narratives in moving forward?” asked Marta Castillo, assistant moderator for Franconia Conference and a pastor at Nueva Vida Norristown New Life.

These next steps will be discussed at a second forum, planned for May 24, 7pm, at Christopher Dock.  Forum 2 will look at present-day similarities and differences in vision and mission as well as strengths and weaknesses of the two conferences and begin a conversation on future possibilities.  A possible third forum may be scheduled if needed.

Sam Claudio, co-pastor of Christ Fellowship, came to the forum to gain further understanding of the histories of the community that he has joined in Mennonite Church USA.  “It’s good to see that I’ve become part of something that is in the midst of coming together, not in the midst of tearing apart,” he told the group.  “As we leave this place, let us remember that we are ministers—all of us, each of us—of reconciliation.  That is our mandate, to be reconciled one to another….  Let us work toward that goal as we leave this place.”

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