Historic forums planned for inter-conference dialogue

Emily Ralph, eralph@franconiaconference.org

Delegates from Eastern District and Franconia conferences approve continued conversations on a shared future at the joint assembly in 2011. Photo by Emily Ralph

Eastern District and Franconia conference leaders have planned two delegate forums this spring to continue the exploration of a shared future.  The forums will be held on March 29 and May 24 at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale, PA and will include presentations from conference historians and conversations about the nature of each conference and possible next steps.

At the joint assembly in 2011, delegates of both Conferences expressed a strong desire to more fully understand the events that led to the 1847 split in Franconia Conference and the eventual formation of Eastern District Conference.  There was overwhelming support for continuing conversation as well as concern that these conversations be done with care and integrity, said Eastern District moderator Ron White, from Church of the Good Samaritan, in a letter to delegates.

Continuing to maintain two separate conferences, side by side, is the expression of an unhealed break in the Body of Christ, according to historian John Ruth, Salford congregation, who will be presenting at the March forum.  “It’s a statement that needs to be explained (or defended) to the current generation of church members . . . and the neighbors to whom we witness,” he said.

Beth Rauschenberger, associate pastor at Zion congregation, understands the need for these forums. She didn’t grow up within the Mennonite church and has always found the historic rift between the conferences puzzling, she said in a recent round table. “You have to hear those personal stories; you have to hear the hurt,” she explained.  “I don’t understand the hurt, so I want to hear the hurt that some people have gone through.”

Although all delegates are asked to attend, the forums are also open to anyone interested in learning more about the joint history of the conferences or participating in conversation about future possibilities.

In preparation for the forums, Franconia Conference has made available digital copies of three chapters of Maintaining the Right Fellowship, Ruth’s history of Franconia and Eastern District conferences.  These chapters describe the circumstances leading up to the 1847 split and the aftermath of the conflict.

These forums are historic, said Ruth, “because there has never been a serious, deliberate dialogue between the two conferences on this problem.”  The current dialogue, he added, could be transformative “because the core of the Gospel we profess is reconciliation.”

Forum One (March 29, 7-9 pm):  In this forum, Franconia Conference historian John Ruth and Eastern District Conference historian Jim Musselman will explore the differences that led to the 1847 split and the birth of the Eastern District.  A time for questions and conferring will be structured into the forum where participants will be invited to consider how this split has impacted our two conferences for the past 165 years.

Forum Two (May 24, 7-9pm): This Forum will focus on the current realities of our conferences.  What are the present-day similarities and differences in the vision and mission of our conferences?  What are the strengths and weakness of our two conferences?  Are there ways the 1847 split continues to cause tension between our conferences?  What have we learned from each other?  What are the next steps for our continuing dialogue?