Book review: ‘An Increase in Time’

Apr 11, 2016 by

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This is not an average congregational history. But Germantown Mennonite Church is not an average congregation. Richard Lichty, the author of An Increase in Time: Story Lines of Germantown Mennonite Church and Its Historic Trust, 1683-2005, does more than tell the story of the oldest Mennonite congregation in America. He prophesies in words that call for attention. Lichty was the Phila­delphia congregation’s pastor when it was expelled from Franconia Mennonite Conference in 1997 and from Eastern District Conference in 2002 due to its acceptance of gay and lesbian members.

An Increase in Time: Story Lines of Germantown Mennonite Church and Its Historic Trust, 1683-2005

An Increase in Time: Story Lines of Germantown Mennonite Church and Its Historic Trust, 1683-2005

The foreword is by Donella Clemens and James M. Lapp — notable choices, because both held leadership roles in Franconia Conference when it ejected Germantown. They write: “Our wish and prayer is that in some way this book may stimulate honest dialogue and fresh reflections on the scriptures and that it will foster greater mutual understanding about how God’s people live together with highly charged differences.” This is a heavy assignment, and readers will need to consider whether it can be fulfilled.

But first comes the subject of Germantown’s lengthy history. The first five chapters cover 297 years, from 1683 to 1980. Lichty describes the congregation’s tentative beginning and its marginal existence in the Mennonite family. Its only claim to fame was being the first Mennonite congregation in America. The original Germantown Mennonites were urban people, but soon the Mennonites arriving in Pennsylvania were rural folks, and they kept moving out into the country.

Membership peaked at 99 in 1712, but this included the Skippack settlement, and Skippack was to increase while Germantown decreased. During the centuries that followed, Germantown was marginal to the Mennonite scene. However, in 1770 it was able to replace a log meetinghouse with a stone building, which served into the 20th century. During the 19th century the congregation repeatedly seemed about to die but somehow managed to remain.

Finally, in the latter half of the 20th century, two developments moved Germantown toward the center of Mennonite life. First, it was discovered by historians who began to celebrate its status as a historic landmark. So the Germantown Mennonite Corporation was formed. The other influence was from young Mennonites who came to Philadelphia and looked for a church. They “began looking at ways to restructure the congregation with their understanding of Scripture and of what it meant to be Anabaptist.”

In 1973 the congregation was accepted as a member of Franconia Mennonite Conference while continuing as a member of Eastern District Conference. In 1982 it called Michael King as a salaried pastor. By the end of the 1980s it was within reach of having 100 members for perhaps only the second time in its history.

Then Don Winters, a gay man, asked to become a member. As the congregation studied Scripture, members found they held “diverse views and convictions about sexuality, marriage and inclusion of sexual minorities. But attitudes toward inclusion continued to develop.” Franconia Conference would come to a different position on these issues. Delegates, voting by mail-in ballot, removed Germantown from membership. Moderator Donella Clem­ens and conference pastor James M. Lapp delivered the news to the congregation.

Four years later, Eastern District Conference voted to remove Germantown, too. Lichty believes Eastern District conducted its expulsion more appropriately than Franconia did. Rejected by two conferences, Germantown became an independent congregation and remains so to this day.

Lichty is particularly critical of Franconia’s method of expulsion by a mail-in vote. He writes: “The decision to end all attempts at face-to-face conversation and resort to the anonymity of the postal service remains, in our judgment, a violation of community and of what Anabaptist-Mennonites have long professed about what it means to be the body of Christ. Not only did conference delegates not hear a single word of the faith witness of a Germantown member who happened to be of lesbian or gay orientation [one possible exception is mentioned in a footnote], but now delegates could no longer offer words of witness to the Spirit’s action. Furthermore, those who most strongly opposed Germantown’s membership could remain anonymous.”

Then Lichty becomes a prophet. He reflects on cultural and ecclesiastical issues of our time and offers an exposition of Romans 15. It is based on an interpretation that considers the Romans a group of house churches in conflict with each other on issues of Christian behavior. Paul identifies the positions of the strong and the weak, and Lichty seems to imply that those who can accept sexual minorities are the strong and those who cannot are the weak.

The issues discussed in Chapter 9 — “Culture Wars, Gay Rights and the Emergence of Mennonite Church USA: Germantown in Context, 1997-2001” — are of current concern. Lichty finds evidence that some in our churches have heeded voices that do not support our historic theology: “While language in the debate about accepting sexual minorities into the Mennonite Church has hardly reached the level of war, some of that spirit crept into the public argument in the Mennonite press — enough to suggest that something like a culture war in the American and societal realm was not far from Mennonite people.”

Lichty asks: “Will lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Mennonite world forever be objects of scrutiny and analysis? And, more important to me, will we ever be able to listen to one another?”

Lichty asks his readers to bear with him if he has “spoken unkindly or too bluntly” or “been unnecessarily straightforward with ‘my truth’ on these matters.” He says: “I beg forbearance, as my elders taught us to say when I was growing up in the Weaverland congregation in Lancaster Mennonite Conference in the 1940s and 1950s.”

This book was written before the Great Scattering from Mennonite Church USA. It is not likely that those who have scattered will want to engage Lichty in dialogue. But for those who remain, he provides an opportunity to consider issues that will not go away. On the one hand, the book is a cry for understanding. Lichty perceives that he and the Germantown congregation have not been given the hearing they deserve. On the other, he offers help to those of us who are looking toward a future that might be more perilous than we expected. Understanding Germantown’s history is a good place to start.

Daniel Hertzler, of Scottdale, Pa., is a former editor of Gospel Herald.

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