After 169 years, a reunion of split conferences?

Franconia, Eastern District will explore reconciliation

Nov 21, 2016 by and

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

After a split 169 years ago, two conferences are talking about the possibility of a merger.

During their joint annual assembly Nov. 4-5 at Dock Mennonite Academy in Souderton, Pa., more than 240 delegates from Eastern District Conference and Franconia Mennonite Conference, in separate business meetings, approved a proposal to explore reconciliation.

“This is a really wonderful opportunity to participate in something I think is historic — to be part of a process that could lead to reuniting two conferences that broke apart in 1847,” said John Goshow, moderator of Franconia Conference. “I’m excited about the possibility of reconciliation.”

The proposal was affirmed by 96 percent of Franconia delegates and 100 percent of Eastern District delegates.

In 1847, a conference split had churchgoers fighting each other for the same meeting space. Now, members of Franconia Mennonite Conference and Eastern District Conference share worship times during joint assemblies. Delegates from both conferences on Nov. 5 affirmed a proposal to explore reconciliation, with the possibility of becoming a reunited conference. — Franconia Mennonite Conference

In 1847, a conference split had churchgoers fighting each other for the same meeting space. Now, members of Franconia Mennonite Conference and Eastern District Conference share worship times during joint assemblies. Delegates from both conferences on Nov. 5 affirmed a proposal to explore reconciliation, with the possibility of becoming a reunited conference. — Franconia Mennonite Conference

In a letter from Goshow and Eastern District moderator Rodger Schmell sent to delegates before the assembly, the moderators referenced historian John Ruth’s account of the split in Maintaining the Right Fellowship:

“Two models of church order were here contending for the future of this Mennonite community. The newer one had rationality, democracy and clarity on its side, as well as a different definition of piety. The traditional one represented the submission of the individual initiative, even when it might be more enlightened, to the authority of the larger brotherhood.”

On Oct. 7, 1847, a group of “progressives” walked out of the Franconia Conference assembly when the “conservative” majority refused to dialogue further, according to Ruth’s account. The new group called itself “The Eastern Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America.” Tensions ran high as congregations broke apart and fought over ownership of meeting space.

“When it became clear that the [liberal] majority was just as determined that the property belonged to them,” wrote Ruth of the Skippack congregation, “some conservatives bolted the door shut from the inside, using straightened wagon wheel rims as reinforcement. Their outraged opponents then persuaded one of their own young men to break in. He ‘bored a large hole’ in the three-year-old door, ‘and secured a strong steel saw and sawed until the bolt was sawed through.’ Then, the man recalled years later, ‘We went in to hold services.’ ”

Forward together

Such episodes are a far cry from the friendship today between Goshow and Schmell, who in a joint interview talked about their conferences’ small steps toward reconciliation over the past 20 years.

“We dated long enough; now it’s time to check out marriage,” Schmell said.

After the two conferences shared a worship time in 1997, dialogue between them continued. They have held joint annual assemblies since 2012, sharing worship, teaching and fellowship while conducting business separately.

In the meetings, the moderators expressed to the delegates that their focus is on reconciliation, whether or not an official merger takes place.

“Personally, I would hope that it would end in reunification,” Goshow said. “How that will look, I’m not sure. What we would be called, I’m not sure. . . . We’re asking these questions because we respect each other. We don’t want to jump into it without thinking through what that might mean for us.”

Franconia has 42 congregations, most in Pennsylvania and some in Vermont. It has Hispanic and Indonesian churches in Philadelphia. Eastern District has 12 congregations, including a Haitian church in Philadelphia. Most are in Pennsylvania; one is in Boston. Most of both conferences’ congregations are within a 50-mile radius of each other.

“To me, it’s not like we’re trying to create this big historical landmark thing here; we’re just doing what seems natural and practical,” Schmell said. “It just makes sense when you’ve got a bunch of churches together already.”

The conferences will form a team to work with consultants David Brubaker and Roxy Kioko from Eastern Mennonite University, beginning in January, with the goal of presenting further recommendations to the delegates of both conferences next November.

Both conferences are part of Mennonite Church USA. Before the 2001 merger that formed MC USA, Franconia belonged to the Mennonite Church and Eastern District to the General Conference Mennonite Church.


Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

About Me

advertisement