Jim Lehman, who planted the seeds for Voices for an Open Spirit (VOS) at Annual Conference 10 years ago, invited guests at the group’s yearly banquet to take a look back, but also to look forward.
What Lehman characterized as a pivotal moment in the Church of the Brethren’s history is also a pivotal moment in the life of VOS as the organization considers folding its tent and shifting its support to the recently formed Open Table Cooperative. The announcement was made by VOS Coordinating Council convener David Witkovsky.
“The life that is peculiar to the Church of the Brethren is like a cup,” Lehman said in his opening remarks. “But that cup is broken and cannot be put together again.” Attendees may logically have concluded that this was a recent analogy, given current tensions in the denomination. Lehman said he lifted the comment from Jesse Zigler, former professor of psychology and Christian education at Bethany Seminary, who made the observation in 1942.
Zigler, Lehman said, put together a list of reasons for this. “If I were to show you that list, you’d recognize those factors.” Reasons for discussion of a denominational split come and go, and while on the surface those reasons may appear different over the years, often they are remarkably similar, Lehman said. Lehman, whose love of Brethren history has resulted in numerous books and articles, dug deep into the denomination’s history for examples of this principle.
In 1717, for example, not even a decade after the denomination’s 1708 birth, tensions arose in Krefeldt, Germany, among members over associations some had with Mennonites. Matters of love and marriage were at the heart of the argument–“Sound familiar?” Lehman asked–and the bitter bickering was one reason Peter Becker led some 20 families to America.
Had that early split among the Brethren not occurred, Lehman remarked, a church in America may never have been planted. “Had they resolved their differences, they may never have come here.” He also noted that the Brethren movement in Europe eventually withered and died.
Some Brethren today are suggesting that a split in the church is likely over the controversy centered on sexuality. That may not necessarily be a bad thing, Lehman said. Were that to occur, he suggested–citing the Krefeldt example–new life may emerge.
Is that what he suggests for the church? As if anticipating the question among those seated at the tables, Lehman said, “When you’re asked to make a speech like this, you really ought to have something truly profound to say. I wish I did,” he noted wryly. Tossing it back to the crowd, he said, “I don’t know if we should split. Do you?”
One of the aims of VOS, according to its mission statement, was bridge-building and dialogue with those from opposing camps. “But we haven’t done so well at that,” Lehman observed. “There doesn’t seem to be much interest on either side” he said, referring to VOS and to conservative movements. He added, “If the Brethren cup wasn’t broken when Jesse Zigler made his statement, maybe it’s broken now. Even our fights are no longer Brethren. We’re often opposing each other–liberals and conservatives–in an American way, not a Brethren way.”
How we treat one another speaks volumes about us as a denomination. While it’s not easy to demonstrate forbearance, some are doing it. Lehman cited his friend Ken Kline Smeltzer, pastor of Burnham Church of the Brethren in the Middle Pennsylvania District, as one example. “Now, Ken is a noted firebrand progressive,” Lehman said. “But some of you may not know that he’s pastor of a small, conservative congregation in Pennsylvania. I once asked him: ‘How do you do it?’ He replied, ‘Well, I don’t give them my whole load.’ But he added that he always just tries to love them.”
“I’d like to think that the Brethren are still good people,” Lehman said. “There are nasty people among us. But if you think of the church you grew up in, or the church you’re part of now, you know there are a lot of good people.”
Lehman concluded, “Maybe our cup isn’t broken. Maybe it’s too full of our own anger and opinions. How do we empty our cup?”
— Randy Miller is editor of the Church of the Brethren’s “Messenger” magazine.