Friday, October 19, 2007

Young Center hosts academic conference for the 300th Anniversary of the Brethren.

"Honoring a Legacy, Embracing a Future: 300 Years of Brethren Heritage," was the theme of an academic conference hosted by the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College on Oct. 11-13. The conference was attended by some 106 participants and presenters, most from the Church of the Brethren but also including Brethren Church members and others from different sectors of the Brethren movement.

Along with serious academic inquiry, participants heard from several speakers strong calls for strengthening a particular Brethren identity--focused by some on the peace witness--along with expressions of concern about the future of Brethren values and the Church of the Brethren as a denomination.

As he opened the conference, Young Center director Jeff Bach invited participants to a "time to reflect on our beginnings, our changes, our future." Bach also led worship during the conference, and held two Love Feast services at the Young Center’s Bucher Meetinghouse on the evening after the conference ended.

Brethren today face difficult challenges in maintaining identity and community, particularly in the media culture, said Stewart Hoover in the keynote address. Hoover is professor of media studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a professor adjoint of Religious Studies and American Studies, and a former staff member of the Church of the Brethren General Board. He spoke on "Brethren Heritage and Modern Culture: Vision and Challenge."

The Brethren must continue to search for a unique identity and voice, Stewart advised. He spoke of the 21st century cultural context as a time of great change in institutions and religion. Christian identity is no longer denominational, rather it is found at the congregational level, he said. In this context, it is a problem that 20th century Brethren "cast their lot" in two directions--evangelical Christianity, and the mainline Protestant churches--Stewart said, characterizing the two directions as contradictory, and neither particularly Brethren.

As he advised Brethren to seek a stronger voice in the culture, Stewart warned that "we Brethren know that ascendancy comes at a the expense of the rights of others." However, he added that Brethren may be particularly well placed to play a constructive role in the current debate or "clash of civilizations" between Western society and radical Islam. Brethren "know that both sides of this conflict are wrong" in advocating a strong role for religion in the state, Stewart said. Brethren know that involvement of religion in the state will lead to coercion, violence, and the antithesis of religion’s claims, he said. At the same time, Brethren may help shed light and reduce heat in these debates. "We Brethren would argue that to work toward coexistence (of Western society and radical Islam) would not be a denial of our theology but a fulfillment of it," Stewart said. At a time when other forces seem to want to enhance this clash of cultures, he asserted that Brethren "can see how un-Christian such a movement is."

Other plenary presentations focused on the Anabaptist and Pietist heritage of the Brethren, the role of the Old Testament in Brethren life, and the balance between inner and outer faith in Brethren tradition.

German scholar and Lutheran minister Marcus Meier offered new theories about "Anabaptist and Pietist Influences on the Early Brethren." He has been a teaching assistant in the theology department at Philipps-University Marburg, and is the recepient of a research award from the University at Halle/Saale. In 2003 he completed his doctoral dissertation about the beginnings of the Schwarzenau Brethren in Europe, emphasizing Pietist influences on the genesis of the Brethren. Meier’s presentation at the conference contended that new research suggests a stronger Anabaptist influence on the radical Pietists of the early 18th century than has been recognized.

Dale Stoffer, chair of the Brethren Church’s anniversary committee and academic dean and professor of historical theology at Ashland (Ohio) Theological Seminary, offered a plenary session on "Balancing Word and Spirit in Anabaptist, Pietist, and Brethren Hermeneutics." He reviewed how Brethren, Anabaptists, and Pietists have made use of the concepts of Word and Spirit, characterizing these as a fundamental inner-outer spiritual tension.

A session on the importance of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures was given by Chris Bucher, the Carl W. Zeigler Professor of Religion and dean of faculty at Elizabethtown College. She spoke on the topic, "The New Testament Is Our Creed: Brethren and the Canon," reviewing ways Brethren have used the scriptures and calling on Brethren to seek new ways to live with or live out of conflicts found in scripture, rather than to ignore them. She also called for Brethren to return to the practice of community reading of scripture. "If reading scripture is to promote unity, then Brethren should read scripture together," she said.

Carl Bowman gave perhaps the most provocative paper of the conference, reporting results of a 2006 scientific survey of Church of the Brethren members in his plenary address titled, "A Profile of the Church of the Brethren Today." Bowman has been a professor of sociology at Bridgewater (Va.) College for many years, and is director of survey research at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

The opening phrase of the "tagline" of the Church of the Brethren--"Another way of living"--is "at best a hope, at worst a deception" in light of the 2006 survey, Bowman said. To support this statement he reviewed survey findings that indicate Brethren today are both conservative and progressive at the same time, he said. Many Brethren do not consider themselves to be radical, nor consider their faith to be radical or even Anabaptist or Pietist. Relatively small numbers of Brethren say they experience any conflict between Brethren ways and the larger society, he reported, and many say there is no difference between the Brethren and other mainline Christian denominations.

"Are these marks of another way of living, or the typical rural American way?" Bowman asked. "Today, does ‘A comfortable way of caring’ really capture it?" he said, proposing with a note of sarcasm a tagline he suggested might more accurately reflect the current identity of Brethren.

A panel of young adult scholars and seminary students--Jordan Blevins, Anna Lisa Gross, Elizabeth Keller, Ben Leiter, and Felix Lohitai--rounded out the plenary sessions. Small group sessions also were offered on more than 20 other topics organized around themes of theology, history, missions, contemporary issues, peace, hymnody, ministry, and service. In some, presenters read academic papers, and others featured panel discussions.

Richard T. Hughes gave closing reflections on the conference as a scholar from outside the Brethren tradition. He is senior fellow in the Ernest L. Boyer Center and distinguished professor at Messiah College. Reflecting on the Brethren focus on relationship and discipleship, and the peace witness, Hughes said, "How can you bring this vision into the post-modern world? That seemed to be the question I heard at this conference over and over again." He also listed the "lamentations" he had heard at the conference, classifying them in three parts: laments about the church in decline, about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among Brethren, and about a lack of conflict resolution skills in congregations.

To the question, "How can the Brethren both survive and thrive in the 21st century?" Hughes focused on one of the main answers he heard at the conference: that Brethren need to find ways to inject their voice into the "public square." "Your voice in my judgment is far too muted," he said. At a time when global conflict threatens the very existence of the world, peace churches have an obligation to speak up, he said. "Humility does not mean you have no voice.... Your voice is so desperately needed."

Bethany Theological Seminary offered streaming video of the conference, as part of the Church of the Brethren Webcast Series. To view sessions online go to A photo journal of the conference is at

(Sermons from main celebrations of the Brethren 300th anniversary are being posted at, as they become available. For Earl K. Ziegler’s keynote address at the opening anniversary event at Germantown Church of the Brethren on Sept. 16, go to For a link to all of the news resources from 300th anniversary events, go to and click on "300th Anniversary.")

Source: 10/19/200 300th Anniversary Update Newsline

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