Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Brethren denominations have a history of cooperation.

The cooperative planning for Annual Conference this year between the Church of the Brethren and the Brethren Church represents the largest such effort since the major division of the Brethren movement in the 1880s.

By the 1880s, three groups had emerged among the Brethren. There were the old orders, who took the name Old German Baptist Brethren. There were the progressives, adopting the name Brethren Church. And there were the conservatives, who are now known as the Church of the Brethren. The conservatives had characteristics of both groups, still plain on the one hand and at the same time adopting progressive methods--just at a slower pace than advocated by the progressives.

Time has changed all of us in some ways, but even as we maintain our separate identities, Brethren at times enjoy fellowship and work together on common projects intended as cooperative efforts rather than steps toward unification.

This year’s Annual Conference has by no means been the only gesture of cooperation. Ministers and members have moved between the Brethren Church and the Church of the Brethren from time to time. There have been numerous times over the years when officers or other representatives from both bodies have brought greetings at each other’s conferences. Queries have been presented at both denominations’ conferences for formally reuniting (in 1925, 1934, 1947, and once in the 1990s to name some of these efforts), but an informal fellowship and occasional mutual project has been the path that we have taken.

Beginning in 1944, a number of Brethren Church missionaries worked in Nigeria in conjunction with the Church of the Brethren mission program. The Brethren Church and Church of the Brethren continued to work together in the Nigerian mission through the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1940s, the two denominations worked together in peace witness and war-time agencies, along with mission and relief programs.

On June 12-13, 1973, a meeting was held at "Tunker House " in Virginia. M.R. Zigler succeeded in gathering 125 members representing the five major Brethren bodies for a gathering to "shake hands." Lectures on Peter Nead and John Kline were presented, and those present also participated in worship. As a follow-up, Joseph R. Shultz of Ashland, Ohio, hosted a study conference in April 1974.

Another study conference among Brethren groups took place at Bethany Seminary in Oak Brook, Ill., in 1976. This was the beginning of many more conferences of Brethren groups, of which this summer’s gathering at Schwarzenau is a continuation. At the Oak Brook meeting, M.R. Zigler made a suggestion that sparked discussion about the development of the Brethren Encyclopedia. Donald F. Durnbaugh then developed a formal proposal for this reference work and presented it to the group before they left Oak Brook. As a result, the Brethren Encyclopedia Board was formed. The encyclopedia board has produced numerous publications and continues to function as an informal cooperative fellowship among Brethren today.

The two denominations had a joint ministry in the form of the Columbus Cooperative Brethren congregation starting on July 1, 1930. This continued until 1980 when the congregation dropped its affiliation with the Church of the Brethren. In southern Ohio, a Brethren Heritage Center has existed since 2001 that involves most of the Brethren groups in the area. It has a board of directors including Brethren from several groups.

In Dec. 2000, Brethren Church executive director Buzz Sandberg extended words of friendship to the Church of the Brethren through the "Agenda" newsletter. In this article, Sandberg expressed regret for the break in the Brethren family and his desire for healing. The Church of the Brethren responded to the gesture with a statement of friendship at Annual Conference the following year.

At about the same time, the Church of the Brethren's 300th Anniversary Committee extended an invitation to the Brethren Church to have conferences at the same time and place in 2008, in order to commemorate the 300th Anniversary and fellowship together. The result is our upcoming gathering in Richmond, Va., which will be attended by some members of other Brethren denominations as well.

--Dean Garrett is a member of the 300th Anniversary Committee. This article was first published in the committee’s newsletter, which he edits. References include Brethren Encyclopedia articles by Dale R. Stoffer, Donald F. Durnbaugh, and other authors, and Annual Conference Minutes.

Source: 6/18/2008 Newsline

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