By Rev. Sue Lang, with Pastor Emily Ralph
(May 6, 2011)
Franconia, PA — Lutherans and Mennonites stood side by side at the communion table to receive the bread and the wine. Together, they then went out into the congregation to distribute the elements to those present at the 2011 assembly of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The unity observed at the table was further acknowledged during a time of reconciliation at the start of the assembly. Bishop Claire Burkat, representing the Lutherans, apologized to Pastor Charles Ness, a Franconia Mennonite Conference pastor who has been involved in the global Anabaptist reconciliation movement, for the sins of 16th century Lutherans who persecuted and murdered Anabaptists during the Reformation because of doctrinal differences.
“Lutherans, by and large, developed a historical amnesia about this shameful part of our Reformation heritage,” said Burkat.
In 2006, The Declaration of the ELCA on Condemnation of the Anabaptists stated the following: “No church should use the state to impose its own beliefs and practices on others. We [therefore] express our deep and abiding sorrow and regret for the persecution and suffering visited upon the Anabaptists during the religious disputes.”
Bishop Burkat made an emotional apology to Pastor Ness on behalf of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod who has held their assembly at Franconia Mennonite Church since 1997. She then presented him with a pitcher, basin, and towel representing the washing away of past sins through Jesus Christ. The towel was embroidered with the symbols of both the Mennonite Church USA and the ELCA.
In his own emotional acceptance of the gifts, Pastor Ness quoted the President of the Mennonite World Conference, Danisa Ndlovu, who responded to a similar apology from the Lutheran World Federation last summer in Stuttgart, Germany. Ndlovu said: “Today in this place, we together—Lutherans and Anabaptist Mennonites—are fulfilling the rule of Christ. We cannot bring ourselves to this table with heads held high. We can only come bowed down in great humility and in fear of the Lord.”
Ness then presented Bishop Burkat with a painting depicting the story of Dirk Willems, a Dutch Mennonite who successfully escaped across a frozen canal but returned to save his captor who had fallen through the ice. Willems was later put to death for heresy.
“These words and actions today point to the truth that the Kingdom of God is more than denominational labels and distinctions,” said Ness. “Through these confessions I believe that Christ will heal the wounds of history and free us to become whole persons and spiritually renewed churches.”
Read Emily’s blog about this event or watch the reconciliation (begins around 15:00):