January 2005 In This Issue


Twice a year-at Easter and again in the fall-our small Mennonite congregation in central Ohio interrupted the routine flow of the Sunday morning service to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and the ritual of footwashing. The services clearly followed a pattern, comforting in its predictability. Yet, from a child’s perspective, the event also evoked a powerful aura of mystery. I can still vividly recall the sense of wonder that accompanied the round silver communion trays, piled high with cubes of white bread, as they were passed down the rows, followed by similar gleaming containers holding thimble-sized glasses of grape juice. Even more mysterious were the details of the footwashing service that always followed communion. Separated by gender, members of the congregation somehow-miraculously, I always thought-found a willing partner and, as the children watched in awe, they took off their shoes, knelt to wash each other’s feet, embraced, kissed each other on the cheek, and whispered something incomprehensible before returning to the pew to retrieve their shoes and socks.

According to conventional wisdom, Anabaptist-Mennonite groups-unlike Catholics and most Protestants-are deeply suspicious of religious ritual. After all, many of the radical reformers of the sixteenth century denounced the rituals of the state churches as an effort by the clergy to control access to the divine, thereby consolidating their power over ordinary lay members. Other reformers rejected religious rituals as mere superstitions, or dismissed them as mindless routines disconnected from the life of Christian discipleship and the fruits of a changed heart.

Yet despite these lingering suspicions, rituals suffuse all religious life, even within the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. From the informal, yet clearly established, patterns of greetings, fellowship meals, barn-raisings and mutual aid, to the more stylized practices of baptisms, funerals, weddings and the communion/footwashing service that I recall so vividly from my childhood, rituals of one sort or another have always given structure to Anabaptist-Mennonite worship, even if theological reflection about them has not received much attention.

On June 26-28, 2003, the Anabaptist Sociology and Anthropology Association sponsored an interdisciplinary conference at Hillsdale (Mich.) College on the theme “Ritual in Anabaptist Communities.” Although no systematic definitions or research proposals emerged from the consultation-the general approach was more phenomenological than analytical-the conversation was lively and provocative. Most of the papers gathered in this issue of MQR emerged out of the context of that gathering.

John Rempel opens the issue with a series of autobiographical reflections on the powerful way that ritual served as a kind of “language” for faith in the Mennonite church of his youth, despite the church’s deep ambivalence toward ceremony. He concludes with an insightful review of several sixteenth-century Anabaptist perspectives on the Lord’s Supper, focusing especially on the work of Pilgram Marpeck. Mark R. Wenger, a pastor and associate director of the Preaching Institute at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, follows with a fascinating story of how North American Mennonites in the late nineteenth century slowly adopted the ritual of anointing with oil, so that it became a fundamental ordinance of the church. Given the clear biblical foundations in James 5:14-16, Mennonite leaders in the early twentieth century found anointing to be a more acceptable approach to faith healing than many of the alternatives of the day.

Part of the reservation Mennonites have traditionally brought to ritual is the way it seems to separate the sacred space of worship from the lived faith of our daily lives. Irma Fast Dueck, director of the Institute for Theology and the Church at Canadian Mennonite University, challenges this easy dichotomy, arguing that a “performative” understanding of worship can help to restore an essential connection between worship and work. In thoughtful worship, Dueck argues, the church practices before God and each of its members that which it will offer to the world during the rest of the week.

Jeff Gundy, a poet and literary critic at Bluffton University, and Peter Blum, a sociologist at Hillsdale College, bring more theoretical approaches to the study of ritual. Gundy draws heavily on the ancient tradition of Gnosticism for his reflections on how an encounter with the divine presence of God can take on an “embodied presence” in the world. Blum explores the ritual practice of footwashing, focusing less on the inherent meaning of the practice than on the way in which footwashing serves as a vehicle of meaning. Drawing on the cultural theory of Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Heidegger, Blum argues that footwashing, as a practice involving the body, is “culturally portable.” Both essays suggest directions for future scholarship on ritual that go far beyond the Anabaptist-Mennonite context.

Finally, we conclude with Peter Letkemann’s extended summary of an academic conference on “Molochna-2004: Mennonites and Their Neighbors (1804-2004)” that took place in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on June 2-5, 2004. His reflections on this international gathering capture well the on-going vibrancy of Russian Mennonite studies. – John D. Roth, editor

The Mennonite Quarterly Review
The Mennonite Quarterly Review