I’ve long had a respect for the Old Order and other conservative Mennonites of our region, and have been pleased to live in proximity to them.
So it’s not surprising that one Sunday afternoon in June, our drive took us past the Conestoga Old Order Mennonite Meetinghouse near St. Jacobs, Ont.
As we approached the meetinghouse, we saw young men on bicycles or with horses and buggies dash out of the parking lot. We saw groups of young women walking energetically along the rural road.
As we got closer, we saw dozens of young women — all wearing pastel dresses — lined up along one side and part of the front of the building, all apparently waiting to be picked up by the young men’s buggies on the far side of the meetinghouse. The meetinghouse yard was jammed with conveyances.
“What on earth is going on here?” we wondered.
Then we remembered. We’ve come upon instruction class!
All the late teenagers being baptized this fall in 25 Old Order districts in Waterloo region are attending catechism class for two and a half or three hours on six consecutive Sunday afternoons in June and July, with two to four adjacent districts meeting together.
I knew this group used the Dordrecht Confession of 1632 to learn the catechism, but I had some other questions. So Sam phoned a well-informed Old Order deacon with these inquiries:
— How far do people come to attend? From as far away as Mt. Forest.
— What are the demographics of the people who attend? They are mostly young people, and the parents of those being baptized.
— Everybody seems happy when the class leaves out. Is it a social event too? The youth are probably just happy to get out of there after two and a half to three hours of instruction!
— Is this a way of “keeping the theology” of the group together? Yes!
— In what language is the instruction? Each week there is an initial scripture in High German and a sermon in Pennsylvania German. Then each week three articles of the Confession are read in High German. Two ministers have been assigned in advance to expound on each of the 18 articles in Pennsylvania German. After each of the three expositions that day, each baptismal candidate is asked whether he or she is in agreement with the article.
(The 18 articles deal with such matters as: God and the creation of all things, the reason for Christ’s coming, revenge, foot washing, holy baptism, the ban and shunning, and the office of the secular authority.)
All the candidates are baptized in the fall in their own district.
The following Sunday afternoon we came across an instruction class already in progress at the neighboring Martindale Meetinghouse near Heidelberg. The meetinghouse is smaller and newer than Conestoga.
My reaction to all this?
I’m amazed at this level of instruction, with its uniform theology. And I wonder: what would happen if our conference tried to have six weeks of regional catechism each summer? Could that help us “keep the theology of the conference together?” Do we want to have a uniform theology?
If we could do it, would we? How might this approach to instruction class further our mission? How might it hinder our mission?
Susan (Sue) Clemmer Steiner is a spiritual director and retired pastor from Kitchener, Ont., who blogs at A Nourished Spirit, where this post first appeared. She is the author of A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs, available by contacting steiner.sam (at) gmail.com.