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Fall 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 2 · pp. 230–232 

Book Review

Recapturing an Enchanted World: Ritual and Sacrament in the Free Church Tradition

John Rempel. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020. 245 pages.

Reviewed by Carol Penner

In this book, which is the culmination of his life’s work (xviii), John Rempel takes the reader on a tour of the meaning of ritual and sacrament in liturgical and free church traditions. The author draws on his work as a pastor and seminary professor who has represented the Mennonite church in decades of ecumenical dialogue. Writing in an accessible and engaging way, Rempel intersperses historical theology with biblical and autobiographical reflections. {231}

The book is divided into ten chapters. In the first three chapters Rempel sets the stage, describing God’s sacramental presence in the world. He suggests that this presence, incarnated perfectly through Jesus Christ, is found most clearly today in the church through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Following a discussion of the meanings of ritual and sacrament, language and action, Rempel develops his thesis, that the free church tradition is sacramentally lean, having largely abandoned the mystical reality of God’s presence in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He characterizes this as an over-correction to the excesses of the established Catholic and Protestant traditions in the 1500s. The main purpose of the book is to reclaim the “enchanted” world of sacramentalism for his own Anabaptist tradition and other non-liturgical traditions like it.

The following chapters focus on examples of sacramentality. Chapters 4 and 5 examine the sacramentality of time and Sabbath, and the rite of baptism. He explores their Jewish, early church, and patristic roots. He then outlines how the embrace of rationalism and modernism eroded an appreciation of God’s presence in the material world. The bulk of the book, found in chapters 6 to 8, focuses on the Lord’s Supper, showing the historical development of this sacrament from its earliest roots through the Middle Ages and the Reformation, focusing most particularly on Anabaptist thinkers. Rempel makes history come alive, comparing and contrasting the work of different theologians, explaining how certain ideas gained ascendency over others. Chapters 9 and 10 are more contemporary reflections on the Lord’s Supper and will be of particular interest to those who lead worship. The book also includes three practical appendices of actual orders of service: for the Lord’s Supper, and for foot-washing and an Agape Meal, and for an Emmaus-focused Communion service.

This book would have been stronger if Rempel had substantiated his thesis that the free church tradition is sacramentally impoverished. He personally longs for more authentic and life-giving rituals than can be found in the “barren landscape” (xiv) in many free churches. He does not back that up beyond quoting sixteenth-century theologians and his own experience of finding richness in other traditions. There are other Anabaptist scholars who agree with him who could have been bolstered his position. I am not convinced that the absence of discussions of transcendence in academic theology means that it is absent in the practice of worship, particularly given the varied liturgical expression in the Anabaptist church. Some Anabaptist scholars have been arguing that sacramentalism is found in Anabaptist churches in different forms.

Rempel argues that words and gestures surrounding communion are significant, yet he barely mentions the ritual of preparation or inquiry (if you’ve wronged someone, you should go to them and confess before {232} you take communion), referring to it only in two paragraphs (180, 188), and not in relationship to the Anabaptist tradition, where it has figured prominently. By focusing primarily on the transcendent aspect of communion, Rempel has missed something essential. He does not explore how God’s inbreaking spirit comes through the words and actions we take to insure right relationships in the church, and how that figures in the ritual of communion. Rempel talks about Pilgrim Marpeck’s view of the sacramental nature of the church community (90), but he does not connect how the sacrament of communion and the sacrament of community join in the practice of confession of sin, not just to God, but to one another. This is a serious flaw in Rempel’s theology.

The flaw is made starker by his own history. Rempel recently had his ministerial credentials revoked when an investigation revealed that at the beginning of his career this chaplain, administrator, and professor sexually abused a number of undergraduate students. I am certain that had the abuse been revealed at the time, he would not have continued on his pastoral career, nor have come to be a seminary professor, nor a voice for Mennonites in ecumenical dialogues. Because these experiences informed this book, they can be seen as coming at the expense of victims who suffered in silence. Rempel’s work is particularly problematic because he has been the foremost Anabaptist scholar on the subject of communion, one of the most sacred rituals of God’s presence in community, and he has helped shape the minister’s manual that is commonly used in the Mennonite Church.

I teach at Conrad Grebel University College, where the abuses took place. These revelations have torn the fabric of our community, and as I seek to teach in a way that is trauma-informed and survivor-centered, it is impossible for me to use this book as a text in my classes. God offers grace and forgiveness, always, and there is space in the church for all sinners, but that does not mean we must teach from a book by someone who sexually abused students in his care, when using it would be painful for survivors and their supporters.

In conclusion, Rempel has done an excellent job of weaving together biblical, historical, and theological sources about an important topic. The free church tradition needs to grapple with sacramentality. Tragically, because of the circumstances of its authorship, this book’s reception in Anabaptist churches will be limited.

Carol Penner
Assistant Professor of Theological Studies and Coordinator of Applied Studies
Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario

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