Practicing Conflict: Weddings as Sites of Contest and Compromise

By Klassen, Pamela E. | Mennonite Quarterly Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Practicing Conflict: Weddings as Sites of Contest and Compromise


Klassen, Pamela E., Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: This paper analyzes the varieties of conflict engendered by wedding practices in twentieth-century North American Mennonite communities, and argues that an analysis of conflict that centers on ideology to the exclusion of practice is insufficient. With recourse to both historical and ethnographic evidence, I find four themes provoking conflict in weddings: contesting notions of worldliness, controlling sacred space, regulating sexuality and negotiating family relationships. Reflecting on the effects of experience and ideology on choices of research topic, I close with a call for more open and self-conscious positioning on the part of all scholars of Mennonites.

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Throughout the twentieth century, laywomen's ways of organizing weddings have provoked conflict. The sites of conflict have ranged from what some might consider the mundane, such as party games and bridal wear, to concerns at the heart of any community, such as the regulation of sexual interaction. Ensconced in both the mundane and the more profound conflicts were competing ideals and practices of sexuality and gender.

In regard to the varieties of conflicts that weddings have spurred over the course of the century, I argue that an analysis of conflict that centers on abstract ideological and moral categories to the exclusion of practice is insufficient. Ainlay and Kniss's reference to church discipline as a site of conflict and power is a step in this direction, but a more overt grappling with the politics of ritual is necessary. By practice I refer to actions embedded in the materiality and temporality of social life, which are often capable of sustaining ambivalent and contested meanings. (1) In my interpretation, an attention to practice calls for analysis of ritual, material culture and expressions of the body among Mennonites. Conflict is not simply rooted in theological and moral disputations but also in the "things of this world"--and even the most unworldly of Mennonites live in and among bodies, clothes and ritual gestures.

To show what an attention to practice can bring to the study of conflict, I will relate and interpret the weddings of four women. First, Susanna's 1961 wedding, in which conflict centered around the introduction of "Englisch" customs into Bergthaler Mennonite space. (2) Second, Lillian's 1963 wedding, before which she had to return to her home congregation to confess her sin of engaging in premarital sexual relations (which led to pregnancy). Finally, the early 1990s wedding of Jane and Anne, two lesbian women who were married in a commitment ceremony that provoked controversy within their conference. (3)

These three weddings, two from one time period and one from thirty years later, illustrate both how weddings have been an ongoing source of tension within communities and how much has changed in the way weddings ritualize the boundaries drawn around sexuality in Mennonite communities. (4) In showing both the static and the dynamic nature of weddings, I center my analysis on four themes around which conflict hovers: contesting notions of worldliness, controlling sacred space, regulating sexuality and negotiating family relationships. The story, however, is not simply one of unresolved conflict. Partly because weddings have been at once intimate family affairs and large public gatherings, the players in the drama are tied to each other in multiple ways: through blood, community and religious identity. Hence compromise is often as much a part of the story as is conflict, especially since parties to the conflict often continue living in close relation with each other.

In telling and analyzing these stories of weddings, I use an ethnographic approach. I have interviewed each woman involved in her home. I aim not to provide a representative portrait of all Mennonite weddings but to offer an analysis of three particular weddings in order to show the multiple ways in which ritual can provoke and pacify conflict. …

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