A Pattern of Christian Discipleship Shared by Thousands

by Chris Rowland, Oxford

Chris RowlandIt was the early part of 1987, and I was in the middle of doing the preparatory reading for a book entitled Radical Christianity. It was a chance conversation with a Baptist friend of mine, who was then training for the ministry at Spurgeon’s College. I was telling her about my interest in sixteenth-century Anabaptism and she said, “You ought to meet two friends of mine in London.” To cut a long story short, later that year I journeyed to the London Mennonite Centre and met twentieth-century Anabaptists, discovering (I have to admit) that this was not a phenomenon confined to the pages of church history books but a real living Christian practice. It was a great discovery, both for my own research and writing (I found myself making links between Latin American liberation theology and Anabaptism), but, more importantly, for myself as I grew as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Before writing the book, my knowledge of Anabaptism had been the rather dismissive references in the Church of England’s Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, and such slight references as might be included in the standard books on the Reformation. That year, I made friends who have sustained me and guided me, and discovered that a pattern of Christian discipleship, which for such a long time I had thought no one shared with me, was in fact shared by thousands of others around the world too. I realised that my inchoate commitment to pacifism, an egalitarian church structure and approach to biblical wisdom were part of other Christians’ vision of discipleship then and now. Here were people who thought that the aphorisms of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount were meant to inform and influence life in the contemporary world (I recall being reprimanded in my student Bible study group for entertaining such views), who were not only committed to peace but to the means whereby it could be implemented, who had a healthy suspicion of the State and its ideology, and who gave a high priority to practical discipleship in the understanding of the Christian faith. Theologically and spiritually, I had found a home in the twentieth century. I no longer had to be a spiritual exile who could only look back to the ideas of Diggers and Anabaptists of yesteryear but as I could find them today, informing theology and contemporary commitments to justice and peace.

Although I have always been an Anglican, I find myself on the edges of contemporary Anglicanism, uneasy with its Erastianism, unhappy about its antipathy to enthusiasm, particularly when it comes to matters of justice and peace. I have found my spiritual home in the Anabaptist traditions. I think it is a spirituality, a way of being Christian, which may (just about!) be practised as part of any church; that is not to say that it is easy to do outside a Mennonite environment. Of course, we cannot put the clock back and get back to the pre-Constantinian situation. What we can do is to recover that sense of Christianity being an alternative culture which characterised the early Christians’ understanding of the relationship between the City of God and the human city. I thank God for contemporary Anabaptist churches whose members down the centuries, often in difficult and costly and situations, have kept that vision and practice alive.

Christopher Rowland is Dean Ireland’s Professor of New Testament Exegesis, Oxford University, and an Anglican priest.