Drawn to Anabaptism: A Series of Articles

Specially commissioned for this website, a series of articles invites Christians from different traditions and denominations to tell their own story and explain why they have been drawn to the Anabaptist tradition.

If you belong to or identify with one of these denominations, you may be interested to see how others from your own tradition have encountered Anabaptism and what impact it has made on them. This has not generally meant them leaving their own denomination (after all we are a Network, not an institution), nor do they all necessarily affirm everything they have found in Anabaptism. But all of them have found inspiration and challenge in the Anabaptist tradition and points of contact with their own context.

Seven articles are now published on the website and can be accessed below.

If you are from a denomination that is not yet represented here and might be willing to write such an article, please let us know via the contact page.

A Baptist drawn to Anabaptism

Questions from and to the Anabaptists

by Ruth Gouldbourne

When I was teaching a class at Bristol Baptist College on the outline of reformation theology and history, we came to the session on the Radicals, and in particular on the Anabaptists. One of the students, who comes from another college, commented ‘you sound like a closet Anabaptist’. One of the students from our own college, knowing me well, responded: ‘There’s nothing closet about it!’ Cue much laughter. But it was a comment which has a great deal of truth.

My involvement with, commitment and debt to Anabaptist theology is evident to anybody who spends any time with me. Their commitment to discipleship as a way of life, religious freedom from state constraint, and its concomitant commitment to religious toleration of the broadest kind, added to a robust evangelistic sense, their lifestyle peace-building and their radical image of Lordship of Christ and the centrality of the Jesus stories in making and maintaining identity, their commitment to a church as a community of mutual discipleship and loving responsibility – all of this and so much more has held, challenged, enabled, frustrated and delighted me over the years that I have been making the acquaintance of Anabaptists, both sixteenth century and contemporary.

At the heart of what draws me to this theology and way of life is the hard questioning. There are no easy answers, there is no achieved discipleship, there is only the way to walk in, and some delightful companions – and some deeply infuriating ones – to walk it with. An authenticity of life, a struggling to speak truth in all its facets, and a refusal to accept having arrived mean that, for me, Anabaptist thinking remains a constant challenge and possibility.

I was drawn to the 16th-century Anabaptists first on the basis that if everybody hated and feared them so much, they must have something going for them – not the best reason for adopting a theological position, I admit, but I was only 9 or 10 at the time. Over the years, their questioning of me on the issues of disciple life, reality of bible reading, openness to other voices and not just those of the ‘leaders’ (especially when I have become one of those leaders), peace as a way of life and following Christ in order to know him have held me and led me back over and over again to a deep well-spring of refreshment and possibility.

I have grown up in, and remain committed to, the Baptist tradition within the UK. I have been ordained as a minister within this community, and have served both as a pastor and as a teacher within a denominational college. This is my home. As a tradition, there are significant overlaps in thinking and assumption with the Anabaptist tradition; gathered church, shared leadership, separation of church and civic community. There are also some significant differences; there is little in the Baptist tradition about peace making, while Baptists have at various points in their history been deeply involved in social and political work. They have also identified more closely with the so-called ‘mainstream’ Christian communities, while maintaining distinctive theological positions which have had practical consequences.

The Anabaptists have challenged me to take seriously the identity of a Christian community as an alternative society, in particular around issues of peace and of living in true relationship. My Baptist identity has held me in part because it is an on-going and existing tradition, with structures and a history of which (on the whole) I am very proud. Also, on a more mundane level, I have been around Baptist congregations, and not around Anabaptist ones – this is my home.

Several months ago, I was invited to lead a day with a congregation, reflecting on what Anabaptist thinking could offer us as we work out the process of being a Christian community. It was a good day. People engaged with the material, and explored the ideas with great enthusiasm and willingness to look at new possibilities. During the day, one member of the group was talking with me about a new position I am shortly to take up, as pastor of a congregation in the centre of a city, with a congregation very widespread and meeting only, if at all, on Sunday mornings. ‘You’ve spoken with great enthusiasm about community, about mutual support and accountability, about making visible an alternative way of living as a witness to the wider world” he said. “So why are you going to X? It’s not exactly the most obvious place to live and work with this theology.’

And he’s right. What is the relationship between this theology and these stories which have been so important to me and this new part of my own story – a congregation which is unseen to pastor and to each other for the most part for six and half days every week; a congregation which combines a significant long-term component, people who have been members for years, with a powerful transient group – present for three months while they are in this country, or two weeks, while they holiday here? What kind of community can this ‘church’ build when the geographical spread – and therefore the daily working out of Christian living – ranges over a couple of hundred miles?

How can there be a community of voices in worship, and in bible reading and reflection, when the closest communication that most folk have with each other is over the phone, and therefore is one to one, rather than in a group? How can a model of ‘new community’ life be built and expressed when those with whom the majority of the congregation spend the majority of their loves have no idea about the context in which these people worship, or the nature of the relationships that are explored and expressed on Sundays when the being of the church happens?

It is certainly true that there is intentionality about this congregation, and that that is something significant in Anabaptist thinking; nobody (or hardly anybody) is a part of this church by accident, or simply because of geographical contiguity. The sense of being gathered, of being committed to the community and to its continuing life is deep; it has to be if you are going to travel for an hour or so to get there each Sunday.

There is also the challenge of the history of that particular church itself, a history I honour and want to be part of. This is a church with a deep commitment to speaking with and to the voices of power; of being involved in and challenging the political and economic life of the community. What does a tradition of separation and ‘pure community’ have to offer me as I try to work out what such a history and such an identity might mean in the early 21st century?

Opting out is not an option. Ignoring the political processes is not possible. Far from the oppressed and feared minority who first explored these theological ideas and tried to embody them, this community I am to live as part of has been and continues to be made up of powerful people, involved in some of the significant economic and political (both narrowly and broadly) aspects of our community’s life. From where in the tradition do I find the tools, the questions and even perhaps some of the answers to reflect with them on how to be followers of Jesus?

My answer to my friend on the study day was unconsidered, and yet remains after consideration the only answer I can give. Anabaptist theology and identity has been so deeply part of how I have been formed that I cannot leave it to one side when I move to another context. And I know, even as the 16th-century and the contemporary Anabaptists know, that this is always and only provisional. As I move to this new place, the context itself becomes a challenge to the theology.

If it only ‘works’ in a limited context, or set of contexts, then it is not sufficient. If Anabaptist theology is what it hopes to be – a way of thinking about and opening the possibility of following Jesus in an authentic and continually challenging way, then it must be able to work even in this new place. And if it doesn’t, then just as the Anabaptists have always asked me hard questions, then it will be my turn to ask some of them. Please pray for me.

A Jesus Army leader drawn to Anabaptism

By James Stacey

My first dilemma in writing this piece was simply this: what to call it. I’ve certainly been drawn to Anabaptism, but who (or what) am I? A Jesus Armyite? A sort of charismatic Baptist? An evangelical Christian communist?

Brotherhood

The fact is that for me, as for many of my brothers and sisters in the Jesus Army, becoming a member was not so much affiliating myself to a denomination or joining a stream, as entering a people, a family. It meant coming into the family heritage – which includes a great deal of inspiration drawn from Anabaptist sources. This is why I find myself instinctively thinking corporately. Asked who I am, I instinctively reply ‘We’re the Jesus Army!’

Not (as some of our detractors have tried to maintain) that this means loss of my own mind or my personal relationship with Christ. But there is a quality of ‘us-ness’ about the Jesus Army. So the story of my having been ‘drawn to Anabaptism’ will inevitably include the story of how the Jesus Army as a whole was so drawn.

I would venture to say there’s something very Anabaptist about this in itself. The first edition of Peter Riedemann’s famous Confession of Faith is described on its title page as ‘By us brothers who are known as the Hutterites’. Brotherhood, this belonging together in the call of Christ, was precious to them as it is to us. For them, this flew in the face of the individualistic soteriology of the magisterial reformers. For us it challenges an increasingly individualistic society (not to mention the individualism of much contemporary Christianity).

Background

But I run ahead of myself! I must give some background. Jesus Fellowship Church (more widely known by its ‘street’ name of Jesus Army) is an evangelical, charismatic church of the ‘new church’ type. Its roots are in the charismatic movement of the late 1960s.

Rural Bugbrooke Baptist Chapel entered a new lease of life when the pastor and a number of members were ‘baptised in the Holy Spirit’, an experience which, before the charismatic renewal, was largely confined to Pentecostal churches. Thus far is familiar territory. Many churches of various denominations ‘went charismatic’ in the sixties. What was different was that the move of the Spirit at Bugbrooke led to a mix of people-types, as many flocked to the water hole (hippies, students and villagers). This, combined with a thoroughgoing look at the New Testament and, yes, an encounter with Anabaptist writings, led to the establishment of a residential Christian community by the mid-seventies.

‘Community’ started in a very informal manner – money pooled and kept in a big old teapot – before growing into something more official. Such informal circumstances are reminiscent of the very beginnings of the Hutterite community in 1528: These men then spread out a cloak in front of the people, and each laid his possessions on it with a willing heart – without being forced – so that the needy might be supported in accordance with the teaching of the prophets and apostles. 1

For the Jesus Fellowship, a shared journey of faith, risk and at times controversy was to follow. It was a journey that led more than two thousand people to covenant themselves to radical discipleship; some seven hundred of them to living together with "all things in common”; and about three hundred to embark upon a life of celibacy in order to serve the Lord more freely. An "alternative society” was formed. The journey led to communities spreading across the UK, the launch of Jesus Army outreach in the eighties, increased networking with other Christians in the nineties. By the turn of the new millennium, Jesus Army had ‘come of age’ as a high-profile, colourful new church: a dramatic story charted more fully in the book, Fire in our Hearts.2

As for me, Christian faith had always been part of my worldview, but it wasn’t until I experienced being baptised in the Holy Spirit when I was sixteen that my life began truly to centre on Christ. I longed for full time, ‘24/7’, Christianity, and considered various options from missionary to minister.

It was around this time that some of my friends and I met a bunch of Jesus Army people. I was struck by their warmth and humility, and by the reality of their brotherhood. That day was a new beginning for me. I was left with a curious feeling of having discovered something. I started to write about brotherhood in my journal.

Was I called to belong to the Jesus Army? I stayed a couple of weekends in a community house and started to give the whole idea serious thought. On one level, the whole idea was terrifying. Yet here it was: ‘24/7’ Christianity.

It was when I went to University in the Midlands and struck up a deep friendship with the main Jesus Army leader in Coventry that the whole thing came together. I found in him a spiritual father, a mentor. Eagerly, I devoured all he shared with me about the church as a distinctive ‘city on a hill’; about brotherhood covenant; about community of goods – all as thoroughly Anabaptist as they are New Testament, as I now realise. And so, I joined the Jesus Army, moving into community three years later, after graduation. I now head up the leadership team in a community house in which I live with my wife, two children and eight others (plus the hordes that stay at weekends!).

Baptism

For the Jesus Fellowship, as for me, it all started with baptism in the Holy Spirit. At first glance, such an experience may seem to have much more to do with Pentecostals than Anabaptists. Yet if the ‘discovery’ of experiential Spirit-baptism is traced back along its historical roots via the ‘holiness’ tradition and the Wesleys, through Pietism and the Quakers and George Fox, we find ourselves back at the Radical Reformation and certain Anabaptists. Over and against the largely academic approach favoured by both Thomist Catholicism and the magisterial reformers, they promulgated direct spiritual experience of God. ‘Love is a spiritual power’ wrote Hans Denck, a mystic among the Anabaptists: ‘the lover desires to be united with the beloved.’3Yet, it wasn’t just the so-called ‘spiritual’ wing of Anabaptism that emphasised experience: ‘We experience the Holy Spirit’s work within us in truth and power in the renewing of our hearts’ wrote the evangelical Peter Riedemann.4

Whatever may be said about the historical sources of charismatic pneumatology, it is certainly the case that Spirit baptism brought a fresh sense of spiritual reality to the congregation at Bugbrooke Baptist Chapel in 1969 (just as it did to me twenty-two years later). This quickly led to a deeper appreciation of the import and power of water baptism – and here we can safely say we are in Anabaptist territory!

When I was baptised in the sea by my friends – whom I then baptised – it was, essentially, in simple obedience to what were reading in the Bible. I had been christened as a baby and had to ride some upset misunderstanding from family members at my decision to be ‘re-baptised’. On the scale of persecution this was hardly what faced Grebel, Mantz and Blaurock5, but it did cost something – and I would like to think it was a step undertaken in the same spirit of obedience as those early Anabaptist pioneers.

I became aware that believer’s baptism set me apart for God; I had died with Christ and was raised with Him to newness of life. At Bugbrooke Baptist chapel, ‘baptised in water’ was nothing new. But ‘baptised with the Holy Spirit’ certainly was. It was a departure from ‘the world’, in Him, and an entry into a new order, a new creation. Baptism was transition into peoplehood, into the new brotherhood. It was this new understanding of baptism – in water and Spirit – that led directly to community.

Others have described those early days to me and how the Anabaptist influence became explicit at that time. By 1976, there was a sense of destiny and pioneering in the pursuit of radical community. The leadership wanted to find out who had trodden a similar path in times past, and how it went with them. They read of the martyrdom of Michael Sattler and others. Someone got hold of Peter Riedemann’s Confession, extracts of which were read in elders’ meetings and taught on in the congregation.

Battle

Identification with such Radical Reformers was not all theoretical. The other element was that 1977-78 saw the start of opposition to the Jesus Fellowship from the press and the anti-cult lobby. There was a sense of affinity with those ordinary yet dedicated Anabaptists in their rejection and sufferings – simply because they wanted to live New Testament Christianity.

The Jesus Fellowship became controversial and this only increased as the alternative seventies gave way to the materialistic eighties. Much as the Münster debacle was made to fit all early Anabaptists, so the Jesus Fellowship became mixed up in some people’s minds with the various sects and cults in the headlines. Yes, we were somewhat isolationist at that time; it gave us time to work out the Kingdom lifestyle we were exploring and to ‘go deep’. We learnt a few Anabaptist lessons about ‘turning the other cheek’ in those times – and it wasn’t always easy!

Aspects of our kinship with early Anabaptists were:

* being a church of the working classes,

* zeal for evangelism,

* covenantal relationships,

* believers' baptism as initiation into a life of discipleship,

* separation from the world's spirit and systems,

* real spirituality and brotherhood.

All of these became part of our ‘flavour’ as a church. For a while it seemed as though our community life was going to ‘go Hutterite’ (there was a proliferation of headscarves!) Yet in the end, we incorporated these things into our Spirit-led explorations whilst still remaining open to other influences and relationships with a range of other churches.

Breadth

And so, in the mid-90s, it was a multi-faceted Jesus Army that I came to join. We had broadened out significantly since those early years. (Notice how I instinctively use ‘we’- Jesus Fellowship history is my history – even before I was there!) Yet, breadth notwithstanding, it was those core radical values, drawn from Anabaptism, which made me fall in love with our church. And it really was falling in love: discovering the beauty of the church or ‘seeing Zion’, as we call it, was as powerful for me as my initial baptism in the Spirit. Indeed, the two were inseparably linked.

During those heady years I devoured works such as the astonishingly provocative clarion call to community of goods by the Hutterite, Andreas Ehrenpreis.6 I still find its arguments for full sharing amongst Christians absolutely compelling. In addition to such Anabaptist provocations, I was introduced to other Jesus Fellowship favourites – Watchman Nee, Francis of Assisi, Smith Wigglesworth and the Celtic saints. (The diversity of that quartet alone speaks volumes!)

Despite this eclectic approach, wise prophetic leadership has kept us from being ‘blown here and there by every wind of teaching’ and we’ve been able to chart a fairly steady course. The New Testament has been our primary guide, and it has frequently been the New Testament as viewed though an Anabaptist lens. For all the activity and busyness of the last decade or so (our latest venture is to open ‘Jesus Centres’ – centres for worship and care – in cities across the UK7),we remain at heart a brotherhood church, a Kingdom demonstrating church, a people called to lay down our lives for each other and to display the gospel – in proclamation and in lifestyle.




1 From Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren

2 To read Fire in our Hearts and find out more about the Jesus Fellowship in general, visit www.jesus.org.uk.

3 From Hans Denck's 1527 Treatise, Concerning True Love

4 From Peter Riedemann’s 1545 Confession of Faith

5 Generally regarded as the first Anabaptists to be ‘re-baptised’ in 1525. Grebel died of plague, but the other two were martyred.

6 Now published by Plough Publishers as Brotherly Community, the Highest Command of Love

A New Church leader drawn to Anabaptism

By Linda Wilson

Becoming Involved

I can’t quite remember when I first encountered Anabaptists and the Anabaptist network. Possibly it was through hearing Stuart Murray speak at the New Churches Theology Forum, a regular conference which brought together people from across all the New Church Streams to ponder and discuss theological issues of common interest. Perhaps it was because Lloyd Pietersen, a good friend, was already involved. Wherever it was, I found it intriguing, and soon became part of a local study group in Bristol and of the Anabaptist Theology Forum, where I was privileged to get to know several people who became friends, such as Stuart Murray, Alan & Ellie Krieder, Chris Burch, and others. This also gave me the opportunity to explore issues around what it means to be church in today’s world, through the helpful prism of Anabaptism.

The previous, introductory paragraph highlights what is to me an attractive element in the current Anabaptist network – its relational basis, and the fact that it gives an opportunity to wrestle with issues about contemporary church in a secure and at times devotional context. I am grateful for that opportunity, which came at a useful time for me.

Anabaptism and New Churches

I had been involved with a New Church (house church), Bristol Christian Fellowship, since student days in the mid 1970s, and there seemed a lot of resonances between that early excitement and Anabaptism. Foundational to us as church are elements such as relationship-based church; discipleship, every member ministry; informal worship, small groups and overseas connections. (We have since added others, including being intergenerational, encouraging the ministry of women, exploring social justice, being a place to doubt, and having a sense of humour). Born out of the late 1960s and early 1970s, New Churches were at the same time a reaction to and an expression of the counter-culture of the time, and yet also expressed truths about church that are embedded in Scripture. At the time I engaged with Anabaptism, some years down the line, we were at the stage of re-evaluating who we were, and what our identity was now that many of our core values were finding their way into other churches. Anabaptism, which re-emphasised, it seems to me, some of those core values, as well as challenging others, was a helpful catalyst to me in this process. I appreciated the honesty of others in these groups, and it was healthy to meet with people from different traditions, who had a passion for the gospel and a longing to see real church and true disciples living out that gospel. At the same time, I was embarking on post-graduate research, and although a historian rather than a theologian, I appreciated discussions which at the same time stretched the brain and challenged my personal response to God.

As a church historian I realise that it is easy to be too simplistic about finding parallels with past groups and movements. We romanticise the past: seeing a few familiar characteristics, we invest a movement with our own agenda and priorities: so the Montanists become charismatics, for instance, a sort of second-century Toronto movement. Not exactly accurate! Just as everyone from twelfth-century monks to Baptists to the cell church movement believes that they are living out the ‘New Testament Church’, whatever that was, so we find in church history a reflection of our own times. Some of that is appropriate: history, like the gospel, has to be re-contextualised for every generation, but, like the gospel, there is genuine truth out there, not just in the minds of the readers. Having said that, there are many contemporary resonances within Anabaptism.

Working out Church as Community Today

For instance, I’ve lost count of the number of local Bristol study groups in which, whatever the supposed topic, we always ended up discussing what it meant for church to be community in our society. For most people this was a dream, an aspiration, and for some they weren’t sure they really wanted it. I was always left feeling, whatever the weaknesses of my own church, at least we were aiming in the right direction and had some limited experience! Community, however, is where the particular historical context of Anabaptism led to a development in quite a different direction than I would want to encourage today. The boundaries were drawn very tight, of necessity, round beleaguered and persecuted groups: tight because their understanding of church, defining themselves over against Christendom, demanded it; tight because anyone could potentially be a spy who would betray them. They taught separation from the world, which in their context was completely logical and appropriate, but today would be an inadequate response to the gospel. In time, it led for them to the greater isolation of Amish and other communities, a retreat from the world at large.

Gathered churches have to a greater or lesser extent followed this pattern, and drawn their boundaries tight, in later centuries – in terms of church membership and from time to time also in terms of engagement with society. As New Churches started, we also drew our membership boundaries tightly, as indeed do most new movements in their ‘sect’ stage. We live in a completely different culture, however, from the early Anabaptists. We have the opportunity, which they did not, to engage creatively with culture, through involvement at many levels of society, from politics to art. That complete separation of church and world is now unhelpful, although the question of what does it mean to be ‘in the world and not of it’ becomes a more pressing one, with no one easy answer. Christendom is fading as the context within which churches exist. Stuart Murray has helpfully analysed and provoked us over the issue of post-Christendom, and we need to ask what aspects of Anabaptism are still helpful in this new culture. I believe that there is still a challenge to discipleship that we would do well to listen to, that I need to be reminded of. For this coming season, our church has decided that we need to focus on discipleship again. Perhaps Anabaptists can help us discover what it means to live as disciples in the twenty-first century.

Furthermore, over the last few years, as ‘belonging before believing’ has become more widespread, our own church has relaxed its boundaries, seeing a fringe as a sign of a healthy church, and made it easier for people to come and go. If you like, the centred set has become our practice, rather than the bounded set of Anabaptism. But questions remain. How do we live out genuine relationships, real 24-hours-a-day church, when many people aren’t in geographical proximity? Are networks as much real church as living near to each other? In this busier and more independent age – Mrs Thatcher isn’t entirely to blame but she didn’t help – we are constantly swimming against the tide to make friendships a priority. I feel the tension in my own life – especially when trying to write a book and do pastoral work and encourage community in the church at the same time!

Anabaptist Stories – A Useful Catalyst

Whilst we can no longer look to the Anabaptists for our boundaries, however, there are aspects of their belief that still challenge me and help to draw me make to the core values of our church. I see myself as New Church first and Anabaptist second, (well, just a disciple first, but that’s getting too pedantic) but there are enough similarities for the latter to provide insight into the former. There are also stories that can inspire us to be disciples. I have used the story of Dirk Willems rescuing his pursuer from the icy water of a Dutch canal with teenage gap-year teams in our church, with adults here, and with church leaders in India and in the depths of the Transvaal, and this story always provokes a response, although in South Africa I had to explain what a canal was! Many of the Anabaptist stories of persecution, or on a lighter note, others such as Menno on top of the coach (Menno was asked whether Menno Simons was inside the coach: he looked inside and said no; was this truth-telling?), are helpful stories in any society to make people think about the nature of faith and discipleship.

I find the stories of the Anabaptist women inspiring too. This is another case where it is easy to read back modern agendas into the past, but it is encouraging to see women taking initiatives, standing up for their faith, and discipling others in the faith. The comment of the woman who refused to convert because now she was over 50 – ‘she was too old to learn anything new’ is often quoted in our house, although I hope it isn’t true for us! The wonderful if rather pricy book, Profiles of Anabaptist Women (Linda A Huebert Hecht & C Arnold Snyder (Eds): Profiles of Anabaptist Women (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), is based on lots of stories, often in court records, of Anabaptist women who took a stand for their faith, or who lived as fugitives. We need role models of feisty Christian women who stood up for what they believed in, but also of ordinary female believers who found themselves caught up in dramatic times (you can tell at this point that I like fantasy novels!). Seriously, an important part of contemporary history is recovering the history of ordinary women, and there is a rich heritage here in Anabaptism, which women as well as men can identify with. One nineteenth century Baptist women (she was called Marianne Farningham, and I’m currently writing on a book about her) commented that as a child she read a magazine which had heroes of the faith, and every month ‘I hoped to find the story of some poor ignorant girl, who, beginning life as handicapped as I, had yet been able… to live a life of usefulness if not of greatness. But I believe there was not a woman in the whole series.’ With Anabaptist women, there is a history that women can relate to – although personally I can also draw inspiration from stories about men.

Concluding Thoughts

So it is both the similarities and the differences between the church that I am involved in, as part of its leadership team, and Anabaptism, that makes the latter an intriguing ‘conversation partner’ (as Stuart would say). There are others: the early church, the other radical groups, individuals throughout the ages who have sought to be disciples, all of whom we can learn from. We need to set ourselves both in the context of the kaleidoscopic variety of the world-wide church, and in the stream of history, and find our place in both. But the Anabaptists have been especially challenging and inspiring for me in my personal journey of faith – a cliché now, but one that I still think is helpful. Any resources I can draw on as I seek, however inadequately, to live out faith as a disciple, to encourage others and to reach out in mission, are valuable, and Anabaptism is especially so as it has a way of continually challenging my thinking and my practice. New Churches still have a lot more to learn by engaging with the Anabaptist tradition, and my life has been enriched both by the history and by the friends I have made along the way who are also seeking to work out the meaning of church and discipleship in our complex culture.

A Pentecostal drawn to Anabaptism

by Richard Gillingham

Introduction

The invitation was to write as ‘a Pentecostal drawn to Anabaptism’. Although I no longer fellowship within a Pentecostal setting, Pentecostalism has been extremely important in informing my Christian life. I think my first encounter with something like Anabaptism was reading (as a 16 year old) Christopher Hill’s survey of 17th-century English religious radicalism, The World Turned Upside Down. However, in retrospect I think it was less intellectual than that. My church was an outgrowth of a House Church and it was during this time that I was re-baptised (I had been baptised previously as a child in the Methodist Church) and ever since that point I have been something of an advocate of the Believers’ Church tradition.

There were undoubted strengths in my church community, but the strong vein of anti-intellectualism was not one of them; I was in a place of having an experience but lacking a (conscious) theology in which to situate it and eventually enrolled in a Classical Pentecostal theological college, despite reservations from some of the church leadership – because the college had the label ‘theological’ in the title!

Why I was drawn to Anabaptism

In the history of Classical Pentecostalism, particularly through reading the late Walter Hollenweger’s excellent book Pentecostalism, I found a narrative in which my experience could be placed, interpreted and one of which I could be proud. What then of my relationship with Anabaptism? In conversations with others it is clear that the primary means of attraction to the Anabaptist Network is relational, but in my case this was not so. My interest in Anabaptism was as a consequence of re-reading John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus after researching the theology of Stanley Hauerwas in my postgraduate work.

In my reading it was clear that Anabaptism, like Pentecostalism, is strongly apocalyptic. I think this similarity is a key reason for my attraction to the Anabaptist vision (more on that later). Reading their respective histories some of the similarities between Pentecostalism and Anabaptism are striking. For example:

A Charismatic view of the Church

Pentecostalism is well known for its emphasis on the spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of tongues. While Anabaptism, especially in its early history, certainly had similar manifestations this is not what I mean by calling both churches charismatic. Rather, both have a very strong emphasis on every-member ministry in the Church. Early Pentecostals regularly claimed that Pentecostalism had no earthly leaders. Both traditions assert that every member of the Church has been gifted for a unique ministry. The historian Augustus Cerillo writes that the ‘central element in Pentecostal ideology was its belief in the church as a Holy Spirit-created egalitarian community in which all the walls of separation produced by racial, ethnic, gender, and class differences would be washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ’ (Pentecostal Currents, 237-238).

A Peace Church

Pentecostalism’s approach to violence has demonstrated a monumental U-turn of which many a politician could be proud. In 1917 Stanley Frodsham, General Secretary of the Assemblies of God in the USA, could write: ‘From the very beginning, the movement has been characterized by Quaker principles. The laws of the Kingdom, laid down by our elder brother, Jesus Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, have been unqualifiedly adopted, consequently the movement has found itself opposed to the spilling of blood of any man … Every branch of the movement, whether in the United States, Canada, Great Britain or Germany, has held to this principle’ (cited in Blumhofer, Restoring the Vision, 147).

The reason for their pacifism was sometimes a negative one; the argument going something like this: the imminent (pre-millennial) return of Christ is to be preceded by ‘wars and rumours of war’; to oppose violence with violence would paradoxically be to oppose the purposes of God. However, this is hardly any different to the early Anabaptist Melchior Hoffman’s pacifism or the view of some recent Old Order Anabaptists. Like Anabaptists, there were also more sophisticated pacifists, such as the British Pentecostal Donald Gee.

Pacifism in Pentecostalism has (to my knowledge) all but disappeared. The status of dynamic ecclesiology is a slightly more ambiguous but there is a tendency to deem successful Pentecostal Churches that inhibit the idea (in practice) and present a slick production in which attendees are passive customers of a professional production.

Historic and Contemporary Pentecostalism

In his book A Generous Orthodoxy Brian McLaren describes as one of seven different understanding of Jesus his encounter with the ‘Pentecostal Jesus’. He writes that ‘the Pentecostal Jesus [is] up close, present, and dramatically involved in daily life…the Pentecostal Jesus also saves by his powerful presence in this present moment’ (50). Without doubt this emphasis on the living presence of the resurrected Jesus is a strength of the movement. However, it also bears with it problems. The Pentecostal Jesus’ relationship can have an excessively individualistic feel, in which the worshipper is engaged in an intense relationship with the divine but the worshipping community is peripheral. One Pentecostal scholar (Jean-Daniel Pluss) has recently suggested that the rapid growth of Pentecostalism is in fact a globalization of individualism. More accurately it is a globalization of a wholly vertical relationship with God, which is often divorced from the wider social context. Rather than offering a witness to the unseen reign of God in what is a predominately individualistic and consumerist society, Pentecostalism can have tend to baptise such trends in Christian vocabulary – thereby acting as a disincentive to social change. Tragically, this is probably why the Reagan administration (via the CIA) invested heavily in Chilean Pentecostalism – to try to undercut the ‘dangerous’ challenge of Liberation Theology; with Pentecostalism’s apocalyptic theology and emphasis on the imminent return of Jesus. From this perspective, any time spent on social transformation is, in the words of Robert Beckford, ‘a waste of precious prayer time’.

Such an approach is not representative of some of Pentecostalism’s own history. Elsewhere Beckford, a British Black Pentecostal, has suggested that the glossolalia (gift of tongues) of Asuza Street was not just a signifier of Holy Spirit baptism but also a signifier of a commitment to ‘radical social transformation’. In claiming continuity with the early Church (as evidenced in Acts 2) the Pentecostals were also confirming their continuity with the egalitarianism the apostolic Acts church exhibited. Following William Seymour’s lead, Pentecostals affirmed that ‘one could not have tongues and continue with forms of social discrimination’. The subsequent history of Pentecostalism makes it painfully clear that this is inaccurate (the movement has been plagued by racism). However, as Beckford (6) says in concluding his argument: ‘If every…Pentecostal Church in Britain viewed tongues as a language of social engagement rather than just a supra-rational ecstatic experience, what spiritual power would be unleashed in Britain‘s urban centres!

I do not want this article to be read as an attack on Pentecostals. Whilst I certainly think there are failings, they are outnumbered by its strengths. Instead I suggest that Pentecostalism has a revolutionary and liberating history that in many ways has significant congruence with the Anabaptist vision. I view Anabaptism and Pentecostalism as co-heirs of the same radical tradition.

What can Pentecostals learn from Anabaptism?

Part of my remit was to suggest what Pentecostalism could learn from Anabaptism. My main suggestion is a relatively easy one, although one with wide-ranging implications. Although Pentecostalism and Anabaptism share a thoroughgoing apocalyptic theology, they differ in how the idea of apocalypse is understood.

In his excellent introduction to central themes (the core) of Anabaptism, From Anabaptist Seed, C.A. Snyder never once (explicitly) discusses the idea of apocalypse. If one were to read a similar book on Pentecostalism (I am not aware of one) this would play an important role. One of the pillars of the so-called ‘foursquare gospel’ (as Pentecostalism was often called) was the understanding of Jesus as ‘the coming King’, which was universally understood in a pre-millennial way (though not quite so universally now). The apocalyptic in Pentecostalism is discourse about a future event and it is extremely determinative for Pentecostal faith. Into this category comes the hope of the great End Time Revival which was central to early Pentecostalism (especially Charles Parham), regularly returns in movements of (alleged) renewal such as the Latter Rain revival of the late 1940s and the Toronto and Pensacola revivals of the 1990s, and was in effect the primary goal for the church in which I grew up.

Although less prominent in Anabaptism, the apocalyptic seems to be no less determinative for Anabaptist witness. After some infamous false starts in Anabaptist history (most notably Munster), contemporary versions (with which I am familiar) focus less on God’s timetable for the world’s eventual demise and more on the invasive self-revelation of God in Jesus as determinative for the way things should be, and therefore a model of the Church’s vision. In the words of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder: ‘The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the sword are not as strong as they think…It is that people who wear crosses are working with the grain of the universe. One comes to that belief by…sharing the life of those who sing about the resurrection of the slain Lamb.’

Anabaptism, like Pentecostalism, understands the notion of apocalyptic to be determinative for faith, but it understands apocalyptic as the unveiling of the way of Jesus. The apocalyptic is shorthand for Jesus Christ (Harink). Walter Hollenweger wrote in his Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide (397): ‘The problem and promise of Pentecostalism are two sides of the same coin. Both are rooted in its identity and in its history. It would be bad advice to recommend to Pentecostals that they become Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, or Catholics of a sort. They must discover instead what it means to be genuinely Pentecostal. Genuine Pentecostalism is distinguished by faithfulness to its roots.’

Pentecostalism has in many ways, although not I suspect consciously, disowned its own radical history and become assimilated into its social surroundings and therefore lost its critical voice (not a uniquely Pentecostal error!) This is in large part responsible for a recurrent aversion to the idea of a Pentecostal tradition.

In 1659 the Dutch Mennonite Thieleman J van Braght wrote the Martyrs’ Mirror. It retold the faithfulness of early Anabaptists in laying down their lives for their faith, because van Braght felt that the Mennonites of his own time had lost some of their vibrancy. By remembering the faithful witness of the early witnesses contemporary Mennonites could be re-invigorated. I believe that after a similar hiatus since Pentecostalism’s origins it may be time for the ‘martyrs’ of Pentecostalism to be remembered and used as a source of critical self-reflection. These martyrs may be literal martyrs, like the Iranian Houssein Moodman, or those imprisoned for their faith, such as the early British Pentecostal leader Howard Carter. Pentecostals might also listen more attentively to those on its own margins who are voicing many of the same concerns about the contemporary version of respectable Pentecostalism. For all the extreme doctrines and personalities of Early Pentecostalism, this is the tradition and story that set me on the path to the vision that sees the church as witness to God’s restorative justice and peace in the world. Such a view is a decidedly Anabaptist one, and is one for which I am indebted to Pentecostalism.

A Quaker drawn to Anabaptism

A Journey from Atheism to Anabaptism

by Graham Paley

I am a recent, and still at times reluctant, ‘convert’ to Christianity. Having spent about 35 years being a self-professed Atheist I now find myself in the position of being able to describe myself, if I wanted to, as a Bible-believing Christian. At the moment, I generally choose not to describe myself in this way and still struggle at times to understand how I have ended up in this curious position in my life. I do know that stumbling across Anabaptism has been the one single most important event that has moved me to becoming a Christian.

I was born into a white, working-class, low-income family, something that has always influenced my perspective on life. Although money was tight when I was a child, this did not seem to matter much as I was fortunate to grow up in a loving and supportive family. This has always left me knowing that, although money is important, it is not the most important thing in life. I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s when Britain was still nominally a ‘Christian culture’. I attended Christian assemblies at school and sang Christian hymns. However, my family life was not Christian.

My Dad had grown up in a catholic sub-culture that seemed mainly to consist of Catholic teachers hitting him daily throughout his childhood. His World War II experiences, when he had volunteered to serve on submarines, had also left him with little time for religion. Both he and my Granddad, whom I spent a lot of time with as a child, were ‘lapsed Catholics’ and anti-religious. They told me various horror stories about the hypocrisy or dogmatism of priests and Christians. Further childhood experiences with dogmatic Christians, and adult reading of contradictory beliefs such as a God of love who is also willing deliberately to torture most of humanity for eternity in ‘Hell’ alienated me from mainstream Christianity and my ethnic Christian culture.

I have always been an avid reader and interested in politics and history. As a teenager I soon read about the blood-stained history of Christianity and the numerous times it had contributed to violence and injustice in the world. I left school at 16 and spent 6 years in the Merchant Navy. I travelled the world and saw poverty and injustice at first hand. I saw no evidence that religion was doing anything to alleviate this and some evidence that it was contributing to it.

I subsequently became involved in left-wing politics. I spent about 15 years in all as a party and trade union activist. At that time I believed that people could solve injustice (if only they would work together). As the years progressed, I did not see things changing much and became jaded with the ethics of some of those on the left wing. Their view that ‘the ends justifies the means’ was never one I subscribed to and I ended my active involvement in politics.

There is not the space here to describe how, but at the age of 30 I became involved in a Buddhist group. I gained a great deal from the practice of meditation and the people were a good bunch. I enjoyed the teachings, especially around non violence. Buddhism offered me a spiritual path without the need for a belief in God. My understanding of God at this time was still based on my earlier perceptions of associating Christianity with dogma, hypocrisy and intolerance. Throughout my 10 year involvement with the Buddhists I maintained an Atheist perspective. My time with the Buddhists has given me a supportive outlook on other faiths. Despite having had a very positive 10 year experience, I eventually felt an urge to move away from Buddhism. This was partly related to what I perceived to be aspects of spiritual immaturity in the group I was in and also something cultural. For me, Buddhism did not fully fit my own cultural heritage.

I subsequently had a brief encounter with the Unitarians who, for the first time ever in my life, offered me a glimpse that Christianity could be non-dogmatic and have something relevant to offer the modern world.

Following this I began reading the Bible for the first time about three years ago. I remember reading the Sermon on the Mount and swearing out loud in surprise and excitement. I really had no idea that that was what Christianity was supposed to be about. I had, in genuine ignorance, believed that the Bible actually taught bigotry and intolerance. I have continued to read the Bible since. In many ways I still feel that trying to understand it is like wrestling with an elephant. In other ways though, coming to the Bible without any previous Christian conditioning, a lot of it, especially the teachings of Jesus, seems absolutely crystal clear and unambiguous. I am still genuinely surprised as to how some Christians have managed to misunderstand, or even reverse, some of these teachings.

By this time I had joined the Quakers. I liked their non-dogmatic approach and felt affinity with their testimonies of peace, equality, simplicity, and truthfulness. Peace has always been important to me. The Quaker pacifist tradition chimed with my previous Buddhist experiences of non-violence. My own reading of the Bible has convinced me utterly that this is also the teachings of Jesus. I easily moved over from Buddhist meditation into the silent meeting of Quaker worship. During this time I have continued to read widely around Christianity.

The key event for me was stumbling across the Anabaptist Network website one evening, although I still cannot remember how I first found this website. I simply could not work these people out. They were interested in social justice which chimed with my previous involvement with politics. They voiced many of the same criticisms of Christianity that I had always had. They were overtly committed to pacifism that was so important to me and which I had thought only the Quakers were. The puzzling thing was that they proposed all of this from an overtly Bible-based and Christian perspective. I struggled to work it out were they ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing’.

I lurked around their websites and read their literature before eventually joining my local AN study group. The stories of current Anabaptists that I read in the book Coming Home were inspiring. Their views on Christendom, living in a ‘post-Christian’ and pluralist society, and taking a Jesus-centred perspective to faith, the Bible, and to Christianity have helped me to overcome a lot of my previous animosity to Christianity. I recently completed the Anabaptist inspired Workshop course. The impact of this course has been immense. It has helped me to be able to base my own faith in a Christian context that matches my own cultural heritage and background. It embraces my lifelong struggles for a fairer world as well as my previous positive experiences of spiritual practice that I gained from my 10 years with the Buddhists. My contact with the Network has enabled me to re-engage with Christianity in a way that adds to rather than contradicts other stages on my spiritual journey. The Anabaptist approach to Christianity makes sense to me and feels rooted. I now feel that my Quakerism – and especially my peace testimony – is firmly grounded in the Christianity that originally inspired George Fox. I also feel re-engaged with my own spiritual culture but in a way that is directly relevant for how I live my life now in 2005 based on religious and spiritual rather than secular values.

However, I still have a long way to go in working through the impact of my faith on my own life. One impact is on me being a Quaker. My membership of the Quakers has given me a space over the last few years to explore my own faith. I was initially attracted to the Quakers because they were willing to offer me a spiritual home without having to first sign up to any creed. I soon became aware, though, that apart from sharing a common method of worship, there seems to be little else that we Quakers hold in common as a shared theology. I feel that diversity is welcoming but that Quakerism has become too disengaged from its roots.

I am fascinated how George Fox had formed a radical religious society that has lasted for 350 years, when so many others have simply disappeared. George Fox’s journal makes it clear that the Quakers were firmly rooted in a radical interpretation of Christianity. My sense is that now he would be very much on the charismatic end of Christianity. For me, the diversity of the Quakers means that we no longer have a shared theology that I can draw on. Most of my spiritual growth over the last few years has come outside of the Quakers and especially from the AN and Workshop. I feel that I am moving in the opposite direction to most of my fellow Quakers. Quakers have for some time now been a post-Christian Society of Friends. There are many Quakers who would not describe themselves as Christians at all and many of those that would are turned off by formal Christian language. I feel that the Anabaptist take on Christianity is very close to George Fox’s. I recently wrote an article about the AN for the biggest circulation Quaker publication, thinking that other Quakers would be interested. It only got 2 responses. I now find myself in the position that, having first joined the Quakers because they were not overtly Christian, I am now probably leaving them for the same reason.

I do not know where the next stage of my journey will be. I have a lot of work still to do on the direction and outworking of my own faith. Not least in the light of Anabaptist perspectives around wealth. This has implications for my work and lifestyle. For now I am sticking around the AN for future direction. I have completed Workshop and have volunteered to help out on this year’s Workshop as a learning mentor. My plan is to enrol on Advanced Workshop when it runs again 2006. I am also involved in setting up a North of England support group for Christian Peacemaker Teams with friends from the AN and Workshop. Apart from this I do not know. It has been a strange and at times puzzling journey from Atheism to Anabaptism. If someone had told me even three years ago that I would be doing what I am now doing I would not have believed them.

A United Reformed Church minister drawn to Anabaptism

Living with struggle…..an Anabaptist in the URC

by Andrew Francis

What does URC mean to you? Perhaps nothing……particularly if you are a non-British reader of this website.

The URC is the United Reformed Church – a brave coming together of different Protestant traditions in Britain. First, in 1972, of the English Presbyterians with both English and Welsh Congregationalists. Nine years later, most of the British Churches of Christ joined them, to be followed by the majority of Scots Congregationalists in 2000. Each tradition had its own history and particular emphases.

Many of us arrived in the URC like driftwood and choose to remain in its struggle by choice.

Together, as one denomination, the URC developed a hybrid reputation, despite being an orthodox commitedly Trinitarian people, declaring the Bible to be the ‘the highest authority for what we believe and do’ (URC Statement of its Nature, Faith and Order). To many, we are a Christian denomination that leads the way in 21st-century political activism and campaigning for justice; the great majority of our congregations have declared ‘fair trade’ status. To others, we can seem too liberal, yet we were one of the first Christian denominations to acknowledge the need for our own ‘Group for Evangelism and Renewal’ (GEAR). We believe the congregation to be the primary focus and locus for Christian discipleship and mission.

It could all sound too good to be true for any budding Anabaptist……

There is more to the story and it is rooted in our history:

You may know that Presbyterians in Scotland form the established Church of Scotland and English Presbyterians have many tendencies to favour strong church-and-state links. I trust that God blesses the English monarch just as much as the poorest alternative world peasant, but I do not need the National Anthem in either our worship or hymnbook to encourage others to think there might be a difference. Yet it is only in my present congregation that I have not needed to witness this discussion.

The Congregationalists have roots in the Independency surrounding the English Civil War. Then the important thing was that you belonged to ‘their’ kind of chapel and not to the other lot. Since then, Congregationalism has joined Methodism on the ‘social escalator’ (John Vincent: OK, Let’s be Methodists, London: Epworth, 1984), gradually losing touch with its roots amongst the poor, whilst becoming institutionalised with large buildings, installing pews and organs, finally moving from being a ‘Union’ of congregations to a ‘Church’ in 1965. The streak of independency often remained, meaning that the co-operation and mission shared between several congregations seemed to be at the whim of local church meetings, rather than a matter of discipleship and strategic mission. My experiences either side of the Pennines taught me to anticipate “How much will it cost….?” as one of the first questions in any discussion; sadly this was financial rather than working out what sacrificial discipleship might mean.

I had grown up in the Churches of Christ where my father was a pastor. We were very Anabaptist – accepting only those baptised as believers until the late 1960s. We were a tiny association of (less than 200) congregations, being more like a nationwide family, making us often tremendously insular. I remember the relieved smiles of other church members when my grandparents invited any stranger in Sunday worship to lunch – one of many lessons in Christian hospitality. In the 1870s, we had been one of the fastest-growing denominations in Victorian England, yet by the 1960s our Restorationist ideas were being better practised by the growing New Church Movement.

My rediscovery of Anabaptism has been told elsewhere (in Alan Kreider & Stuart Murray (Eds.): Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland, Waterloo: Pandora Press, 2000); it was like ‘coming home’. Here are people:

- who share my beliefs in a marked out missionary community of disciples
- who believe Jesus and his teachings are the supreme pattern for daily life
- who have a daily commitment to justice and peace, prayer and Bible study
- who know that the church must be separate from the State

I find many of these ‘marks’ in my fellow-pilgrims within the URC but even more beyond such denominational boundaries.

Like driftwood, I arrived on the tide of ecumenical enthusiasm that swept the Churches of Christ into the URC, believing that we could bridge baptismal divides. It has not been true. Increasingly many congregations and even more ministers accept that believers’ baptism is a New Testament norm and should be our practice in the face of rising secularity and this new missionary age. Yet so often congregations are riven apart when some traditionalist says that his or her grandchild should be baptised as an infant when their own children, and now parents, are non-believers. We are continually engaging with the struggle to reassert obedient discipleship.

But following Jesus is about the way of the Cross. I was training to be a (paid) minister – a not very Anabaptist concept – when I landed on the URC’s shoreline. In each congregation where I have had the privilege of serving alongside some vibrant and unpaid elders, the struggles have been different and, as the years have gone by, have become more radical – now that is Anabaptist.

Now we live on the fringe of fast-growing Swindon, working alongside two (and sometimes more) congregations, each with their own struggles to follow the way of Jesus. We strive every week to create multi-voiced and relevant worship. We work with many agencies to create ‘sacred space’ and dialogue, in order that those searching for God can enter into friendships then faith. We run a ‘fair trade’ Saturday café, themed children’s days (the latest in December 2005 was Narnia), events with our local pub as well as the more usual churchy-type stuff; yet in the midst of folk’s busyness, we struggle to do all that we feel called to. Our study programme increasingly finds the writings of contemporary Anabaptists, such as John Howard Yoder, Alan & Ellie Kreider and Stuart Murray, inform our use of the Bible and our congregational life. At the heart of it all, we find our sense of community in meals together and not just bread and wine.

But nothing is complete – there is always the voice of Jesus inviting us to take yet another step in faith! The struggle goes on….and perhaps the URC’s present internal yet radical review will ensure more Anabaptist-style questions approach us from the horizons of our vision.

An Anglican drawn to Anabaptism

by Chris Burch

Like most others I had hardly heard of Anabaptists, except as a glancing reference, a footnote in school history books. But when I first encountered Anabaptist ideas as an adult, at a life-enhancing day conference in Leeds in 1983 on “It all fits together”, the ideas fell on fertile soil. As I began to get to know Anabaptist people and ideas better, they helped me to articulate feelings I’d had for a long time –

• That the Church of England was rather wedded to the Establishment, whereas Jesus had founded an originally subversive movement;
• That the unconventional is not always wrong, despite some Anglicans’ horror at the unusual. By temperament I like to look for different ways to do things. I was attracted to the Anabaptists’ habit and teaching of “confounding people’s expectations” as a Gospel way of doing things;
• That peace is more Christian than war – a conviction that was growing in me through the 1980s;
• That the Holy Spirit having come on all flesh (Acts 2:17), the gospel and its ministries must be open to “ordinary people”. The C of E has always been rather elitist, and recently seems to be getting worse. But the gospel, it seems to me, opens the way to all Christian disciples to offer their gifts for the common good – even if they have no educational qualifications, like many of my parishioners in Urban Priority Areas.

For most of my ordained ministry (yes, I’m a vicar) I’ve been in inner city or outer estate parishes – what the Church of England calls “Urban Priority Areas” or UPAs – but in 1995 I confounded my own and everyone else’s expectations by becoming Canon Precentor at Coventry Cathedral. Being at the heart of the establishment took some getting used to, and I was glad to be invited to join an Anabaptist Theological Study Circle that was just coming into existence at that time. Almost at once I sensed that here was a way of doing theology that engaged the heart as well as the analytical part of the mind, that involved our relationships with God and each other, instead of splitting them off in the interests of academic rigour and objectivity. Indeed, our sessions began (and still begin) with a time of personal sharing and mutual prayer. At times we have been privileged to hear deep things being shared, leading to a sense (for me) of being on “holy ground”.

But what do I hear, and how do they impact on my continuing Anglican membership and convictions?

• The thing that grabbed me back in 1983 was the integration of evangelism and social justice, spirituality and action in the world, which had been opposites for a long time, in the church and in my mind. As a young vicar struggling to make sense of a new ministry in a small church in a deprived inner-city parish, this was a breath of life to me.

• A few years later, when I was still in my Leeds parish, I was aware of Anabaptist influence in resolving a dispute in the parish over the annual observance of Remembrance Sunday. We brought a group together, and the process of listening to and respecting each other became more important than the outcome. I was amused when Alan Kreider told me he was using this story as a case study – but I guess it’s no surprise that I’m now involved with Bridgebuilders, the mediation and reconciliation arm of the London Mennonite Centre.

• I was beginning to be uncomfortable with the evangelistic techniques of my evangelical background, which seemed often to verge on the manipulative, and yet could not turn my back on our Lord’s command to “make disciples of all nations...” (Matt. 28:19). So the Anabaptist insistence on demonstration, living the gospel in a way that authenticated its proclamation, was attractive. Now I’m more confident in proclamation as well as demonstration, but do not feel bound to any one method or ideology.

• In 1993 I was invited to a conversation between Anabaptist and Anglican representatives, hosted by the London Mennonite Centre and under the auspices of the (Anglican) Council for Christian Unity. Having thought of Anabaptism as more a set of ideas than a tradition of people, I was taken aback by the living sense of hurt communicated by some Anabaptists – the last time the two traditions had been in conversation (in 1575), it had led to torture and burning of the Anabaptists by the Anglicans, and the memory was far from dead. I think this was when I began to see the early Anabaptists as real people, in their strangeness as well as their commonality with my own outlook. And I realised that I was in some way sharing in this tradition, however strange some of its stories are. From then on, I began to see aspects of my own tradition through different eyes – both accepting that some of my antecedents were also strange, and having a different perspective with which to view my tradition, allowing me a more objective critique.

• At the Theological Study Circle we looked at Anabaptist ways of interpreting the Bible – still a multi-faceted and sometimes confusing subject, as the early Anabaptists were no more monochrome than any other tradition – and tried to make sense of the homosexuality debate in that light. We had a fascinating conversation with the American theologian Jim McClendon (now sadly died) who started his systematic theology with a volume on ethics (yes, demonstration comes before theory!) and taught me something about Christian believing in a post-modern age. We looked at art and spirituality, and at war and peace in the aftermath of the latest invasion of Iraq. I’ve learned to examine Anglican presuppositions with an Anabaptist lens, and was glad to review (for Anabaptism Today) a booklet by Anglican authors arguing passionately for the disestablishment of the Church of England, a position I’ve always held, though instinctively rather than articulately. Having originally been the only Anglican in the Study Circle, I’m now intrigued that many of its most committed and articulate theologians are Anglicans.

• This is where some points of tension come in. I’ve never thought the Church of England has any theological right to be the established church, and the booklet made me realise how the Church has always given the State a much better deal than it has received in turn. A few years ago I visited South Africa, where the Anglican Church manages to be an effective witness to God’s justice and his love, without any of the trappings of political power or constitutional establishment. But I am able to do things for my marginalised parishioners that they cannot do for themselves, by virtue of enjoying an unspoken trust because of my position. I can indeed be the “parson” – the persona – for my parish, representing them not only before God in prayer, but in at least some of the corridors of power. How much has this to do with my being vicar of an established church? I could argue “nothing”, and point you to equally eloquent and effective Christian ministers in South Africa – but I know that the work I did in Coventry for the Anti-Poverty Forum, or for the Tackling Poverty group in the Local Strategic Partnership, derived straight from my position in the heart of the establishment, in Coventry Cathedral. (Not that such a “top-down” position could penetrate deeply to the grass-roots – but I could and did influence the conditions under which grass-roots community groups were able to work.)

• It’s unfashionable at the moment, but I believe in the parish – that our Anglican bit of the church takes on some sort of responsibility for every person in the land, even those who do not believe our gospel and will never darken the doors of our churches. When my time came to leave Coventry, I was appointed to a large outer council estate parish in Leicester, where my remit was primarily to engage in Christ’s name with the New Deal for Communities, a government investment of £50 million into one estate that had brought expectations but also confusion and conflict. With a population of 13,000 and a church membership roll of less than 40, my job could hardly be justified by the congregation alone! As it’s turned out, my involvement in the NDC is indirect and not at the seat of power, but over the last three years I’ve got to know most of those who try to make the programme work – and the church congregation has become more involved in the community, and more aware that this is part of their Christian ministry. (They are more confident about their faith too, and even beginning to grow in numbers – why am I sounding so surprised??)

• Although it’s easy to think of the Church of England as primarily an arm of the Establishment, my experience of it for most of my life has been in a small and committed but beleaguered group on the edge of society – often on the edge of the church as well. We have had plenty of opportunities to confound expectations by unconventional, even risky ways of doing things. Sometimes our initiatives have been squashed or threatened by those in power, in church or society. Sometimes, of course, they were right and we needed to let go our immaturity. But on one occasion we persisted against what we saw as an unjust abuse of power, and finally won through against the might of the City Council. Local creativity (and a deep-rooted faith in God) can enable us to outmanoeuvre the big battalions – “We can’t outgun them (the City Council or whoever it is...) but we can outthink them, outpray them, outwit them, outlast them and out-suffer them.” That’s a profoundly Anabaptist insight, but it’s Anglican too. (If you think of a City Council as a dinosaur – and most of them are so large that they need a brain at each end! – then small churches and community groups are like the primitive mammals that scurry around under their feet, keeping out of the way but surviving by their wits and adaptability.)

• But how are these little groups going to hand the tradition down? Even the Church of England can no longer afford to place a paid minister in every parish – will the congregations survive? Many have been used to being babies – spoon-fed the gospel by priestly parent-figures – or passengers, travelling in the Gospel-train without expecting to have to get their hands dirty. The Anabaptist tradition, by contrast, expects to discern the presence of God in the meeting of the gathered congregation, as they bring their different contributions together and arrive at a consensus. Having stayed in UPAs when many other churches closed down or pulled out to the suburbs, the Church of England must now give up its elitist habits of training and ministry, and expect the Holy Spirit to come upon its most ordinary members. Then it must resource and train these, in a way appropriate to their own culture, not expecting to squeeze them into its own mould. There is hope – we started a UPA Training Project, which we hope to pilot among the UPAs and Ethnic Minority Christians in Leicester. To our surprise, it has received warm support so far from the diocesan leadership – now we must see how many ordinary Christians want to take it up.

Anabaptist Leanings of a ‘Kinda’ Methodist

by Philip R Meadows, Cliff College, March 2006

I am a pagan convert and a theological mongrel! I was evangelized by Pentecostals, brought to faith by evangelical Anglicans, taught the mysteries by high-church priests, encouraged by para-church ministries, befriended by independent church leaders, filled with the Spirit in charismatic worship, learned to preach under the tutelage of Methodists, married into a Baptist family, trained at a British Methodist theological college, worked at a United Methodist Seminary in the USA, participated in a Free Methodist church and an American Baptist church, started a house fellowship, and finished up at Cliff College.

I became a Methodist because they recognized my call to preach and encouraged me to follow it. This was the first step towards ordination in a Church that I didn’t know much about except that, for the most part, it seemed to be anti-evangelical and could clearly use my help! I have continued as a Methodist, however, because over the years I have found the evangelical roots of this tradition to be a constant source of inspiration. Being rooted in the life of John Wesley and the early Methodists is not merely about establishing a theological continuity with them, but discovering that I share a common spiritual journey that spans the ages.

Wesley was set upon becoming a real and ‘altogether’ Christian: holy in heart and life; perfected in love of God and neighbour. This vision was cultivated and pursued through his encounters with, and appropriation of, many different streams of Christian thought and practice: patristic sources from East and West, Anglican divines, Puritans and Pietists, Moravians, and even heretics! In short, he ‘poached’ anything that could help illumine the nature of holiness and Christian perfection. One might say that he was also a theological mongrel, and if that’s what it takes to become a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ, then I’m with Wesley.

Thinking of Wesley this way, it would be consistently ‘Wesleyan’ of me to ‘poach’ upon the Anabaptist tradition insofar as it might illumine and advance the end of evangelical discipleship and biblical Christianity. What follows are some Anabaptist leanings of this kinda Methodist. I don’t pretend to have interpreted the tradition with any kind of historical exactitude or systematic precision. I offer what I think I have learned from some Anabaptists (and others sympathetic to the tradition) in the form of cumulative intuitions, for better or worse, and what I think might be suggestive as directions for dialogue with the Wesleyan tradition.

Baptism as Initiation into a Life of Discipleship

Most students of church history first learn that the Anabaptists were those made infamous for rejecting the practice of infant baptism. Some of the reasons for their stance are very familiar to the broad evangelical tradition: the absence of clear scriptural warrant; an emphasis on personal conversion, the experience of new birth and forgiveness of sins; and the need for an intentional decision to become a follower of Jesus. What I have been fascinated to learn, however, is how the Anabaptists themselves understood believer’s baptism to be an initiation into a life of radical discipleship and into a community of discipline that would help them make good on their decision, namely, the church. At the heart of this community was a commitment to certain New Testament practices such as the ministry of reconciliation or ‘binding and loosing’ (i.e. the discipline that binds one another to the teaching of Jesus while loosing one another from the bondage to sin); ‘the ban’ (i.e. excluding people from the Eucharist who persistently refused the discipline of community and its ministry of reconciliation); the refusal to swear oaths, and a commitment to truth-telling. This tradition has constantly pressed me to think of the church as a community of moral discourse, deliberation and discernment; a place where Christian discipleship is made possible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit among those willing to be held accountable for a common way of life in Christ.

I believe that the connection between baptism, Christian discipleship and a community of discipline lay at the heart of early Methodist theology and practice. No one could evade their summons to be born-again; especially those nominal Christians who sought to rest on their baptism as infants. Apart from a life of disciplined discipleship, argued Wesley, the regenerative effects of infant baptism simply withered away leaving one in need of evangelical conversion. Those ‘awakened’ by evangelistic preaching, who made a decision to seek after the new birth, were incorporated into ‘class meetings’ (or cell groups) whose members would hold each another accountable for learning to walk in the way of Christ, according to a common rule of life. Whether as a ‘seeker’ in need of conversion, or as a believer pursuing holiness of heart and life, each practiced the confession of sin, the ministry of healing prayer, speaking the truth in love, and exhorting one another to grow in grace. It is interesting to note that Wesley himself likened the class meeting to the early church catechumenate. The early Methodists were certainly not committed to re-baptism, but they were committed to re-generation and radical discipleship. The Anabaptist tradition reminds me of the great practical-theological treasure Methodists have in their practices of disciple-making, not least the class meeting (plagiarized in large part from the Moravians) and how we have been slow to find inspiration in it.

Radical Discipleship as Civil Disobedience

The Anabaptists took a very different stance from the ‘magisterial’ Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) when it came to the relationship between church and state. Whereas the Reformers looked to the conversion of Constantine as the highpoint of church history, the Anabaptists saw it as the fall of the church! For them, the ‘Christendom synthesis’ resulted in a fatal compromise of the gospel with worldly wealth and power that all but extinguished radical discipleship from the face of the earth. The failure of the magisterial reformation to complete its protest by dismantling the gospel from its captivity to Christendom left the practice of infant baptism a mark of good citizenship. Under these conditions, the Anabaptist refusal of infant baptism and the logic of radical discipleship appeared to be a form of civil disobedience: a witness against the principalities and powers of a merely re-ordered Christendom arrangement, a heresy punishable by death. Arguably, this logic connects Anabaptists to the early church’s understanding of baptism as initiation into a way of life that took the lordship of Christ over all creation (including the Emperor) to be a truth worth living and dying for. I find it interesting, however, that radical discipleship and civil disobedience was consistent with infant baptism in the early church: as a pledge of allegiance to Christ in the midst of the Empire, and a commitment to raising children in a faith that might well cost them their lives.

I am encouraged that Wesley sided with the Anabaptists over the magisterial Reformers on the question of Constantine, although this is not without its ambiguity. It is clear that Wesley’s commitments lie naturally with the Church of England as a state church. What he regrets, however, is how the ‘mystery of iniquity’ has persistently worked through the church’s collusion with the world: to subdue its passion for holiness, and impede the spread of the gospel. He does not reflect upon the propriety of Constantine’s conversion as such, or how things might have been different had it not occurred. But he does note how the ‘vineyard of the Lord’ has continued to bear the fruit of holiness throughout church history in different movements of the Spirit, of which Methodism was then the latest. And it is also true that early Methodist discipleship often amounted to a form of implicit ‘civil disobedience’ insofar as their commitment to holiness directly and indirectly challenged the taken-for-granted nature of contemporary social life: the political conditions of poverty, the practice of slave trading, the emergence of capitalist economics, the state of moral depravity, etc. Their witness against such things certainly brought them persecution from all sides. In a post-Christendom context, I find myself challenged by the Anabaptists and early Methodists alike to welcome my place on the margins of society as a new opportunity for holiness and witness.

The Church as Intentional Kingdom Community

I deeply appreciate the Anabaptist understanding of the church as a social reality (public, cultural and political) called to embody the gospel of Christ in a world of unbelief. Under the conditions of Christendom, it is argued, discipleship gets reduced to good ‘citizenship’; the radical demands of the gospel get reduced to abstract ‘values’; Christian faith is reduced to a private spirituality; and the ministry of the church is reduced to a form of ‘chaplaincy’. On the one hand, the church acts as a chaplain to the state by seeking to Christianize the dominant social reality; while, on the other hand, acting as chaplain to the private spiritual experience of individual Christians in the hope of shoring up the lives of good citizens. Ironically, it would seem that in accepting the conditions of Christendom, the church sowed the seeds of its own marginalization. As our dominant social reality becomes increasingly secularized, the church’s former privilege as purveyor of spiritual and moral direction to the nation is withdrawn; leaving it to languish in the realm of a privatized, sub-cultural and a-political religious plurality. Against this, some Anabaptists have insisted that the church must exist as a social reality in its own right. If politics is simply about how the common life of a people is ordered, then the church is ordered by the ‘politics’ of Jesus. If culture is simply the character of a community’s way of life, then the church is a ‘culture’ shaped by the gifts and fruit of the Spirit. And if being public is simply a political-cultural reality made visible, accountable and accessible, then the church is a ‘public’ viewing of the Kingdom of God made open to all. I find it interesting that the postmodern tendency to deconstruct singular and dominant accounts of social reality (thus allowing for different publics, cultures and politics) actually makes room for the life of the church to be considered a counter-culture and counter-politics, while at the same time requiring a more robust witness of us if the gospel is to be made plausible to the watching world.

This Anabaptist thinking tempts me to take liberty with the meaning of early Methodist ‘societies’. Each society, bound by a common rule and a set of common practices, could easily be thought of as a ‘social reality’ in its own right. Their public, cultural and political life was that of striving after scriptural holiness. The ‘General Rule’ (of doing no harm, doing all the good they can, and attending to the means of grace) had the effect of holding them to a form of Kingdom living that resisted selfish ambition and accumulation in favour of good stewardship. They included admonitions against buying and selling uncustomed goods, singing dubious songs, needless self-indulgence, and borrowing without the probability of paying! He also advises them to employ one another (especially the poor), to help each other in business, and to be frugal in all things. And he guides them in the use of money to earn all they can (i.e. without injury to self or neighbour), save all they can (i.e. not wasting what they have earned), and give all they can (i.e. of that which exceeds their own basic needs). Wesley aims to describe a way of life literally consistent with the language of the Ten Commandments and the teaching of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount (a text much used by Anabaptists). I am again indebted to the Anabaptists for helping me see how a Christian community that embodies the gospel does not happen by accident, but requires an intentional commitment to a form of life capable of resisting the dominant social realities of the world.

A Witness that Challenges the ‘World’

Again, the Anabaptists have helped me to learn what it means to speak of the church’s mission in ‘the world’. I have been taught how to make the distinction between the world as created in and through and for Christ, and the present condition of the ‘world’ as a fallen and rebellious creation in need of redemption (as used in John’s gospel). It is the task of the church to bear witness to the difference between a creation designed to flourish under the lordship of Christ, and a ‘world’ distorted by human projects (or principalities and powers) that usurp his universal reign. By seeking to live as an intentional Kingdom community, the church throughout the world is called to reveal God’s project to redeem all of creation. The church is what happens when the Holy Spirit gathers and strives with communities of faith to bring their worldliness under the rule of Christ: both affirming those cultural distinctives that are consistent with the Kingdom of God, and confronting those idolatrous preoccupations which tend to deny it. Anabaptists argue that this witness gets submerged under the conditions of Christendom: when the ‘world’ is supposedly Christian. At the end of Christendom, however, it is possible for the church to remember its vocation to help the world know itself as a ‘world’ in need of redemption. As the postmodern turn encourages us to think of social reality in plural terms, we have become used to thinking of what it means for us to live in multiple social ‘worlds’ or cultures. On Anabaptists terms, I am tempted to argue that this diversity of worlds represents both the richness of the created order, and the many different ways that richness can be distorted by unbelief. In terms of mission and witness, therefore, the church is called to exist in the kind of cultural and political diversity necessary to address the multiplicity of worlds in which people live today. My hunch is that there is something significant to be learned here for the (so-called) ‘emerging church’ in its attempt to give expression to cross-cultural forms of intentional community.

As a Wesleyan, the work of the Spirit to bring our lives under the rule of Christ would be another way of speaking about ‘holiness’ (which literally means being different or set apart) and sanctification. In my own research, I am trying to explain how the concept of holiness is intimately related to that of mission. The summons to holiness means understanding that our Christian lives, and that of the church, are meant to bear witness to the holy difference between the Kingdom of God and the ‘worldliness’ of the ‘world’. This is the meaning behind Wesley’s cautions against ‘friendship’ (i.e. flirting) with the world: not an attempt to preserve some kind of false purity, but to recognize that worldliness and holiness are two different ways of life with quite different ends. Under the tutelage of Anabaptist insights, I find myself concerned to go beyond the somewhat pietistic and legalistic interpretations often associated with holiness movements, to the importance of holiness as an intentional commitment to stake our hearts and lives on the truth of God as Author and End of all things, and Jesus Christ as the Lord of all creation. Such a people will necessarily be a challenge to every culture, in every time and place, until Jesus comes again.

Church Life as Orienting Concern in Mission

In recent years I have found Anabaptist ecclesiology to be increasingly influential in the fields of missiology and evangelism. The new emphasis on ‘missional’ communities has brought with it an orienting concern for the character of Christian community itself. There is a shift of emphasis away from thinking of mission in terms of what the church is doing in the world, to mission as constituting its very reason for being in the world. At least theologically, the being of the church precedes the doing of the church. To think of it another way, the church does not have a mission, it is on a mission, i.e. God’s own mission of redeeming the world. So, the church is not missional because it sends missionaries into the world, but because the church is itself sent into the world. What is sent is the social reality of a common life under the rule of Christ – a public, cultural and political embodiment of the gospel – for witness and service. This is the true meaning of our ‘apostolicity’. Put differently, to participate in the mission of God means becoming God’s social project in the world: to live as an hermeneutic of the gospel; to be a sign, foretaste and herald of the Kingdom. The church exists as ‘pulpit’ and ‘paradigm’: a prophetic word against those principalities and powers that turn creation against the rule of Christ; and a prototype or preview of creation made new in Christ.

John Wesley once said there was no holiness but ‘social holiness’. Some have mistakenly read him as advocating the kind of ‘social gospel’ which emerged in early 20th century. In fact, he simply meant that you cannot be holy on your own! On the one hand, because all the Christian virtues (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness…) are relational in nature, they must be cultivated and expressed in Christian community. Social holiness means striving with others (in context of Methodist society, classes and bands) to become Christlike in heart and life. On the other hand, these same virtues, when exercised in the world, become the medium of authentic Christian witness. Social holiness means being salt and light in the world, such that the gospel can be tasted and seen through all our relationships. Again, in my own research and writing, Anabaptist thinking has pushed me to go beyond the usual connection between holiness and the witness of individuals (the point at which Wesley’s own reflections seem to end), to the importance of social holiness as the corporate witness of a church shaped by the fruit and gifts of the Kingdom in a rebellious world.

Non-Violence as Primary Witness to the Kingdom

As I understand it, the Anabaptist commitment to pacifism belongs to the logic of the church as pulpit, paradigm and pilot-project of the Kingdom in a culture of violence. It has been this way from the beginning, and it flows from a radical commitment to the peaceable rule of Christ. The goal of a world at ‘peace’ is not enough; for it depends what kind of peace we are seeking. On the one hand, the pax Romana was a vision of the world restrained from warring through the military might of the Empire. On the other hand, the pax Christi is the vision of a world renewed in love through the self-sacrificing grace of God. The Kingdom of God is not characterized by an absence of war but an abundance of love; and the church is called to prove how the death and resurrection of Christ overcomes the violent divisions of the world in the quality of its life together. The same Spirit that conquered the death-dealing principalities and powers through the cross of Christ is at work in the church to heal the divisions that persist in the vestiges of a fallen creation. It seems to me that this vision of a people who bear witness to the peaceable Kingdom of God has never been more important than in our contemporary world. I am not simply referring to the insidious spread of Western consumer technoculture; nor the violent imposition of liberal democracy with which it is twinned; or even the reign of terror that has ensued in its wake. Rather, I have in mind that therapy of postmodern deconstruction which (despite helping to unmask the imperialistic aspirations of Western civilization) has also turned the reality of everyday life into a battlefield of suspicious minds and power-plays; a generalized ‘terrorist’ society in which trust is a liability, and we are set against one another in an endless spiral of tyranny and victimization (old and young, parent and child, husband and wife, black and white, neighbour and stranger…). The Kingdom of God will certainly not come through the imperialistic violence of a Christendom church, nor the military superiority of a vaguely Christianized liberal-modern democracy, but through the witness of a peaceable community among whom the everyday ‘terrors’ of a post/modern culture have no place.

I don’t know exactly what this means for me as a Wesleyan theologian and a pacifist. Wesley has been read as a warrant for both pacifism and just war; and Methodists as a whole remain confused about it. Wesley was, of course, a state-churchman. There is no doubt, however, that Wesley’s own vision of the new creation is one in which the rule of peace is celebrated. He can vividly describe the new creation as a place where all carnivorous appetites are no more: where the alienation between predator and prey among humans and animals alike is completely healed. (Perhaps the most persuasive argument for vegetarianism?!) This kind of healing, prefigured in the ministry of reconciliation, could be interpreted as the intention of early Methodist fellowship in both its spiritual and economic dimensions. Perhaps most significant, however, would be the logic of holiness and the pursuit of ‘perfection’ in love. To be perfected in love of God and neighbour would seem entirely inconsistent with the habits of mind, heart and life necessary to be a person of violence. It is hard to imagine how one could simultaneously strive for such holiness and yet also be trained to kill, or even to approve of killing, or even to turn a blind eye to it. If we yield our lives to Jesus, which is the sine qua non of holiness, it is hard to imagine how we could even make room for anger on these terms.

The Pursuit of Christian Perfection

Thanks to some Anabaptists, I have become a big fan of sectarianism! Of course, this has meant unlearning what has come to be the fairly standard definition of ‘sect’ as a divisive faction: a religious group set against the mainstream of both church and society; or a close-knit and inward-looking group with perfectionist views; generally dismissive, resistant, or antagonistic towards wider social realities. The history of some religious communities, like the Amish perhaps, certainly lend credence to this view. On a global scale, however, it is not difficult to think how whole nation-states are capable of adopting such a ‘sectarian’ stance towards the rest of the world. Clearly size is not the issue when it comes to being sectarian! Rather, we might say that it is an intentional commitment to living a certain way in the world, or taking up with everyday life, in the midst of other competing accounts of reality. Nation-states secure it through domestic and international violence; whereas Christians look to the cultivation of disciplined fellowship. On these terms, the pursuit of Christian perfection is not first about policing the borders of a community (though it clearly can be reduced to this) but the importance of maintaining a truthful witness to the Kingdom of God in a world of unbelief. To be sectarian means knowing that there is a competition for our souls: that there are other ways of life (of thinking, speaking, feeling, acting) which are contrary to the Kingdom of God; which are in the air that we breathe; which will shape our lives apart from a community of resistance and counter-cultural practices. To be sectarian, therefore, does not necessarily entail ‘fleeing to the desert’, or being isolated from ‘the world’, but intentionally seeking the Kingdom amidst the ‘powers that be’ as a form of spiritual struggle. Examined this way, it is not surprising that those espousing forms of Christian perfection have, through the history of Christendom, been persecuted as heretics. Even when such persons and communities have sought to live a peaceable life, their very existence is experienced as a witness against a worldly church, and must be silenced.

Wesley joined the Anabaptists in attempting to rehabilitate those who had been branded heretics for what he considered to be a commitment to the pursuit of holiness (such as Pelagius and Montanus, for example). In my estimation, Wesley raised the ire of world and church not because he broke the rules of ecclesiastical order or made a nuisance of himself in political circles, but because he formed a movement, a People, whose from of life embodied a witness against the ‘powers that be’. This was dangerous indeed, and the powers were right to be worried! Wesley’s understanding of the People called Methodists was that they were providentially raised by God to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land; and that Christian perfection was the ‘grand depositum’ of the movement. The witness of this ‘sect’ to the Kingdom of God changed the lives of the poor and challenged the institutions of poverty in many deep and lasting ways.

© Copyright 2006 Philip R Meadows (email p.meadows@cliffcollege.ac.uk)