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.