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.