Coming Home: Stories of British and Irish Anabaptists

The story of the Anabaptist Network is told in this book edited by Alan Kreider and Stuart Murray: Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland (Pandora Press, 2000). At the heart of the book are nearly 60 stories written by individuals, who have been impacted in various ways by the Anabaptist tradition. Many contributors have used the phrase “coming home” to describe their encounter with Anabaptism and their sense of belonging within this tradition. The rest of the book contains reflections on what happened the last time Anabaptists were in England (in the late sixteenth century), on the emergence of the Network, and on the challenges that lie ahead. Available from Metanoia Book Service. Here are some excerpts from the book:

From the Introduction

Alan Kreider
Stuart Murray

By Stuart Murray Williams (near right) and Alan Kreider (far right)

Anabaptism and the British Isles today – for most people these simply do not go together. The historically conscious may think of Anabaptism as a radical part of the European Reformation; but that was 450 years ago, on the continent. Others who are visually aware, or who have been tourists, may think of Anabaptism as alive in the late twentieth century, but in North America where communities of photogenic Amish, Mennonites and Hutterians live. But Anabaptism in Britain and Ireland today? That seems difficult to imagine.

It’s not hard to explain this silence. From the 1530s onwards in England, Anabaptism was a word of shame and abuse. It became the great pejorative, the A-word of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which could categorise and discredit anyone who was more radical religiously than oneself. Repeatedly Anabaptists who strayed onto British soil were persecuted. Even the Baptists, the tradition which has been most closely associated with Anabaptism, have been of two minds about the association. As Baptist theologian Nigel Wright has put it, “When Baptists want to appear respectable they talk about their Puritan roots; when they want to appear radical they talk about their Anabaptist heritage.” And most of the time most Baptists have wanted to appear respectable! As a result, since the sixteenth century, Anabaptism has largely been absent from the British Isles, and its ideas, to which some radicals have now and then paid homage, have lacked embodiment in individuals and communities.

But things are changing. In the past two decades individual Christians – and even a few communities – throughout the British Isles have been discovering Anabaptism as a source of ideas, identity and a living heritage. This book is a product of that change. It grew out of something that would have been unthinkable until recently – an Anabaptist Theological Circle. This group twice a year brings together a dozen Baptist, Anglican, New Church and Mennonite theologians. To its October 1997 meeting came a request from church leaders, especially Baptists in England, for guidelines to present to congregations who are exploring Anabaptist-flavoured church renewal. What does Anabaptism have to contribute to the future of the church in England, and specifically to congregations involved in mission?

The Theological Circle was grinding away, trying to distil Anabaptist insights into a few pithy statements. Suddenly someone said: “I don’t think we’re doing this in a very helpful way. It doesn’t feel very Anabaptist to me; it feels more like the mainstream Reformers. How about if, instead of stating normative characteristics, we decided to collect our stories? If we did, the picture of Anabaptism in the British Isles that would emerge might be less coherent; but it would be a lot more concrete – and certainly more interesting.” This led to some uncomfortable hours. It seemed to divert us from the request that responsible people who care about the future of the church had made to the group. Could we instead try something very different, which might result in something unpredictably creative?

The group decided to go for the stories. An invitation to write “Anabaptist stories” was inserted in the Anabaptist Network journal, Anabaptism Today. The brief was simple: to tell in story form how they discovered Anabaptist thinking and how it shaped their lives and thinking. What ideas, what books, what communities were important to them in their discovery of Anabaptism? Over twenty stories arrived, some of which were from people whom we editors had not met before but who obviously are deeply affected by Anabaptism. Alan and Eleanor Kreider then wrote to other people whom they knew had been involved in the Anabaptist Network, and the collection of stories more than doubled in size.

It quickly emerged that many of the stories had a common theme – coming home – a phrase that cropped up so frequently in conversations that we have chosen it as the title for this book. People from an astonishing range of denominational and theological backgrounds felt that in discovering Anabaptism they were finding their home. Something clicked, something made sense, “the penny dropped”, to enable people in the fluid cultural and religious situations around the turn of the millennium to sense that here, in Anabaptism, they belong.

Many things have no doubt led to this, but one stands out – the collapse of Christendom. For 1,500 years after the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine I in the early fourth century, Christians in the West sensed that they were a part of an all-embracing Christian civilisation. In theory, and to a considerable extent in practice, everyone belonged to this – they were baptised into the established churches as infants; everyone believed the doctrine that orthodox Christianity prescribed; and everyone knew how Christians were supposed to behave. Of course, things were never as neat as this; the court records of Christian Europe are full of all manner of deviance. But the point is that it is the court records that inform us of this. People who dissented from Christendom patterns of belonging, belief and behaviour got in trouble. Christendom was powerful, but it was always questionable whether its power was rooted as much in the freely given consent of the people as it was in inducement and compulsion. By the post-World War II period it was clear that, in many European countries, Christendom was in crisis. Social and legal sanctions were disappearing, and people were behaving in ways that by Christendom standards were quite unacceptable. Parents were not having their babies christened; teenagers were not being confirmed; on television people began to use bad language and to despise religion. The sense of religious “at-homeness” that Christendom had provided for many people for over a millennium was now disappearing.

Christian people have responded to this in many ways. Some have sought to fight the changes in the courts, invoking “blasphemy” laws. Others have sought comfort in the spirit of the Christendom heritage – it is impressive that repeatedly in recent years records of Gregorian chant have topped the charts. Still others have prayed for “revival” or “renewal” – words which indicate a restoration of the Christendom era in which Christians could set the moral tone for the nation. Many Christians have with great energy founded new churches, experimented with new forms of worship and organised new initiatives for evangelism. As a new millennium begins, there are many who are perplexed, and who wonder about the way forward.

It is in this post-Christendom world that people have begun to “come home”. They have begun to discover Anabaptism as a means of charting a distinctive way of being Christian in the British Isles. The stories of what drew some of these people to Anabaptism are the heart of this book. But central to them all is the sense that there can be a radicalism in the present through a rediscovery of a living past. Roots, actually as well as etymologically, can be radical! In many and various ways, for these people Anabaptist ideas have come as a relief, a tonic, a new way of thinking about and living the Christian mission which has special relevance for a post-Christendom world. As the stories will indicate, the result can be one of relief and gratitude. “Once no people, now God’s people.” This old biblical theme resounds through these stories. People who have been rootless have found roots; people who have been homeless have found a home.

For most of these people “home” is not a new denomination. There are two explicitly Anabaptist traditions represented in the UK. The Bruderhof, who have two flourishing communities in the south-east of England, have influenced many through their hospitality, the solid wooden toys which they manufacture, and their journal, The Plough. There are also the Mennonites, whose Wood
Green Mennonite Church
and London Mennonite Centre, both in North London, have provided teaching and resources. These have influenced many, and some British people have joined the Bruderhof or the Mennonites.

But many people who are drawn to Anabaptism do not want to join a new community or denomination; instead they want to graft Anabaptist understandings on to their existing church commitments. These people may well be participants in the Anabaptist Network, readers of Anabaptism Today or members of one of the several Anabaptist Network Study Groups meeting in different parts of the country. Most will seek to incorporate Anabaptist concerns into the lives of their Anglican parishes or New Church congregations. A few will be in a position to go further. They may be in churches which are interested in espousing Anabaptism explicitly, becoming “hyphenated-Anabaptist” congregations. Newly-planted churches may also espouse an Anabaptist identity. In the years to come, congregations that call themselves “Anabaptist-Baptist” or “Anabaptist-Wesleyan” may not seem a total oddity. But for all of these people, there is a deep expectation that the church that will survive in the post-Christendom British Isles will be a church that embodies many Anabaptist themes.
‹ Coming Home: Stories of British and Irish AnabaptistsupFrom "Anabaptism Tomorrow" ›

From "Anabaptism Tomorrow"

By Noel MoulesNoel Moules

I have taught Christians across Britain for many years and there is one question I am frequently asked, “Which period of church history would you most like to have lived in?” There is never any need to pause or stop to think, the answer for me is quite simple and very clear – “today and tomorrow”. Of course there are so many periods and events from the last 2,000 years that entice and lure me, but it is the present and the future that are the supreme challenge and opportunity. While we build upon the incredible heritage of the past, now is always the time to discover God in fresh ways and to make a major impact. This is our kairos moment!

Like a ship in a storm

As we look to the future, the challenge to the church in this country is enormous. Society and culture are involved in fundamental change – energised by individualism and consumerism, enabled by the most astonishing advances in technology, manipulated by the exploitative power of the media. Values are transient, the human story unimportant, the certainties and promises of the past an illusion. The terms “post-modern” and “post-Christian” affirm a break with what has gone before, but take us nowhere. There is existential questioning and spiritual searching everywhere; yet at the same time the majority of the population are not only unchurched but probably culturally “unchurchable”.

Added to this, within the church itself there is a watershed. Much of the church has been washed by the wake of the charismatic movement; however, its immediate impact is all but spent. In many sectors of the church little has been left untouched with its passing; there has been a serious shaking of foundations as well as superstructure, but to what end? Churches in historical denominations along with independent congregations have become less inhibited in worship and more spontaneous in spiritual self-expression, but now that charismatic characteristics have become part of the popular Christian ethos and the acrimonious conflicts of the early days have passed, many people are looking for something more. This fact alone reveals the shallowness of its legacy.

Across the country there has been increased networking between a whole variety of churches and groups, and there are some remarkable examples of church planting and church growth. However, rather than a growing hunger for “deepening”, I believe many people have become caught up in a cycle of “happening”. A taste has developed for “receiving” in preference to “being”. As a result, many people are always looking for the next wave – whatever that may be, whatever that may bring. This makes them vulnerable to focusing on short-term experiences, with their fragmented theology and spiritual naivete leaving them wide open to false teaching. The hopes of many are also increasingly pinned on God sovereignly sending a revival which, with little human effort, will fill the churches and change the face of the nation. What will be the spiritual fallout if this scenario fails to unfold? For all this emphasis on experience, I nevertheless meet very few Christians with a raw excitement for God.

In contrast, there are those who are disillusioned; who feel that the spiritual promises of previous years have never been fulfilled; and their disappointment has given way to a deep sadness. For them an early freedom, joy and sense of discovery appear to have been substituted by top-down structures; where strategy is replacing spontaneity and effort has often supplanted excitement and enthusiasm. As a result, across the country, there are growing numbers of mature, experienced Christians who are no longer actively part of a local church; or only touch its fringes. They still have a deep faith and living experience of God, but have become disenfranchised disciples. To describe some of them as “post-evangelical” may perhaps define their past, but it does not connect them to a future. For them, the organised structures of the Christian community are no longer nurturing their spirituality, nor creating an environment in which their gifts can be expressed. Neither do they feel that the church is seriously engaging with modern culture in a way that honestly grapples with the searching questions of their own hearts and of our times. It is not without significance that Christians like these are the fastest growing section of the church in Britain today.

Nevertheless, I personally believe that the greatest weakness in the church in Britain is with leadership. In struggling to relate living faith to changing culture, many leaders display little real sense of direction. Their lack of orientation can at times compromise their integrity. Many have become isolated, struggling to maintain both church systems and people’s expectations. Others, having succumbed to the popular Christian notion that successful local church means becoming big prosperous centres of spiritual power, come under intense unspoken pressure from their congregations to be part of this experience. They are urged to become networked with other groups that are sharing in this “success syndrome”. Many leaders are not leading but being driven. Along with all this comes insecurity, from which often spring authoritarian attitudes.

There is also the subtle seduction of power and the desire to be in control, which maintains hierarchical structures and fails properly to enable the community of faith to function with maturity. Most experiments with “cell-church” will fail because the cells are not genuinely empowered; authority remains centralised and they become little more than revamped house groups. Leadership weakness is also seen in superficial biblical teaching and the expectation that people will follow “party lines” in thinking. There is virtually no encouragement for individuals to reason, question and experiment for themselves and so enrich the body as a whole with divine diversity. The situation is compounded by the fact that few leaders seem aware, or prepared to admit, that anything is other than completely satisfactory. The role of leadership is vital, but the old mould of both style and thinking have got to be broken.

As the twentieth century falls behind us the challenge to the church is serious. Apart from the concerns I have outlined above, pre-millennial tension has also exacted its toll. Few will admit to the level of expectation there has actually been. At one extreme there have been the minority, fairly certain that Jesus would return. Far greater numbers have been part of widely publicised schemes for world evangelisation or massive national church growth; all of which have fallen dramatically short of their original widely publicised objectives. Many more people just had a sense that the year 2000 should have been spiritually significant; the fact that it wasn’t leaves them with the question, “Where do we go from here?” Like a ship in a storm, these are days of disappointment and often unspoken struggle with faith for many Christians.

Grasping the moment

This is where the doors open to so many wonderful possibilities! In spite of the sobering picture I have painted, many exciting things are also happening in the Church in Britain, and often in the most unexpected places. This book is an important glimpse into part of that story and promise for the future. The remarkable growth of interest in Anabaptism and the influence of its ideas are not accidental. I believe God’s hand is behind it all. So many spiritual journeys, from every direction and background, are converging on an approach to the Christian faith that draws us towards the truth.

As we have seen, the term “Anabaptism” means different things to different people, yet it connects together in a common bond those touched by it. It has always held within itself a diversity of contrasting views. For me, it defines a unique ethos rather than a specific agenda. It is not so much what was experienced and experimented with in the sixteenth century, inspiring though this is, that is of primary importance. Rather it is the way in which those radical reformers rediscovered the Christian faith and approached Scripture, their ability to reach past the barriers thrown up by Christendom and to tap into the original source and character of our faith. To me, the quintessence of Anabaptism is the vision and values it confronts us with and the direction in which they call us to follow.

At its most focused, this is an encounter with the person and life of the historical Jesus, who came preaching peace. He is our model; his example, death, resurrection and the sending of the Spirit enable us to follow in his steps. Everything else flows from this irreducible central core. The word “Christocentric” recurs throughout the text of this book and that is because it is the key. It means, first and foremost, that each one of us must personally come to a place of being convinced that the new covenant experience flows from a clear commitment in discipleship to Jesus; which takes seriously his pattern of life for our own; which is prepared to practise and experiment with his hard sayings in the power of the Spirit.

Such a seemingly obvious decision for a Christian will, in reality, set us at odds with much historic – and alas contemporary – Christian thinking which has marginalised Jesus to a theological principle, rather than embracing him as the person who is our model and example. However, I dare to believe that in God’s economy one of the purposes of the charismatic movement – as of other forms of spiritual re-energising – has been to prepare the church for a liberated radical discipleship that is ignited, empowered and characterised by the presence of God and the work of the Spirit. In a Christian ethos that is looking for the next “experience,” this is a cold sober choice [metanoia]. For the vision and values of Anabaptism to truly impact churches and secular communities, the first step must be made by individuals who are inspired by a deep joy and spontaneous freedom in Jesus.

Early Anabaptists have been described as being “neither Protestant nor Catholic”. While these words make an important historical point, they also express a vital truth; the fact that there is only one Church. The original Anabaptists were rejected by both sides in the Reformation; our aim today is to be a catalyst in reconciliation and ecumenism. We wish to affirm the indivisible unity of the community of faith, bringing the body of Christ together. Our desire is to bridge-build and embrace everyone who names the name of Jesus, has been touched by the fire of his love and is following him. Several contributors have expressed how it is also our desire to draw deeply from the diverse streams of Christian spirituality – Celtic, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, ancient, modern and global – and so create a confluence of richness and reality to the glory of God. This was not possible in the historical circumstances of the sixteenth century, but I believe it is nevertheless true to the spirit of the Anabaptists. It is also essential if we are to be the one united church God wants us to be, bold witnesses to Jesus into the future.

However, a word of warning. The increasing interest in Anabaptism across Britain itself presents a challenge. In some Christian circles people respond to new manifestations of Anabaptism with alarm, fearing that there will be new attacks on cherished Christian practices, leading to new divisions. In other Christian circles Anabaptism has positive connotations and is in danger of becoming a buzz-word. In order to sound radical, the language of some groups and individuals is merely being decorated with “Anabaptist-speak”, without seriously changing their thinking or behaviour. For example, the themes of community and nonconformity appear attractive, while the subjects of non-violence and justice are ignored. The challenge to each of us is to grapple with all the issues with which the radical reformers wrestled and work out their implications in our own times. Likewise, to attempt simply to “pick ’n’ mix” or try to “bolt on” certain Anabaptist ideas to existing frameworks of thought is to fail to do justice to them. They must be recognised as a unique culture that ferments and changes the whole.

Closer to the centre of the Network I believe there is another danger. Most of us were initially drawn towards the movement by the ideas, individuals and events of the Radical Reformation. The challenge is to be able to turn our encounter with these into tangible life-changing experiences for individuals and churches today. Solid and sustained research into all aspects of Anabaptism will always be a central task, but we must equally be conscious of the danger of the Network becoming simply a historical and theological society. If the fruits of our reflection do not practically and radically change the lives of individuals, churches and secular communities across this country, then we will have missed the most incredible opportunity.

The challenges within both the church and our culture are enormous, but I believe that the inherent Anabaptist values of thinking creatively and acting radically in the power of the Spirit can produce phenomenal results. This is not based upon some romantic view, but hard-headed experience over many years. Individuals and small groups working both within and outside existing structures can have an influence far beyond their number or their status. We must never underestimate the influence of a person whose demeanour, responses and attitudes are provocative by their unique truthfulness. Most social revolutions have spread by deeds observed or conversations shared. The power of the right word or action impacting an individual or group at exactly the right moment simply cannot be exaggerated. We should be working to change the current environment and culture of our churches and society; stimulating creative thinking, encouraging debate, provoking discussion. At every step we need to be learning from each other, sharing experiences, being humble enough to admit mistakes and childlike enough to rejoice over even small successes.

We have the chance significantly to influence the life of the church in this land for years ahead. It will almost certainly be “grass-roots-up” in its method, it will be gentle in its character, but it will not happen by some passive process of osmosis. If we are to grasp the moment, it will take a determined commitment on the part of each one to act boldly and single-mindedly. The question is: do we think that the themes of Anabaptism should simply be fashionable for a time, or are we convinced they point us clearly towards truth in its fundamental form?

An Anabaptist from Constantine's Garrison

by Jonathan Blakeborough, York

Jonathan BlakeboroughMy wife and I grew up, and continue to live, in the city of York. York was founded as a military garrison by the Romans in AD 71, the city where Constantine was proclaimed Tetrarch as a prelude to becoming Christendom’s first emperor, notorious among the Jews as the site of England’s worst medieval pogrom, and a city that remains host to both the British Army’s N.E. Command and the northern primate of the Established church. Nevertheless, it also has a strong Quaker tradition and is perhaps not quite so inauspicious a place in which to be a peace church Christian.

I am also an Anglican by origin. Bedtime prayers with my mother, Sunday school, Cub Scouts, singing in the church choir and evangelistic summer camps, during one of which I committed my life to the Lord, were the major features of the landscape of my childhood and early adolescence.

To some it may seem a little fanciful to try to make too strong a connection between scouting and the military, except to note that both are uniformed organisations. However, as a youngster, I have to confess that I found all uniforms and their paraphernalia utterly fascinating, and by the age of 18 I was visiting army bases as a candidate for officer training.

Nevertheless, all was to change on a memorably cloudless afternoon during my final school holidays. As a “potential officer”, I was part of an Anglo-West German patrol collecting routine information along the border of the now defunct DDR. Having walked through a village literally cut in half by electric fences and razor wire, we came across a place in open country where a section of the Iron Curtain had been taken down for repairs! Teenage conscripts were digging holes for new fence posts, but nearby were heavily-armed sentries to prevent anyone defecting. It occurred to me that if one of the Easterners decided to make a run for it across no man’s land, it would take only a few seconds for the shooting to start. All of us, West and East, would be caught out in the open, so it would not be our weapons that would keep us alive, but everyone’s restraint – now there’s a thought!! I wasn’t afraid, but on that beautiful July day felt profoundly shabby, an apprentice to a dirty trade. It was the beginning of the end of my military career.

Years later, as medical students, my wife and I decided to broaden our ecclesiastical horizons and began to attend a Baptist church. Like many before us, we opted to be “rebaptised” as believers, but subsequently seldom came across other Christians who combined Baptist-style beliefs (believers’ baptism, separation of church and state, and priesthood of all believers) with a radical social vision and non-violence, until a theological friend suggested that I get in contact with the London Mennonite Centre, who in turn put me in touch with the nascent Anabaptist Network. At long last, I could put a name to what I had become, an Anabaptist from Constantine’s garrison. Maybe now is the time for me to recruit a few more and establish an outpost of the Prince of Peace.

 Jonathan Blakeborough is a psychiatrist working in Ilkley.

What Makes Anabaptists so Annoying?

by Ruth Gouldbourne, Bristol

I think I was ten or eleven, and the family was on our annual holiday. This year we were travelling in northern Germany, dividing our time between finding swimming pools and looking at sites of historical interest. On this day, which was unbearably hot, I was standing with my father in the middle of the town square waiting for my mother and sister to return from some shopping. “Look up at that spire,” said my father. “Do you see those cages? That was where the captured Anabaptists were hung on display.” We were spending a few days in Münster, and it was the first time I had heard of the Anabaptists as a group of real people rather than a name for my sister (Ann). My father told me as much of the story as a ten-year-old could pay attention to, and I started to wonder just what kind of people these could be that everybody hated and feared so much.

Fifteen years later, I started a course in Reformation history as part of my theological degree, and the Anabaptists recurred to my consciousness, and I found in them a welcome antidote to the very high Anglicanism of the college, always a little uncomfortable to a Baptist. And again, I found myself puzzled about why a group, which seemed so innocuous, was so hated and feared. This time the puzzlement became so insistent that it became part of the desire to do further academic research, and led to my current PhD work.

However, I found that an interest in the Anabaptists could not be limited to an antiquarian one, especially as I was serving in a local pastorate and beginning to find that reflection on the meaning and practice of the nature of the church was an immediate issue. It was about this time that the Anabaptist Network was formed and I was able to join a group. Here I found a space where my historical interest and my pastoral and personal concern in the nature of discipleship and church came together.

Since then I have found my interest in and drawing from the Anabaptist tradition has become both more focused and more frustrating. As I have become more shaped by the tradition, and found that the ideas have become more and more important to me, partly through the discussions with others in the Network, so I have found my discontent with my present experience of church life and my own level of commitment has grown. In that way, I would not say that my involvement with Anabaptist ideas and people has been an unmixed comfort; in fact, my original impression has stayed with me. What is it about these people that makes them so annoying? But I have made some progress – what makes them so annoying is that they challenge, undermine and de-centre so much of what I and others take for granted about the way of being Christian at this time and in my place. To be involved with Anabaptist ideas does not make for a comfortable life – thank God.

Ruth Gouldbourne is the minister of Bloomsbury Baptist Church, London.

Taking the Bible Seriously and Practising Equality

by Ed Sirett, London

Ed SirettI was brought up by parents who were members of a Christadelphian church. I was baptised when I was about fifteen years old. To a large extent Christadelphians believe much the same as many Evangelicals, but since they are (even more) preoccupied with smallest details of doctrine they tend to view all other Christians as very misguided at best. The worship was unvaried in the extreme.

When I was at university, I began to meet other people to whom the Bible was significant; a strange fact since I had been brought up with the idea that no other Christians took the Bible seriously! Well, after many years, I drifted through much apathy and eventually found myself converted to mainstream Christianity by the people who ran the Greenbelt festival. When I got married and moved to North London, my wife suggested that we could go to the Mennonites – but I was reluctant since I had spent many years escaping from a “cranky little sect”.

However, after a few years of attending an evangelical Anglican parish church we were ready for a change; this was due to some problems we were having “fitting in”. Both of us like to explore new ideas, not immediately rejecting them but holding them up to the yardstick of Jesus and our own and others’ experience. Both of us had significant problems with the clergy/male-dominated leadership that seemed not to acknowledge the talents of many in the congregation. I became somewhat bored with the same choruses being sung repetitively. My wife had significant bouts of depression which made people wary of her and her talents, rather than accepting her as another broken person in the image of God. Finally, we became disenchanted with much of the teaching, which was often simplistic (instead of simply explained) and in a spirit that left one feeling that we were being encouraged to follow Paul rather than Jesus.

On my first visit to the Mennonites I was in tears of relief and joy for most of the service. Here were followers of Jesus, who took the Bible seriously, who visibly practised equality among themselves. The equality was such that it was not something that this community was self-consciously doing, rather it was something so integral to their ways that anyone not doing it would have stood out simply as wrong. This equality was not just between men and women, it was between the young and old, the well and ill (in whatever way), adults and children, and most amazingly between the leadership and the led, those who had been there a long time and newcomers like ourselves.

After I began regularly attending the Mennonite church, I found that many aspects of the gospel that I had suspected were undervalued elsewhere were now held up as central to the teaching of Jesus (such as peace and justice, radical lifestyle changes, mutual submission, the communal nature of decision-making and discerning God, to name a few). Perhaps the most surprising thing that I discovered among the Mennonites was the best aspects of community life that I had experienced in my childhood – but with the merciless god of Sinai replaced with Jesus “full of grace and truth”.

Ed Sirett is manager of Make, Do and Mend, a property maintenance business in North London.

A Pattern of Christian Discipleship Shared by Thousands

by Chris Rowland, Oxford

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

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

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

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