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" ›