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.