AT 32: The London Mennonite Centre's First Fifty Years

by Alan Kreider
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 32, February 2003

Fifty years ago, in 1953, the London Mennonite Centre opened its doors. But the Centre’s story grew out of a longer story – the Anabaptist movement in the Reformation which led to the Mennonite Church. There were Anabaptist stories in England before 1953. Some, such as the crushing of an Anabaptist church and burning of two Anabaptists in 1575, are well known to many readers of Anabaptism Today. Other are less well-known: the publishing by English Baptists in 1853 of an English translation of Martyrs’ Mirror, or the influence of English Baptists on continental Mennonites, exemplified in the solid, churchy building of Weierhof Mennonite Church, in Germany, built in 1837 as a replica of the solid, churchy Tottenham Baptist Church.

There is also the story of North American Mennonite relief work in England during World War II, which in 1940 brought John Coffman to England and which distributed food, clothing and blankets from a large house at 80 Shepherds Hill, Highgate. At the end of the war, the relief workers moved to the more immediately needy continent. John Coffman, with his wife Eileen Pells, whom he married in 1943, moved to Canada, but then returned to England, where they engaged in evangelistic work in the heart of London, first at the Finsbury Mission and then, supported by the Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM), at the Free Gospel Hall in Kentish Town.

But North American Mennonites did not forget England completely. They knew that there was racial discrimination in England, and that students from what was then the British Empire (especially India and Africa) were having difficulty obtaining housing. So MBM decided to provide a counter-witness by opening a student residence in London. Where was more natural for them to look than a part of London already familiar to Mennonites – Highgate, where there were large houses, conveniently near a tube station?

In 1953, for £6,000, MBM purchased 14 Shepherds Hill – just down the road from the former centre – and Quintus and Miriam Leatherman volunteered to lead the new venture.

International village

The Leathermans established the Centre and its characteristic ethos. Quintus, gentle and courtly, had taught high school in Philadelphia; Miriam was a nurse, quick and excitable. In 1952, both took early retirement to come to London, bringing with them two of their three children. With children among the students, the Centre from the outset felt like a family. Miriam cooked countless meals for students – her Sunday dinners were legendary. She also presided properly at tea-time, which became another Centre institution. The Leathermans functioned as parents to generations of students from all over the world who felt displaced from their families and cultures. They savoured England: they entered into a national Friday ritual by taking the bus to Archway to buy fish and chips. They especially loved people and enabled the Centre to become a kind of international village; smells of Ugandan, Chinese and Indian cooking wafted from the Centre’s various kitchens to mingle in the entrance.

The Leathermans’ Christian witness was not bookish or verbal. There were few books in the Centre’s library and no teaching courses. But people, influenced by them, became Christians: their character and loving hospitality were deeply attractive. The London Mennonite Fellowship (LMF) met weekly under Quintus’ leadership; it was a chaplaincy to students, but outsiders also came – some, such as Karel and Constance Kulik, were drawn to Mennonite theology and way of life; others were Germanic Mennonites who through war had ended up in England. On Sunday evenings the Leathermans took the bus down the hill to support the Coffmans at the Free Gospel Hall.

The Leathermans were supported by a remarkable succession of North American volunteers. And they made it clear that the Centre’s ministry and ethos were not solely their creation: they relied heavily on resident students to build the Centre’s community. These included Dolly Cheung (Knapp) from Malaysia, Les and Lynn Fairfield from the U.S. (Katie Kreider’s parents, who became Christians at the Centre), Richard and May Kwan from Hong Kong and Malaysia (who laid out the Centre’s garden and planted the roses), and English Christians Neil and Pauline Summerton, for whom the Centre was their first marital home and a lifelong interest. The community generally worked together well. Symbolic of this, in 1967 many people gathered to tear down the fence dividing the garden of No.14 from that of the recently purchased No.16. Axes felled trees and bushes, and amidst rejoicing there was a great bonfire. Similar cooperation was evident every December in ‘leaf day’, another Centre tradition (when friends come to LMC to clear leaves from the large back garden).

In 1969, the Leathermans retired and MBM replaced them with Menno and Shirley Friesen from Iowa. They were a hard act to follow, but the Friesens brought their own strengths to this community of international students. Menno was an academic, with a doctorate in American literature, who brought discussion and intellectual stimulation. Shirley and their three children brought the gift of hospitality and the humanising, familial qualities already so familiar in the Centre. Wisely they preserved established traditions in the Centre’s life. Tea-time continued to flourish; loving care and listening were much in evidence; the smells of disparate cuisines continued to mingle.

This was the era of the Viet Nam War and of anticipated international revolution, so there was much to discuss. Contacts with English academics brought new insight into the cultures of London and England. The discussions could be passionate; there was a bloc of Latin American residents who were vehemently anti-American. But at their best, the discussions – even when anti-American perspectives predominated – were good humoured and exploratory. Iconic of this was Joanilio Teixeira, a chess-playing, pipe-smoking Brazilian, who did a brilliant PhD in economics and has become one of his country’s premier economists; he, his wife Selma, and two children were exemplary student residents. In 1970, Lesley Mabbett (Misrahi) moved into the Centre to which she has made such a remarkable contribution. The LMF continued meeting during this period, but was not a priority.

Mission to England

In 1974, Alan and Eleanor Kreider arrived from Indiana as the new directors. They had been student residents for two years in the 1960s, had been profoundly shaped by the Leathermans’ witness and ethos, and were determined to foster these. But they wanted to place a heavier emphasis on the Centre’s mission to England. So, assisted by Lesley Mabbett, they recruited Stephen Longley and Richard Bird, English Christian students; and soon these were joined by Helen Maddox (Yocum). For the next seven years the mixture of English students with counterparts from India, Japan, France and Pakistan was congenial and spiritually productive. The LMF began anew to preoccupy Centre staff. At the urging of Stephen Longley, the Fellowship in 1976 reformed itself, covenanting to be a congregation explicitly in the Anabaptist tradition; Stephen and his new Finnish wife Margot Kottelin were part of this from the start. It wasn’t always clear how it could cohabit with the international student programme; and in 1980-1981 the Fellowship had times of turbulent disagreement. Nevertheless, in 1981 it began to grow rapidly. People were drawn to its worship, and also to the domestic setting of the worship; in what other church could you worship God, eat a wonderful soup, and then play croquet? By 1983 the fifty plus attenders had overspilled the Centre’s largest room, and the LMF began its journey to find a home, which ended, in 1987, in Wood Green: hence the church’s current name, Wood Green Mennonite Church (WGMC).

The 1980s were tense politically. Hopes or fears of world revolution were replaced by fears of nuclear war; as cruise missiles arrived in Britain, Christians of many denominations began to turn to Mennonites who, unlike most Christians, had been thinking all along about issues of war and violence. At the same time, Anabaptism began to appear on the radar screens of theologians and church leaders; John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus, Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and Doris Janzen Longacre’s More with Less Cookbook all said, intellectually and practically, that ‘no one could truly know Jesus unless they followed him in life.’ So the Centre started to sell books. Irish Anabaptist Mike Garde founded Metanoia Book Service by his itinerant promoting, and others have built on this, notably Pauline Summerton and then Will Newcomb, who came to Mennonites through the Christian peace movement. The Centre’s library began to grow, and its peculiar collection of Anabaptist, Mennonite, radical theological and peace literature was given coherent cataloguing by Janice Kreider, a librarian from the University of British Columbia.

In 1981, the Centre decided to conclude its 28 year ministry to international students. Universities now had halls of residence, laws proscribed racial discrimination in housing, and the escalation of fees for international students meant that only those from wealthy families could afford to study in the UK. So into the Centre moved members of the LMF to live in community and to host the many people who came to use its resources and experience its hospitality. The Centre’s life remained intense, as church members struggled to learn the skills of community living. Food cooked by the residents (including the emerging chef Andrew Kreider), was often delicious, but the smells of its cooking were less varied than in student days.

In the 1980s, staff became involved in the Christian peace movement, attending and helping organise worship services at nuclear bases. They were increasingly invited to teach and speak. In 1982, eminent Evangelical Anglican leader John Stott invited Alan Kreider to All Souls, Langham Place to debate with Marshall of the Royal Air Force, Lord Cameron, on ‘The Defence Debate’; this gave the Centre new visibility. Speaking opportunities in Baptist, Anglican, charismatic and evangelical circles came to various members of staff. On one occasion, Wally Fahrer gave a speech that had life-changing impact on inner-city church-planter Stuart Murray. Recognising that staff were being pulled hither and yon to speak at the whims of others, the Centre in 1986 started its own teaching programme – Cross-Currents. Chris Marshall, a New Zealand PhD student in New Testament, co-founded this with Alan and Eleanor Kreider; and ever since it has taught courses both at the Centre and on the road which have popularised Christian discipleship in the Anabaptist tradition. Centre staff and residents also began the discipline of daily corporate prayers. This was reflected in 1990 in the building of the Centre’s prayer hut, designed by Andy Watts, which provided a new resource for the Centre’s ministries – two leading urban pastors, Jane and Geoff Thorington-Hassell, became engaged in this place of prayer!

Consolidation

In 1991, the Kreiders moved to Manchester and were succeeded as directors by Nelson and Ellen Kraybill. The Kraybills built on the work of their predecessors, but they brought special gifts. Nelson brought biblical scholarship – he is an authority on the book of Revelation – while Ellen brought the touch of a physiotherapist and the gift of friendship. Cross-Currents continued, as did tea-time, daily prayers and involvement in WGMC. Nelson was a gifted communicator and was asked to address widely varied audiences. On one occasion, in the Wembley Conference Centre, he presented an Anabaptist understanding of the gospel, lights flashing and artificial smoke billowing, to thousands of youthful Jesus Army recruits. He also exercised his gifts of practical theological communication as he walked, with members of the Anabaptist Network, on the ancient way from Farnham to Canterbury – which led to his widely used book, On the Pilgrim’s Way.

Clarification of vision was one of his gifts. Nelson brought new coherence to the Centre’s organisation as he worked with people like Dave Nussbaum and Lizzie Smith to initiate a strategic plan; from now on the Trust and Council would provide effective oversight over the Centre’s programmes. Nelson was director when the Anabaptist Network was founded. In response to the vision of Stuart Murray, in 1991 a network of Anabaptist sympathisers across the UK was founded, which was soon sponsoring study groups, a theologians’ group, conferences and a journal. Nelson co-edited Anabaptism Today with Stuart, with Nelson responsible for making contributions concise, cutting out unnecessary padding; for good reason he was known as ‘the butcher of Shepherds Hill’.

Nelson also gave direction to the emerging incarnation in England of conflict transformation skills that are the product of an Anabaptist understanding of the Bible. He invited his brother, Ron Kraybill, founding director of Mennonite Conciliation Service, to London to lead a mediation skills training course in 1994. Among those attending this was Alastair McKay, a WGMC member and chair of the LMC Council. Alastair and Nelson were excited by the training and gathered interested participants to establish a mediation service. Bridge Builders was launched as a community mediation service in 1995, but proved unsustainable on a voluntary basis. However, Nelson began to receive invitations to teach churches about handling conflict and to offer mediation services. He and Alastair had a vision to serve British churches in this area and, with a grant from Mennonite Central Committee, Bridge Builders was relaunched in 1996 with Alastair working a day a week alongside Nelson.

The Centre in the Kraybill years was recognisably itself; the ethos, which outsiders note upon entering the building, remained one of palpable peace. Now Eileen Coffman presided at tea-time (John had died in 1990); Jocelyn Murray engaged in discussion of missiology with all and sundry; and the Kraybills’ friends from the neighbourhood and beyond were often present for tea and conversation. Who would it be today? Arfon Jones? Tricia Fowler? Howard Moss? Judith Gardiner? Helen Atkinson-Roe? In the Kraybill years, Wayne and Leabell Miller provided animated and gracious hospitality for the Centre’s guests, as Bob and Freda Milne, Bill and Liz Barge and Peter Olsen had done in the Kreider era, and as Abner and Virginia Schlabach and Jerry and Becky Miller would later do; the Centre’s witness owes an incalculable debt to the Christian character of these and other volunteers.

Expansion

In 1996, the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary called Nelson Kraybill to be its president, so the LMC Trust invited Mark and Mary Thiessen Nation from California to be the Centre’s leaders, supported by MBM. Mark brought the skills of a professional theologian and ethicist, while Mary’s decades of experience of inner-city ministry gave her keen insight into the pastoral dimensions of urban mission. The core traditions continued: daily prayers, tea time, leaf day, hospitality, encouraging the use of the library and prayer hut, and participation in the WGMC. The Centre’s familial character and peace continued, enjoyed by visitors and regulars such as Esther Misrahi, Charlotte Gardiner and Veronica Zundel. When Eileen Coffman and Jocelyn Murray died (in 2000 and 2001), there was a widely shared sense of grief.

Under Mark and Mary, Cross-Currents continued to grow; increasingly its courses were held at the nearby Cholmeley Evangelical Church – 160 people attended a conference, led by Mark’s friend, notable American theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Mark established connections with English theologians both prominent and emerging – Jeremy Thomson and Tim Foley were special conversation partners – and wrote extensively, while Mary worked intensively with urban Christians and their churches. The staff grew to nine, four of whom are English; Metanoia Book Service grew, not least through a mutually beneficial collaboration with Noel Moules’ Workshop teaching programme. And the Centre and the Anabaptist Network continued to be resources to each other, even as the precise nature of the relationship was negotiated, at times painfully.

Bridge Builders’ work was expanding and in 1997 Alastair went for further training in Eastern Mennonite University’s Conflict Transformation Program. Andrew Lewis-Smith and Mary Thiessen Nation kept up the impetus by leading seminars for denominational leaders and theological students. When Alastair returned in 1999, Bridge Builders moved into full-time operation. It has sponsored week-long seminars in conflict transformation co-led by Alastair and gifted international resource people, such as Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. Bridge Builders has also responded to invitations to mediate in congregational conflicts. Among those helped by it is the Archbishop of York, David Hope, who is on the Council of Reference. His participation is indicative of a theme that has emerged in the Centre in recent years: the potential of a minority with a coherent point of view, such as the Mennonites, to provide a witness of ecumenical resonance. In the same way, the Anabaptist Network has opened new horizons for people in many denominations as the centrality of Jesus, community and peace emerge as themes for post-Christendom Christians.

In 2002, the Thiessen Nations left for academic assignments in Virginia, and the LMC Trust invited Canadians Vic and Kathy Thiessen, supported by the Mennonite Mission Network, to provide leadership. Elsewhere in this issue Vic gives his vision of the doors that, after 50 years, are continuing to open up for the Centre. Eleanor and I, and the many other people whose lives have been touched by the Centre’s first half century, will be praying for God’s wisdom and empowerment as the visions of Vic and his co-workers are tested and realised. As we celebrate the Centre’s 50th birthday in June, we will also be thanking God for his faithfulness and generosity. The LMC has been a marginal development in the history of Christianity in Britain in the past half century. But the Bible reminds us continually that God delights to use marginal people. May the Centre, as it gains institutional strength and influence, not lose its marginality. And may it reflect the words of its Saviour and Teacher, who says to a loving, marginal and indomitable church (Rev 3.8), ‘I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.’

Alan Kreider, now living in Elkhart, Indiana, is Mission Educator for the Mennonite Mission Network, teaches Church History and Evangelism at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and is addicted to Frank Cooper’s Thick Cut Marmalade.

For more info see London Mennonite Centre's 50th Anniversary for a presentation, report and photos.