Alan Kreider, Regent’s Park College, Oxford: 10 May 2000
Let me tell you about two of my recent pilgrimages. In late February Eleanor and I went to Lindisfarne, Holy Island, off the coast of Northumberland. We were driven by a companion of the Northumbria community, and hoped to arrive in time for Sunday morning eucharist at St Mary’s Church. Mercifully the tides were low and our trip across the causeway was uneventful, save for our awareness of the immense, wild beauty of the island. The eucharist was led by David Adam, vicar of Lindisfarne, and author of numerous books of prayers in the Celtic tradition. After the service we wandered into the ruins of the priory, in the midst of which loomed the statue of Aidan, apostle to Northumbria and bishop - the beloved saint who evangelized "not on horseback but on foot", who was "a friend of the poor and a real father to the wretched," who was amazed when he saw a "humble king." We then went to stay with companions of the community who interpreted recent developments on the island. Numerous Christian initiatives are now based there - retreat houses, museums, shops, and their own Christian Heritage of Northumbria project. Farming and fishing, the customary business of the islanders, were being superceded by Christian enterprises and tourism. Signs advertised a forthcoming Celtic Arts Festival, to which painters and poets, singers and dance artists, priests and players would gather on the island for a week of performances, ceilidhs and worship - one of them being "Prayer around the Cross Celtic-Taize style." It was easy to see why people go to Lindisfarne. Its history is fascinating. And I found it a good place to pray, to gain perspective. I recall especially a time of solitude in the Nature Reserve, praying amidst the howling wind; or by the coastguard tower, looking out to the Inner Farne Island where Cuthbert had spent his last days. Lindisfarne, they say, is a "thin place", a place where heaven and earth seem close - and God seems near. I went there for renewal, and I received it.
A second pilgrimage was to Asperen in Holland, with members of the Anabaptist Network. Asperen was the home of Dirk Willems, who has become an iconic figure to people in the Anabaptist movement. Dirk was a leader of an Anabaptist home church in the era of Christendom in which church attendance was compulsory and heresy was punishable by death. In 1569 Dirk was arrested and imprisoned in the local castle. After several weeks of captivity Dirk somehow escaped. It was late spring, and Dirk escaped along a lane and then across a frozen canal. The ice cracked as he crossed, but he had lost weight - prison food was ideal for losing weight - and he got to the other side. But the bailiff who was chasing him had not been eating prison food, and he, when he crossed the ice, broke through. Drowning he cried out for help. Reflexively, Dirk turned back - reached into the icy water and saved his pursuer. Whereupon the pursuer, prompted by the burgomaster, rearrested Dirk. This time they locked up Dirk in a more secure place, the parish church tower; after torture, which did not succeed in reconverting him, Dirk was taken to the riverbank where he was burnt for heresy. With local Calvinist Christians our party of neo-Anabaptists visited the tower of the church, walked down Dirk Willems Straat, and at the place of burning on the riverbank we prayed and recommitted ourselves to God. This story has had an extraordinary resonance in the lives of many people in many denominations as the Anabaptist tradition is incarnated in Britain and Ireland. And the question arises: was there a "thin place" - a place of God’s presence - for Dirk? Was it in the church tower which was his prison (certainly not in the church)? Or under the open sky, by the riverbank, where Dirk was burnt and shouted out, over seventy times, "O, my Lord, my God"? Both were thin places for us as we visited them. Are thin places, I wonder, also to be found in places of injustice and ugliness?
These experiences, and these questions, are important for us as we seek to be Christians in post-Christendom Europe. This civilization, known for its Christianity, now, according to a headline in the Church Times, "leads the world in godlessness." Statistics of church attendance, presented in such responsible surveys as The Tide is Running Out, make for sobering reading. Cardinal König of Vienna, in a recent article in the Tablet, has concluded that "the traces of Constantine’s Church would seem to be fading, and a turning-point as fundamental as the Constantinian one confronts us."
Many Christians find this a discouraging time. I understand that feeling, and occasionally I share it. But in my better moments I find this a time of fascination and hope. Now Christianity has to rely for its survival, not on the coercion of the state or the pull of social convention, but on the intrinsic power of the Gospel and the attractiveness of the Christian story as it is embodied in communities of believers. And I have experienced that, amidst the discouraging statistics, Europe is full of fascinating Christian initiatives. There are living parishes; there are new churches, small and huge; pentecostalism has brought new energy to European as well as global Christianity. There are also new stirrings in Roman Catholicism, some of which inspire me greatly.
Among the fascinating things that are going on today are the reemergence from the margins of Christendom of the Celtic and the Anabaptist Christian traditions. There are many differences between these traditions. The Celtic tradition is very old; it emerged in the sixth century in the Christianization of Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Northumbria; it is a tradition associated with the evangelization of the Celtic peoples and the development of Christendom among them. The Anabaptist tradition, by contrast, is younger - it is only 475 years old; it sprang up in the 1520s in three areas of central Europe, and spread out across Europe and around the world from there. It was a protest against the coercive, compulsory Christianity of Christendom, and indeed has been the progenitor of the free church traditions. As such, it has functioned as one of the solvents of Christendom.
In this lecture I will not attempt to study the Celtic or Anabaptist movements historically. My aim is more modest: to ask how the Celtic and Anabaptist phenomena are being appropriated by Christians today; and to assess what contribution these two are making to the future of Christianity in post-Christendom England. I do this study in comparative appropriation knowing that the Celtic and Anabaptist traditions are not equal in size or current significance. In Britain and Ireland the appropriation of Celtic Christianity is a sizable and varied phenomenon; Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford has a well-stocked section devoted to books on Celtic Christianity. By comparison, the appropriation of Anabaptism is a global phenomenon in disparate cultures - Korea, Chile, Colombia, Indonesia. But Blackwell’s do not have an Anabaptist section.
Why have I been drawn to study the appropriation of these two traditions? One is my own involvement. I recall an occasion in 1973 when I - as a historian researching the English Reformation - had just given a speech on Christian approaches to revolution to a gathering of Evangelical schoolmasters at the London Bible College, and I suddenly realized, "Oh, I am the first Mennonite in 400 years to have the opportunity to speak publicly in England out of the Anabaptist tradition." During the years since then I have been a representative in England of the Anabaptist tradition, and I have watched the growth of the Anabaptist Network in Britain with delight. More recently, I have also become deeply fascinated by Celtic Christianity. It was the series of lectures sponsored by our Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture on "Celts and Christians" that began to inform and intrigue me. Since then I have begun to visit Celtic sites, read Celtic primary sources, and consider the emergence of Celtic renewal movements. I have benefited from this. I have observed further that other people share interest in both Celtic and Anabaptist traditions. One can see this in conferences. One 29 April 2000 our Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture, working with the Northumbria Community and the Anabaptist Network, sponsored a day conference here in Oxford on "There’s Life in the Roots: Celts, Anabaptists and the Relevance of Tradition." One of the 120 people who attended, an Anglican who lives with asylum seekers, observed in the plenary at the end of the day: "History is bursting out!" One can also see this in individuals. I have a mental picture of a pastor of a free evangelical church, a relative stranger to liturgy, ending a session of an Anabaptist study group by praying a Celtic blessing which he had memorized, and beaming with pleasure.
There are, of course, some interesting parallels between the appropriations of the Celtic and Anabaptist traditions. Both have an ecumenical appeal to people across the ecclesiastical spectrum, from Catholics to new church charismatics; many Baptists are attracted to both. Both traditions have led to masters’ level post-graduate courses, an M.A. in the Centre for the Study of Religion in Celtic Socities of the University of Wales Lampeter, and an M.Th. in Baptist and Anabaptist Studies at Spurgeon’s College in London. Both movements share some common characteristics - a desire for holism, for a Christianity that goes beyond the head to the whole person and the whole of life; a commitment to community; a valuing of story; and often, a commitment to mission. And in both traditions, Christian people today sense that they have "come home." Michael Mitton, a priest who has been a leading figure among charismatic Anglicans, recalls his first visit to Lindisfarne: "For me it was like a homecoming. Something about the island and its history connected with a deep longing within me." Equally eloquent are many Anabaptist stories. Stuart Murray and I have just completed a book containing sixty testimonies of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland. In these stories the theme of homecoming recurs often, so often that the book is entitled Coming Home: Anabaptist Stories from Britain and Ireland. This homecoming is not associated with a sacred place like Lindisfarne but with a God who gives his diaspora people a home in exile. Amidst the anomie, dissatisfaction and rootlessness of our time, some Christians are sensing that in one of these two traditions - or both - they have found roots and have come home.
Two more parallels between the appropriation of Celtic and Anabaptist Christianity stand out. One has to do with history. Both appropriations attempt to find life in history. Our age is impatient with tradition; our culture is often called a "throw-away culture." But for both new Celts and new Anabaptists, tradition is a good word and history is is a means to renewal.
The Celts and the Anabaptists have differing experiences of tradition. There are many Christian traditions in Celtic societies, and some scholars refuse to use the term Celtic Christianity to describe the sum of them. But even if one grants that Celtic Christianity is a usable term - and I do - it is debatable how direct the line is between the first-generation Celts such as Patrick, Columba, David and Aidan and the various manifestations of Celtic Christianity today. How do the origins relate to the later developments? How does Columba relate to the blessings and spells of the nineteenth-century Carmina Gadelica, or to the Wee Frees of the Scottish Islands today? The work of Oliver Davies has been especially important, I believe, in showing genuine continuities in Celtic Christianity especially in the poetic tradition.
The Anabaptist tradition has more lineal continuity - the Mennonite and Hutterite traditions are continuous across almost five centuries and have developed folkways and common memories that are passed on by storytelling, socialization, and osmosis. But here also there are questions of the relationship between the Anabaptists of the first generation or two and the later representatives of the tradition. What has Menno Simons, who died in 1561, in common with contemporary Mennonites? Beginning in the 1920s Mennonite and Hutterite scholars began to rediscover first-generation Anabaptism; they thereby began a movement of historical scholarship which has recovered many sources of their origins and which is still researching, debating and growing in sophistication. For Mennonite church leaders such as H.S. Bender this "recovery of the Anabaptist vision" was a means of finding a middle way between those two expressions of modern culture, fundamentalism and modernism, which were threatening to split the North American Mennonite Church. The Anabaptism of the tradition’s origins, for Bender and others, stood in judgement upon the tradition’s later development - this is a picture of declension, of a tradition seeking to be true to the insights of the movement’s first generation. This orientation by origins is not strange to readers of the Bible: the Exodus and the life and death of Jesus have functioned similarly as norming points - "the root stand(s) in judgment on the branches." But this is not merely a critique; it is also is a call to renewal, to evaluate a tradition by its origins to find new forms of Christian faithfulness today.
To the best of my knowledge, Celtic Christians have not engaged in this kind of intra-traditional debate. Some, such as Norah Chadwick, have talked, in rarified tones, about the sublimity of early Celtic Christianity: "a Christianity so pure and serene as that of the age of the saints could hardly be equalled and never repeated." The new Celts, in my experience, have not tended to ask whether the subsequent development of the tradition has been true to its origins. They have not pondered whether there was a shift between the historical Patrick - the Patrick of the Confessio - and the Patrick of the hagiographers Tirechan and Muirchu, and if so whether it matters; or whether the craggy early poems of Iona are more or less helpful to Christians today than the gentle hermit poems of three centuries later. The new British Anabaptists, in contrast, have often discussed which parts of the tradition are most helpful to them. In their stories, some neo-Anabaptists describe being drawn to the early Anabaptists, to the true radicals, who broke with Christendom, attempted without nuance or compromise to do what Jesus said, and spread across Christian Europe as missionaries. Some of these find the representatives of the ongoing Anabaptist traditions such as the Mennonites to be tepid and boring; it seems a story of declension. Other new Anabaptists, on the other hand, are more drawn to the wisdom that has accrued in the tradition across the centuries - for example, in practical techniques of mediation and peacemaking; for them the Anabaptist story is a story of development. Declension or development; norming by origins or valuing transformation and maturation - some neo-Anabaptists find themselves, at various times and on differing issues, engaging in both. I do.
But both new Celts and new Anabaptists, who value the past and find life in tradition, face a perpetual temptation - what pop psychology calls projection. Both the Celts and the Anabaptists can serve as projection screens which we use to validate our own prejudices and desires. Ian Bradley in an illuminating book has shown how people from Bede onwards have used the Celts to make contemporary points. The Celts were fiercely anti-Roman Catholics, or faithful Catholics, or druid sympathizers, or signs and wonders charismatics, or gentle contemplatives, or tireless missionaries; rarely, Bradley argues, has there been more projection about a historical phenomenon than in the plethora of recent books about the Celts. Over the years the Anabaptists have similarly attracted projection: the Anabaptists’ persecutors, "new left" radicals, sober Mennonite historians, confident new church leaders, human rights activists - all have, wittingly or unwittingly, seen their own faces reflected in the water at the bottom of the Anabaptist well. Such reflection is inevitable, and in a sense it doesn’t matter. All attempts to use history for contemporary renewal are exercises in selectivity and myth-making, and living traditions are constructed as well as received. But this does indicate that, for both new Celts and new Anabaptists, a constant dialogue with historians - and critics - can make the construction of myths as responsible and beneficent as possible.
So both traditions - neo-Celtic and neo-Anabaptist - are appropriations of history. They also are attempts to find wisdom on the margins. To be sure, the early Celtic Christians scattered widely as missionaries; there was nothing marginal about Columbanus, whose seventh-century missionary efforts criss-crossed Europe and led him to Italy. In time, however, as Europe became Christendom and mission ceased, Celtic Christians either peregrinated "for the love of God" - not to any particular destination - or they peregrinated inwardly, spiritually, i.e., they settled down and became local. Progressively their forms of piety and organization, especially after the Synod of Whitby of CE 664, were confined to what non-Celts have often called "the Celtic fringes". The Celts have often been honoured, but as the centres of power and control moved south they have not been included in the main narrative; as one English Celtic advocate put it, they have been pushed to "the very edge of the church." The Anabaptists similarly have been marginalized. They have been a negative footnote in Reformation history, and have been a movement about which theologians and historians can speak rudely and inaccurately without fear of correction by their peers.
A sample of the marginalization of both movements is the recently released book Christian Spirituality by Alastair McGrath. McGrath with his customary insight and orderliness presents a "clear, informative, helpful and well-written introduction to Christian spirituality" - so the book’s back cover. But the Celts and Anabaptists are notable for their absence, as the pentecostals and non-Western Christians. McGrath doesn’t discuss the Celtic tradition, although he does briefly present "St Patrick’s Breastplate"; his discussion of the Anabaptist tradition is even briefer. He notes that the Anabaptists "stressed the need to form alternative Christian communities, often in rural areas"; that they were an example of "Christ against culture;" and that similar attitudes today can be found within North American fundamentalist groups. McGrath is functioning here as a gatekeeper of orthodoxy. He is exercising power, the power which controls memory. He does this in a neutral, objective manner: his history is not called an introduction to socially-stable centrist spirituality - he calls it an introduction to Christian Spirituality. And the two traditions that we are studying - the Celtic and Anabaptist traditions - are simply not there. Of course nobody can mention every marginal group. But, if one thinks biblically, should there be a "preferential option" for the margins? Are the margins where God, according to the Bible, habitually chooses to work - and is able to work?
I do not contend that either Celtic or Anabaptist Christianity is by itself sufficient. Both need correction, enrichment, and the augmentation of their visions by other traditions. But both, I believe, have important contributions to make. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has referred to the Hebrew Scriptures as a "polyphony" in which various voices sound simultaneously. The real trouble comes if certain voices are stifled. When this happens the music as a whole doesn’t cohere; it loses both richness and that capacity to take the breath away that is characteristic of great music. What can we do when voices are missing?
The great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky faced this problem in 1956. He discovered a seven-voice "sacred song" by the brilliant and eccentric Renaissance composer Don Carlo Gesualdo, Illumina nos, a prayer for the illumination of the seven-fold grace of the Holy Spirit. But two of the seven vocal parts had disappeared, and the music was unperformable. Stravinsky got a brain wave: he would himself write new parts for the sextus and bassus, and thereby enabling the music to sound out gloriously - although the work, shaped by his own parts, was not what Gesualdo would have written in the 1580s.
In Western Christianity there have been absent voices. I believe that as a result the Holy Spirit’s graces have been incompletely evident. We, unlike Stravinsky, can rediscover documents which give us texts for the missing voices. To be sure, our selection of these texts, and the tone in which we render them, will always make the polyphony of Western Christianity something that we have shaped. But then in music all parts are shaped by their singers. As new parts are added to the polyphony, there will be moments of discord - passing tones that, when resolved, become grace notes. Polyphony is musical conversation, and my affirmation is that, when the Celtic and Anabaptist parts are included and when the singers listen to each other, the music will have greater richness and power.
What contributions do the two marginal traditions - do the Celts and Anabaptists - have to make to the ensemble, and how are they retrieving (or inventing) their parts? Let us look briefly at the current appropriations of them both, beginning with the new Celts.
The neo-Celtic revival is so widespread that it is hard to generalize about it. It contains New Age thinkers like Shirley Toulson. She is convinced that "it is those who seek peace on earth before any other god who have the greatest affinity with the Celtic Church today." It also contains new church leaders such as Roger Ellis and Chris Seaton who admire the zeal of the early Celtic missionaries, and who observe, "God is restoring the warrior to the church . . . full of passion, energy, fire and battle to see God’s Kingdom revealed." Ian Bradley has observed that, although there are some Welsh, Scots and Irish who are involved in the movement, it is mainly English people - especially, he argues, Anglicans - who have been appropriating Celtic Christian themes for the church today. Esther de Waal, Donald Allchin, and notably David Adam - all of these are centrist Anglicans who have made major contributions. But more recently it is the charismatics who have been arriving in force: charismatic Anglicans, but also charismatic nonconformists and notably people from the new churches. Christian music groups have adopted Celtic motifs - in the words of songwriter Graham Kendrick, the Celts are "kinda cool." These people, so very different, have drawn on different sources - some on the hagiography, some on the poetry and art; but many have emphasized the native, the local nature of the Celtic tradition. Anglican priest Robert van de Weyer: "All of us born and bred in the British Isles, whatever blood runs in our veins, have the Celtic fire in our hearts."
What themes in the Celtic tradition have struck fire? At the risk of over-synthesizing what is a very disparate movement, I will point briefly to seven themes. The first is prayer and spirituality. Roy Searle, a Baptist minister who is a leader of the Northumbria Community, reported to me recently after he had led worship at Spring Harvest: "People are hungry for spirituality and depth." People of many sorts are struggling to pray - and the neo-Celtic movement has excelled at providing prayer forms - prayers from the past and prayers newly written, in poetic, rhythmic, often parallelistic forms - which many English people today are finding helpful. And what is it that is helpful to them? It is a second Celtic theme - embodied holism. Esther de Waal reflects on her own Christian experience: "My head was constantly engaged, my mind was filled with information. But this did not involve the whole of myself, my five senses, my emotions and feelings, and above all my imagination." (36) Celtic prayer has made people aware of their involvement in a "sacramental universe, a kinship with nature". There is an affinity here with the deep rhythms of primal religion. Prayer in this tradition is deeply attractive to people tired of words, tired of religious observance that is primarily cerebral. And when the whole being is engaged in prayer, a third theme emerges: creativity. The Celtic appropriation has unleashed a burst of imaginative and artistic activity in many media: dance, poetry, song-writing, storytelling. It has also opened the way to a fourth theme, which has especially been important for tired Evangelicals and bored Charismatics: a discovery of liturgy, symbol and sacrament - indeed to discover, in a safely non-Roman setting, all kinds of things that have been the property of Catholic Christianity. Now Evangelicals can use set prayers, go on pilgrimages, cross themselves and say, with feeling, "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison."
Church organization is a fifth theme of the appropriation. Some Celtic advocates are convinced that the early Celts were non-hierarchical and offered special dignity to women. Anglican renewal leader Ray Simpson argues that "Celtic insights are crucial for the development of a new way of being church which revolves around workaday communities of praying people whose worship centres are also eating places, providing accommodation, multi resources, a link with land which is stewarded well." Such a church, Simpson and others emphasize, leads to a sixth area of appropriation - mission. Celtic Christianity provides "a way of mission that gets under the skin of people in a non-church culture." It inculturates confidently, adapting many of the dominant characteristics of the host culture and using the leaders (the kings) of that culture to procure the conversion of others. "The conversion of a king," Anglican bishop John Finney observed, "led to the conversion of a people." And he asks: "Who are the ‘kings’ of today?"
Finally the seventh theme of appropriation - community. This is frequently asserted in a Celtic tradition that I have often found to be highly individualistic. But there are several Celtic communities that have emerged, one of which, the Northumbria Community, I have watched with interest and growing admiration. This community is almost a decade old; after struggles to get its vision and structures right, it currently has great energy. It seeks to be a "new monasticism", of people in a community that is both gathered and scattered. Its mother house is in Northumberland, where it says the offices, receives retreatants and runs its business; but its Companions and Friends live in many parts of England. They are knit together by a Rule of Life, which sketches the framework for a lifestyle of availability and vulnerability, and is, according to Roy Searle, "our teacher and governing spirit." They are also joined when scattered by using the Northumbria Office, which many who are not involved in the community have also found helpful. The community has attempted to respond to Francis Schaeffer’s question, "How then should we live?" by finding "a new way to live that has mirrored the heart’s desire of many, sick of materialism and consumerism." The community, which has something of the energetic buzz of the early Charismatic communities of thirty years ago, has generated a plethora of initiatives: Cloisters, their business; Celtic-flavoured missionary outreaches; a story-telling project (in collaboration with the Bible Society); a research project in the Johannine tradition; worship leading at Greenbelt and Spring Harvest; pilgrimages to Celtic sites hither and yon. I wonder about the freedom which their Northumbrian office makes a collage of materials for worship: I can understand the impulse to draw wisdom from people as dissimilar as French philosophical theologian Teilhard de Chardin and American Foursquare Gospel preacher Jean Darnall, but does one call the result "Celtic"? I wonder about what appears to be a lack of engagement with Celtic sources in the community’s journal Caim. The journal informs us that between the fifth and seventh centuries "we see the light of Christ burning more brightly than perhaps any period since," but I find virtually no historical reflection on what actually was going on in that distant era. I wonder about the assertion that the Celtic traditions were Johannine, with an emphasis upon a spirituality of "leaning on Jesus’ breast", but with practically no emphasis on doing the teaching of the Johannine (or the synoptic) Jesus who might address the many dimensions of people’s lives today.
But so much is positive, and the seven Celtic themes as embodied in the Northumbria Community and other initiatives in the revival hold out intriguing potential - for deepening, growth, and adding a significant voice to the Christian choir in post-Christendom. As Oliver Davies and Fiona Bowie have said, in Celtic Christianity there are "precious possibilities of Christan consciousness and existence which yet retain their power and which the churches of Christ have neglected for far too long."
How about the new Anabaptists? Have they discovered a distinctive part to sing? Like the Celts, the Anabaptists in Britain are varied: some are in the Bruderhof communities in southern England and the Mennonite church in London; others, the new Anabaptists, are committed members of a wide variety of churches across the land. Once again there are restive Evangelicals and questioning Charismatics; but there also are Baptist theological college principals, the Precentor of Coventry Cathedral, even an Irish Cistercian monk. Twelve Network members meet twice a year in the Anabaptist Theological Circle; a larger number meet periodically in one of the eight Anabaptist Network study groups; many more also read the Network’s journal Anabaptism Today, which has appeared three times yearly since 1991.
What has resourced these neo-Anabaptists? One resource is solid scholarship, historical and theological, emanating from North America. Many of the sixty Anabaptist testimonies report that reading John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus had changed their lives; others say the same of Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and Donald Kraybill’s The Upside Down Kingdom. Furthermore, local Anabaptists have begun to put Anabaptism on the UK theological map - in church history, missiology, and spirituality (Eleanor Kreider). Reading the Anabaptist sources in England, in light of charismatic experience, Stuart Murray has been able to see, in a way that Mennonite scholars have generally missed, how Spirit-driven the early Anabaptists were: his new book, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, is a valuable contribution to theological literature. The Metanoia Book Service of the London Mennonite Centre sells these and other theological books in the tradition of biblical radicalism; last year their turnover reached £57,000.
In addition to scholarship, another resource has been the historical sources themselves. These sources are the records of a persecuted tradition: court records, prison letters, and especially the great Anabaptist martyrology Martyrs’ Mirror - which reports the story of Dirk Willems and over 1000 other martyrs. Anabaptism Today has provided its readers with many such documents, and with articles which debate issues in early Anabaptist history. Some neo-Anabaptists have been drawn to the tradition through reading the sources: a Cambridge theology don was one of these - "the clarity and purpose of their faith was astonishing, and the commitment to the peaceful kingdom, in the face of so much persecution, profoundly challenging." But rather more often the new Anabaptists have been attracted because they have found that the Anabaptists’ main themes are relevant today. As with the neo-Celts, I will note seven themes of recent Anabaptist appropriation.
The first theme is the centrality to the Anabaptist spirituality of Jesus - his life and teaching and suffering way. Juliet Kilpin, a church planter in East London, records: "what really attracted me to the Anabaptists was the way they brought everything back to . . . what Jesus taught." She calls this "Jesusness." Another Network member, Chris Rowland, an Anglican priest who is Professor Biblical Exegesis at Oxford University, notes how delighted he was to find "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." This Christocentrism is foundational to Anabaptist spirituality - to do is to know. In 1527 Hans Denck expressed the heart of the tradition when he wrote: "No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life" - that is, unless they express his teaching and way practically in their lives. This has led to a second theme of contemporary Anabaptist renewal: holism. This is a life holism, a holism that affirms the Lordship of Christ over all aspects of life. As Ian Milligan, a Scottish lecturer in social work put it, you "don’t have typical conservative evangelical hangups about evangelism versus social responsibility" - or between prayer and peacemaking. Peace - this is a third theme in neo-Anabaptist thinking. Theological educator Noel Moules, one of the Anabaptist Network’s leaders, calls himself a "shalom activist." Shalom is ultimate holism, the "total integration of all things in the person and peace of Jesus." Members of the Anabaptist Network seek to discern the meaning of peace locally and globally; and they have applied peace to all aspects of the Christian’s life: work, war, and witness as well as worship and church life.
This holistic, peacemaking discipleship can only be lived when Christians support eachother in community - this fourth Anabaptist theme has appropriated the longstanding Anabaptist affirmation of the centrality of the church in God’s purposes. These communities may be conventional congregations, but some Network members have also found hope in experimental forms of church: to quote the title of a recent Grove booklet by two new Anabaptists, Stuart Murray and Anne Wilkinson-Hayes, Hope from the Margins: New Ways of Being Church. In either conventional congregations or new communities, Anabaptists are exploring ways to foster economic justice, good conflict, transparent living, and a communal reading of the Bible. Martin Scott, a Scottish New Testament exegete, has found that Anabaptism has helped him to put the Bible back into the hands of the people: "the Bible is there to be read in community, by the people of God." This bottom-up, not top-down, strategy also applies to a fifth neo-Anabaptist theme: mission. The Anabaptists are concerned to share good news, not primarily with kings but with ordinary people - recent research has indicated that an unusual number of early Anabaptists were women, including the martyrs. And they want to share good news, in the words of one writer, by "living distinctively and provocatively, inviting others to consider new possibilities. Powerless churches are not interested in imposing morality. They offer alternatives, rooted in their own comunal experience, and they speak winsomely, not arrogantly. A key element in their testimony will be surprise." And no one, argues Stuart Murray, is more surprising than Jesus.
Worship is a sixth theme in the current appropriation of Anabaptism, and it takes on a distinctive shape because of the character of Anabaptism. As a communal tradition, it emphasizes what Eleanor Kreider calls "multi-voiced worship" which empowers many to participate. Articles in Anabaptism Today have reported the experiences of churches with "interactive preaching." Other articles have discussed ways that the church’s worship and prayer can form the character of the members - producing communities of peacemakers who will take peacemaking into their homes and jobs. This practical bent - practical discipleship - is the seventh theme in neo-Anabaptism. Does any of this enable Christians to "follow Christ in life"? Network members have been fascinated to reflect upon, and be creative in, areas of life where our civilization seems stuck. So the London Mennonite Centre has taught hundreds of people, including many denominational leaders, in methods of "Transforming Congregational Conflict". Anabaptists have provided background ideas for the Jubilee 2000 campaign and have trained participants in the Northern Ireland peace process. Ben Faulkner, an Anglican lay reader, reports:
"I was studying for an MA in social policy and had just begun to work as a probation officer. In the course of my studies, I had become particularly excited by concepts of restorative criminal justice and victim-offender mediation. I read widely and avidly, convinced that herein lay the solution to many of the deep-seated problems in our unwieldy and largely ineffective criminal justice system. Then it happened. I suddenly realised that the people who were pushing back the boundaries of my field were the same people about whom I was reading in Anabaptism Today. People with an Anabaptist heritage were at the forefront of criminal justice reform today. I became very interested in the connection. . . . [My wife and I] were persuaded to set up a new Network study group in the West Midlands."
Clearly there is vitality in the current appropriation of Anabaptism, and I expect the movement to grow further. Christians today need "strategies for survival in exile" which transform people and produce authentic relationships. Such microsocieties of the Kingdom, unlike some parts of the Christendom heritage, may be sustainable in post-Christendom. But I have questions. I wonder whether the neo-Anabaptists’ concentration on Jesus could be enriched by a fuller reflection on the Trinity. I wonder also about the martyr stories. They connect us with suffering Christians in the past and in many parts of the world today - this is so valuable; but do martyr stories also provide guidance for people living in the tolerant ambience of contemporary Britain and Ireland? Further, many contemporary Anabaptists have made their peace with elements of the Catholic heritage: many of us go on retreats in monasteries; there is a prayer hut in the garden of the London Mennonite Centre; indeed, many neo-Anabaptists are drawn to Celtic spirituality. I wonder - is this a means of counteracting the reactive, anti-medieval element in early Anabaptism that was the product of oppression and persecution? Is it a healing of a deep wound? Can the result be called authentic Anabaptism, or is it a "pick ‘n mix Anabaptism," a "designer Anabaptism"? Does any tradition, in our post-Christendom choir, need to be pure?
We have now listened briefly to two missing voices - the Celtic and the Anabaptist - which are being restored to the choir of contemporary Christianity. Both are marginal, but people are now discovering them. They are finding in them inspiration, nurture and constructive insight; and they are coming home - they are choosing to identify themselves with these movements from the margins and to join their own voices with them. But will these voices have staying power? Will people want to continue to sing them in post-Christendom?
In my view, this will depend on how well the appropriators of these two marginal traditions - the Celts and the Anabaptists - address the deep issues and longings of tomorrow’s world. We have noted primary strengths of both traditions: the Celts’ embodied holism, their capacity to open people to a spirituality that gets beyond the brain into a person’s whole existence; also the Anabaptists’ life holism, their capacity to make Jesus - his life and teaching as well as his death and resurrection - relevant in surprising ways to all areas of human experience. Both of these, I believe, are crucial if Christianity is to have a future in post-Christendom.
But how about their specific contributions? Let me, in conclusion, look at three. First, our stewardship of the natural order. Sir John Houghton, Chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, taught us, in his lectures to our Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture in 1998, that the current lifestyle of the West is unsustainable - we, with a small proportion of the world’s population, are consuming a gargantuan proportion of the world’s non-renewable resources - and we are producing the lion’s share of the world’s carbon dioxide pollution. If this continues, the effects upon climate and culture - and especially upon the poor - are likely to be catastrophic. In this situation can the Christian polyphony sing a relevant line? The early Anabaptists said little about nature. For them forests were places to hide or hold secret meetings, not not places to contemplate the beauties of creation. But how about the new Anabaptists? Can they, in their emphases upon discipleship, economic sharing and simplicity of life find the wherewithal to live and speak with a Jesus-like freedom in a civilization of "consuming passion"?
The stewardship of the natural order - the new Celts should find this theme to be closer to their heart. They have a tradition of nature poetry; they cherish stories of saints who are at peace with animals: I think of St Kevin of Glendalough, praying with his arms stretched through a window of his cell, when a blackbird came and nested in his hand. Kevin didn’t move. The bird laid an egg. Kevin still didn’t move until, some unspecified time later, the egg hatched and a young bird was born. I know that some authorities dispute how green early Celtic Christianity actually was; but it is clear that the appropriators, the new Celts, repeatedly talk about nature. Can the new Celts do so in a way that is more than romantic - indeed that is prophetically acute and politically effective?
A second contribution has to do with war. I was reminded of this last summer on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. I had climbed up Bennan Head, a promontory near Kildonan, and was enjoying the panoramic view of the Firth of Clyde. I took with me the Altus Prosator, the early Iona poem possibly by Columba, and was praying in celebration of the Most High who "had fashioned the sea and the waters." And then I thought: this sea is beautiful; but this sea - this particular sea, beyond the seals and the dolphins near the shores - is also the highway of Trident, a huge sea monster carrying fire that if unleashed would incinerate entire cities. I thought - there is a tradition of practical peacemaking that the new Anabaptists are appropriating; can they do more than make protests at Trident? I also began to wonder: is there anything helpful in the Celtic tradition? I began to look in the writings of the new Celts - liberal, Evangelical, charismatic - and I have found virtually nothing about war and peace. But then I received the journal Peacemaker, with its cover story entitled "Columba the Brave" about people who had protested, by the banks of the Clyde, about the Trident submarines and their immense lethal potential. What was interesting was this: the protesters were basing their case on a Celtic source, Adomnan’s Law of the Innocents, written by Columba’s seventh successor as abbot of Iona. Adomnan was no pacifist; he was reared in a warrior culture, and he assumed that men would go on killing each other. But he was outraged by his observations of what war did to women. He heard an angel: "Go out into Ireland and make a law in her, that women may not be killed by a man in any way, neither by slaughter nor by any other death." Abbot Adomnan proceeded to issue a cain a promulgated law with prescribed consequences for infringement. And the penalties were swingeing - dismemberment, death, fine and curses - for anyone who killed a woman, a cleric, or "innocent children until they are capable of killing a man." Most of us today, whether Celt or Anabaptist, are not too keen on dismemberment and curses. But what if the neo-Celts not only revered Adomnan as the writer of the Life of Columba, but also appropriated his commitment to protect noncombitants in warfare. And what if they did this by joining Anabaptists and many other Christians in opposing weapons of indiscriminate destruction - such as Trident - and by protesting all other acts of warfare that threaten innocent women and children? I sense that a new appropriation of this bit of the Celtic tradition is possible, and with it a new Celtic contribution to the post-Christendom choir.
A final contribution has to do with a missionary stance for post-Christendom. We Western Christians, whatever our tradition, are entering uncharted waters. Our numbers are falling. We have lost the means to control the centre of our society; we no longer have effective powers of inducement and compulsion; Christians have become marginal. Some Christian groups of course resist this - they have become minorities with a majority complex. But other Christians, of many traditions, have seen that the Christian churches must adopt a new, humbler stance. Among these Christians was the late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner: "the church of the future must grow in its reality quite differently from the past, from below, from groups of those who have come to believe as a result of their own free, personal decision." This is very much in keeping with Anabaptist understandings, both sixteenth-century and contemporary. It sounds different from the Celts, who, scholars often emphasize, of necessity used a top-down strategy. As Professor Mayr-Harting observed in his discussion of Aidan, "Missionary work could not succeed without the support of a king." Perhaps. But then missionary work had succeeded in converting approximately ten per cent of the imperial population before the conversion of Emperor Constantine. What is success? What methods are congruent with success that is authentically Christian? However that may be, perhaps this is a dimension of the Celtic heritage that needs to be challenged. And it could be that the challenge will come from some intra-traditional conversation. There is no evidence, based on first-generation evidence, that Patrick relied upon the support of kings for his evangelistic work in Ireland; the encounter with the High-King of Tara appeared in the literature centuries after Patrick’s death. Furthermore, Eoin de Bhaldraithe - Cistercian monk, Catholic church historian, authority on early Celtic Christianity and friend of the Anabaptist Network - has recently argued, on the basis of archaeological as well as literary evidence, that adult baptism was the normal practice of the Irish Church until the Norman reforms of the 12th century. So perhaps, deep in the Celtic tradition, there is a voluntarism to be reappropriated in post-Christendom.
Ecology, war, voluntarism: these, along with deep spirituality, holism, community and Christocentrism, are only a few of many contributions which our marginal voices - the Celts and the Anabaptists - may be able to make in the Christian choir. We will sing our parts well only if we listen to other voices, and, like good ensemble singers, adjust our singing to those of others. Especially we will sing our parts well if we not only sing but live - live as Christians in a way that is distinctive and hopeful. As Cardinal König concludes: "Words alone are not enough. Human beings and what they do are the decisive factor."
There is beauty in all the major Christian traditions, and I, like many Celts and Anabaptists, have learned essential life and faith skills from my sisters and brothers in the centrist Christian traditions. Together, we - all of us Christians - are becoming marginal. My belief is that we all, marginal though we are, have important contributions to make to tomorrow’s world. Through us all may God reveal his wisdom to the world.