An Anglican drawn to Anabaptism

by Chris Burch

Like most others I had hardly heard of Anabaptists, except as a glancing reference, a footnote in school history books. But when I first encountered Anabaptist ideas as an adult, at a life-enhancing day conference in Leeds in 1983 on “It all fits together”, the ideas fell on fertile soil. As I began to get to know Anabaptist people and ideas better, they helped me to articulate feelings I’d had for a long time –

• That the Church of England was rather wedded to the Establishment, whereas Jesus had founded an originally subversive movement;
• That the unconventional is not always wrong, despite some Anglicans’ horror at the unusual. By temperament I like to look for different ways to do things. I was attracted to the Anabaptists’ habit and teaching of “confounding people’s expectations” as a Gospel way of doing things;
• That peace is more Christian than war – a conviction that was growing in me through the 1980s;
• That the Holy Spirit having come on all flesh (Acts 2:17), the gospel and its ministries must be open to “ordinary people”. The C of E has always been rather elitist, and recently seems to be getting worse. But the gospel, it seems to me, opens the way to all Christian disciples to offer their gifts for the common good – even if they have no educational qualifications, like many of my parishioners in Urban Priority Areas.

For most of my ordained ministry (yes, I’m a vicar) I’ve been in inner city or outer estate parishes – what the Church of England calls “Urban Priority Areas” or UPAs – but in 1995 I confounded my own and everyone else’s expectations by becoming Canon Precentor at Coventry Cathedral. Being at the heart of the establishment took some getting used to, and I was glad to be invited to join an Anabaptist Theological Study Circle that was just coming into existence at that time. Almost at once I sensed that here was a way of doing theology that engaged the heart as well as the analytical part of the mind, that involved our relationships with God and each other, instead of splitting them off in the interests of academic rigour and objectivity. Indeed, our sessions began (and still begin) with a time of personal sharing and mutual prayer. At times we have been privileged to hear deep things being shared, leading to a sense (for me) of being on “holy ground”.

But what do I hear, and how do they impact on my continuing Anglican membership and convictions?

• The thing that grabbed me back in 1983 was the integration of evangelism and social justice, spirituality and action in the world, which had been opposites for a long time, in the church and in my mind. As a young vicar struggling to make sense of a new ministry in a small church in a deprived inner-city parish, this was a breath of life to me.

• A few years later, when I was still in my Leeds parish, I was aware of Anabaptist influence in resolving a dispute in the parish over the annual observance of Remembrance Sunday. We brought a group together, and the process of listening to and respecting each other became more important than the outcome. I was amused when Alan Kreider told me he was using this story as a case study – but I guess it’s no surprise that I’m now involved with Bridgebuilders, the mediation and reconciliation arm of the London Mennonite Centre.

• I was beginning to be uncomfortable with the evangelistic techniques of my evangelical background, which seemed often to verge on the manipulative, and yet could not turn my back on our Lord’s command to “make disciples of all nations...” (Matt. 28:19). So the Anabaptist insistence on demonstration, living the gospel in a way that authenticated its proclamation, was attractive. Now I’m more confident in proclamation as well as demonstration, but do not feel bound to any one method or ideology.

• In 1993 I was invited to a conversation between Anabaptist and Anglican representatives, hosted by the London Mennonite Centre and under the auspices of the (Anglican) Council for Christian Unity. Having thought of Anabaptism as more a set of ideas than a tradition of people, I was taken aback by the living sense of hurt communicated by some Anabaptists – the last time the two traditions had been in conversation (in 1575), it had led to torture and burning of the Anabaptists by the Anglicans, and the memory was far from dead. I think this was when I began to see the early Anabaptists as real people, in their strangeness as well as their commonality with my own outlook. And I realised that I was in some way sharing in this tradition, however strange some of its stories are. From then on, I began to see aspects of my own tradition through different eyes – both accepting that some of my antecedents were also strange, and having a different perspective with which to view my tradition, allowing me a more objective critique.

• At the Theological Study Circle we looked at Anabaptist ways of interpreting the Bible – still a multi-faceted and sometimes confusing subject, as the early Anabaptists were no more monochrome than any other tradition – and tried to make sense of the homosexuality debate in that light. We had a fascinating conversation with the American theologian Jim McClendon (now sadly died) who started his systematic theology with a volume on ethics (yes, demonstration comes before theory!) and taught me something about Christian believing in a post-modern age. We looked at art and spirituality, and at war and peace in the aftermath of the latest invasion of Iraq. I’ve learned to examine Anglican presuppositions with an Anabaptist lens, and was glad to review (for Anabaptism Today) a booklet by Anglican authors arguing passionately for the disestablishment of the Church of England, a position I’ve always held, though instinctively rather than articulately. Having originally been the only Anglican in the Study Circle, I’m now intrigued that many of its most committed and articulate theologians are Anglicans.

• This is where some points of tension come in. I’ve never thought the Church of England has any theological right to be the established church, and the booklet made me realise how the Church has always given the State a much better deal than it has received in turn. A few years ago I visited South Africa, where the Anglican Church manages to be an effective witness to God’s justice and his love, without any of the trappings of political power or constitutional establishment. But I am able to do things for my marginalised parishioners that they cannot do for themselves, by virtue of enjoying an unspoken trust because of my position. I can indeed be the “parson” – the persona – for my parish, representing them not only before God in prayer, but in at least some of the corridors of power. How much has this to do with my being vicar of an established church? I could argue “nothing”, and point you to equally eloquent and effective Christian ministers in South Africa – but I know that the work I did in Coventry for the Anti-Poverty Forum, or for the Tackling Poverty group in the Local Strategic Partnership, derived straight from my position in the heart of the establishment, in Coventry Cathedral. (Not that such a “top-down” position could penetrate deeply to the grass-roots – but I could and did influence the conditions under which grass-roots community groups were able to work.)

• It’s unfashionable at the moment, but I believe in the parish – that our Anglican bit of the church takes on some sort of responsibility for every person in the land, even those who do not believe our gospel and will never darken the doors of our churches. When my time came to leave Coventry, I was appointed to a large outer council estate parish in Leicester, where my remit was primarily to engage in Christ’s name with the New Deal for Communities, a government investment of £50 million into one estate that had brought expectations but also confusion and conflict. With a population of 13,000 and a church membership roll of less than 40, my job could hardly be justified by the congregation alone! As it’s turned out, my involvement in the NDC is indirect and not at the seat of power, but over the last three years I’ve got to know most of those who try to make the programme work – and the church congregation has become more involved in the community, and more aware that this is part of their Christian ministry. (They are more confident about their faith too, and even beginning to grow in numbers – why am I sounding so surprised??)

• Although it’s easy to think of the Church of England as primarily an arm of the Establishment, my experience of it for most of my life has been in a small and committed but beleaguered group on the edge of society – often on the edge of the church as well. We have had plenty of opportunities to confound expectations by unconventional, even risky ways of doing things. Sometimes our initiatives have been squashed or threatened by those in power, in church or society. Sometimes, of course, they were right and we needed to let go our immaturity. But on one occasion we persisted against what we saw as an unjust abuse of power, and finally won through against the might of the City Council. Local creativity (and a deep-rooted faith in God) can enable us to outmanoeuvre the big battalions – “We can’t outgun them (the City Council or whoever it is...) but we can outthink them, outpray them, outwit them, outlast them and out-suffer them.” That’s a profoundly Anabaptist insight, but it’s Anglican too. (If you think of a City Council as a dinosaur – and most of them are so large that they need a brain at each end! – then small churches and community groups are like the primitive mammals that scurry around under their feet, keeping out of the way but surviving by their wits and adaptability.)

• But how are these little groups going to hand the tradition down? Even the Church of England can no longer afford to place a paid minister in every parish – will the congregations survive? Many have been used to being babies – spoon-fed the gospel by priestly parent-figures – or passengers, travelling in the Gospel-train without expecting to have to get their hands dirty. The Anabaptist tradition, by contrast, expects to discern the presence of God in the meeting of the gathered congregation, as they bring their different contributions together and arrive at a consensus. Having stayed in UPAs when many other churches closed down or pulled out to the suburbs, the Church of England must now give up its elitist habits of training and ministry, and expect the Holy Spirit to come upon its most ordinary members. Then it must resource and train these, in a way appropriate to their own culture, not expecting to squeeze them into its own mould. There is hope – we started a UPA Training Project, which we hope to pilot among the UPAs and Ethnic Minority Christians in Leicester. To our surprise, it has received warm support so far from the diocesan leadership – now we must see how many ordinary Christians want to take it up.