By Linda Wilson
I can’t quite remember when I first encountered Anabaptists and the Anabaptist network. Possibly it was through hearing Stuart Murray speak at the New Churches Theology Forum, a regular conference which brought together people from across all the New Church Streams to ponder and discuss theological issues of common interest. Perhaps it was because Lloyd Pietersen, a good friend, was already involved. Wherever it was, I found it intriguing, and soon became part of a local study group in Bristol and of the Anabaptist Theology Forum, where I was privileged to get to know several people who became friends, such as Stuart Murray, Alan & Ellie Krieder, Chris Burch, and others. This also gave me the opportunity to explore issues around what it means to be church in today’s world, through the helpful prism of Anabaptism.
The previous, introductory paragraph highlights what is to me an attractive element in the current Anabaptist network – its relational basis, and the fact that it gives an opportunity to wrestle with issues about contemporary church in a secure and at times devotional context. I am grateful for that opportunity, which came at a useful time for me.
Anabaptism and New Churches
I had been involved with a New Church (house church), Bristol Christian Fellowship, since student days in the mid 1970s, and there seemed a lot of resonances between that early excitement and Anabaptism. Foundational to us as church are elements such as relationship-based church; discipleship, every member ministry; informal worship, small groups and overseas connections. (We have since added others, including being intergenerational, encouraging the ministry of women, exploring social justice, being a place to doubt, and having a sense of humour). Born out of the late 1960s and early 1970s, New Churches were at the same time a reaction to and an expression of the counter-culture of the time, and yet also expressed truths about church that are embedded in Scripture. At the time I engaged with Anabaptism, some years down the line, we were at the stage of re-evaluating who we were, and what our identity was now that many of our core values were finding their way into other churches. Anabaptism, which re-emphasised, it seems to me, some of those core values, as well as challenging others, was a helpful catalyst to me in this process. I appreciated the honesty of others in these groups, and it was healthy to meet with people from different traditions, who had a passion for the gospel and a longing to see real church and true disciples living out that gospel. At the same time, I was embarking on post-graduate research, and although a historian rather than a theologian, I appreciated discussions which at the same time stretched the brain and challenged my personal response to God.
As a church historian I realise that it is easy to be too simplistic about finding parallels with past groups and movements. We romanticise the past: seeing a few familiar characteristics, we invest a movement with our own agenda and priorities: so the Montanists become charismatics, for instance, a sort of second-century Toronto movement. Not exactly accurate! Just as everyone from twelfth-century monks to Baptists to the cell church movement believes that they are living out the ‘New Testament Church’, whatever that was, so we find in church history a reflection of our own times. Some of that is appropriate: history, like the gospel, has to be re-contextualised for every generation, but, like the gospel, there is genuine truth out there, not just in the minds of the readers. Having said that, there are many contemporary resonances within Anabaptism.
Working out Church as Community Today
For instance, I’ve lost count of the number of local Bristol study groups in which, whatever the supposed topic, we always ended up discussing what it meant for church to be community in our society. For most people this was a dream, an aspiration, and for some they weren’t sure they really wanted it. I was always left feeling, whatever the weaknesses of my own church, at least we were aiming in the right direction and had some limited experience! Community, however, is where the particular historical context of Anabaptism led to a development in quite a different direction than I would want to encourage today. The boundaries were drawn very tight, of necessity, round beleaguered and persecuted groups: tight because their understanding of church, defining themselves over against Christendom, demanded it; tight because anyone could potentially be a spy who would betray them. They taught separation from the world, which in their context was completely logical and appropriate, but today would be an inadequate response to the gospel. In time, it led for them to the greater isolation of Amish and other communities, a retreat from the world at large.
Gathered churches have to a greater or lesser extent followed this pattern, and drawn their boundaries tight, in later centuries – in terms of church membership and from time to time also in terms of engagement with society. As New Churches started, we also drew our membership boundaries tightly, as indeed do most new movements in their ‘sect’ stage. We live in a completely different culture, however, from the early Anabaptists. We have the opportunity, which they did not, to engage creatively with culture, through involvement at many levels of society, from politics to art. That complete separation of church and world is now unhelpful, although the question of what does it mean to be ‘in the world and not of it’ becomes a more pressing one, with no one easy answer. Christendom is fading as the context within which churches exist. Stuart Murray has helpfully analysed and provoked us over the issue of post-Christendom, and we need to ask what aspects of Anabaptism are still helpful in this new culture. I believe that there is still a challenge to discipleship that we would do well to listen to, that I need to be reminded of. For this coming season, our church has decided that we need to focus on discipleship again. Perhaps Anabaptists can help us discover what it means to live as disciples in the twenty-first century.
Furthermore, over the last few years, as ‘belonging before believing’ has become more widespread, our own church has relaxed its boundaries, seeing a fringe as a sign of a healthy church, and made it easier for people to come and go. If you like, the centred set has become our practice, rather than the bounded set of Anabaptism. But questions remain. How do we live out genuine relationships, real 24-hours-a-day church, when many people aren’t in geographical proximity? Are networks as much real church as living near to each other? In this busier and more independent age – Mrs Thatcher isn’t entirely to blame but she didn’t help – we are constantly swimming against the tide to make friendships a priority. I feel the tension in my own life – especially when trying to write a book and do pastoral work and encourage community in the church at the same time!
Anabaptist Stories – A Useful Catalyst
Whilst we can no longer look to the Anabaptists for our boundaries, however, there are aspects of their belief that still challenge me and help to draw me make to the core values of our church. I see myself as New Church first and Anabaptist second, (well, just a disciple first, but that’s getting too pedantic) but there are enough similarities for the latter to provide insight into the former. There are also stories that can inspire us to be disciples. I have used the story of Dirk Willems rescuing his pursuer from the icy water of a Dutch canal with teenage gap-year teams in our church, with adults here, and with church leaders in India and in the depths of the Transvaal, and this story always provokes a response, although in South Africa I had to explain what a canal was! Many of the Anabaptist stories of persecution, or on a lighter note, others such as Menno on top of the coach (Menno was asked whether Menno Simons was inside the coach: he looked inside and said no; was this truth-telling?), are helpful stories in any society to make people think about the nature of faith and discipleship.
I find the stories of the Anabaptist women inspiring too. This is another case where it is easy to read back modern agendas into the past, but it is encouraging to see women taking initiatives, standing up for their faith, and discipling others in the faith. The comment of the woman who refused to convert because now she was over 50 – ‘she was too old to learn anything new’ is often quoted in our house, although I hope it isn’t true for us! The wonderful if rather pricy book, Profiles of Anabaptist Women (Linda A Huebert Hecht & C Arnold Snyder (Eds): Profiles of Anabaptist Women (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), is based on lots of stories, often in court records, of Anabaptist women who took a stand for their faith, or who lived as fugitives. We need role models of feisty Christian women who stood up for what they believed in, but also of ordinary female believers who found themselves caught up in dramatic times (you can tell at this point that I like fantasy novels!). Seriously, an important part of contemporary history is recovering the history of ordinary women, and there is a rich heritage here in Anabaptism, which women as well as men can identify with. One nineteenth century Baptist women (she was called Marianne Farningham, and I’m currently writing on a book about her) commented that as a child she read a magazine which had heroes of the faith, and every month ‘I hoped to find the story of some poor ignorant girl, who, beginning life as handicapped as I, had yet been able… to live a life of usefulness if not of greatness. But I believe there was not a woman in the whole series.’ With Anabaptist women, there is a history that women can relate to – although personally I can also draw inspiration from stories about men.
So it is both the similarities and the differences between the church that I am involved in, as part of its leadership team, and Anabaptism, that makes the latter an intriguing ‘conversation partner’ (as Stuart would say). There are others: the early church, the other radical groups, individuals throughout the ages who have sought to be disciples, all of whom we can learn from. We need to set ourselves both in the context of the kaleidoscopic variety of the world-wide church, and in the stream of history, and find our place in both. But the Anabaptists have been especially challenging and inspiring for me in my personal journey of faith – a cliché now, but one that I still think is helpful. Any resources I can draw on as I seek, however inadequately, to live out faith as a disciple, to encourage others and to reach out in mission, are valuable, and Anabaptism is especially so as it has a way of continually challenging my thinking and my practice. New Churches still have a lot more to learn by engaging with the Anabaptist tradition, and my life has been enriched both by the history and by the friends I have made along the way who are also seeking to work out the meaning of church and discipleship in our complex culture.