The Naked Anabaptist - an extract

This is an extract from The Naked Anabaptist, published in 2010 by Herald Press in North America and in 2011 by Paternoster in the UK.

Travelling through Pennsylvania in the spring of 2008 with a group of Mennonite church leaders, my friend Noel Moules was quizzed about the growing interest in Anabaptism in Britain and Ireland. Some of these American Mennonites had been in Britain a few weeks earlier and had encountered Christians from various traditions who were deeply attracted to Anabaptist values and insights. They found this intriguing. Why were British and Irish Christians interested in Anabaptism?

The sixteenth-century Anabaptist movement (to which Mennonites and other Anabaptist communities in America trace their origins) had left its mark on various parts of Europe – Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic – but very few Anabaptists reached Britain. Those that made it to London in 1575, seeking refuge from persecution elsewhere, were arrested and imprisoned and either executed or expelled by the authorities. For the next four centuries, although ‘Anabaptist’ was sometimes used as a term of abuse in Britain, there were almost no actual Anabaptists in the country.

So why, Noel was asked, was there a burgeoning Anabaptist movement in Britain and Ireland? What was attracting Christians to a tradition that had no historical roots in their culture? And what did it mean to be an Anabaptist in Britain or Ireland today? What did Anabaptism look like without the Mennonite, Hutterite or Amish culture in which it was usually clothed in North America?

‘Ah, you mean “the naked Anabaptist”, do you?’ asked Noel. ‘Anabaptism stripped down to the bare essentials.’ And so this book was born.

Noel and I are both founder members and trustees of the Anabaptist Network in Britain and Ireland. Since the early 1990s, the Anabaptist Network has provided resources for Christians interested in the Anabaptist tradition – study groups, conferences, a journal, newsletters, a theology forum and an extensive website. For some years we have been concerned that there was no straightforward introduction to Anabaptism easily accessible in Britain and Ireland. There were academic tomes, and books written for the American market, but these were not what we needed to answer questions we are often asked:

• What is an Anabaptist?
• Where did Anabaptism come from?
• What do Anabaptists believe?
• Can I become an Anabaptist?
• What is the difference between Anabaptists and Mennonites?

If you are asking any of these questions, The Naked Anabaptist is for you.

So Noel and I agreed with our colleagues in the Anabaptist Network that I would make use of his memorable phrase and write this book. My own encounter with Anabaptism has been told elsewhere. Since the early 1980s I have identified myself as an Anabaptist, not because I belong to an Anabaptist church or come from an Anabaptist family, but because this is the Christian tradition with which I have by far the greatest theological and spiritual affinity. The Naked Anabaptist is, then, at one level an extended personal testimony written by a British Anabaptist to explain his Anabaptist convictions. As such, I will use ‘I’ language from time to time, as in this introduction.

But this book was also commissioned by the steering group of the Anabaptist Network, several of whom have contributed to it. And those who receive the Network’s newsletters have known for some time about this project. Some of their contributions have also been incorporated. So I have used ‘we’ language in various places to indicate that I am writing on behalf of a community. Sometimes ‘we’ refers to those who have shaped the Network over the past two decades and who would, like me, identify themselves as Anabaptists. Sometimes ‘we’ refers to the wider community of Christians in Britain and Ireland who might not identify themselves as Anabaptists but who belong to the Anabaptist Network and draw gratefully on the Anabaptist tradition. I recognise that this use of language is imprecise, but that is the nature of the Anabaptist movement in Britain and Ireland.

My hope is that this book will be useful, not only to members of the Anabaptist Network who want to explain to their friends why they are intrigued and inspired by Anabaptism, and to people from other Christian traditions or none who stumble across the Anabaptist tradition, but also to North American Anabaptists asking the kinds of questions Noel was asked in Pennsylvania.

I have visited North America many times in the past fifteen years, teaching in Mennonite seminaries, preaching in Mennonite churches, working with Mennonite mission agencies, speaking at conferences with delegates from Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren, and other denominations descended from the Anabaptists. I have encountered the same incredulity and interest as Noel found in Pennsylvania: why are Christians in Britain and Ireland getting excited about their Anabaptist forebears?

This question is given added poignancy by the lack of interest in the Anabaptist tradition among many North American Mennonites. I have often found myself urging Mennonite students and church leaders to recover their own radical heritage as a source of renewal and inspiration. Although Mennonite scholars during the twentieth century embarked on a quest to rehabilitate Anabaptism, their passion and insights have not yet had the impact they deserve. Many Mennonites seem more interested in purpose-driven churches or the Alpha course.

Maybe Mennonite culture and traditions have stifled the Anabaptist heritage. Some years ago I had a conversation with a leader of a large youth organisation, who reported that at a recent staff conference they had received a word that they regarded as prophetic: ‘let go of your traditions and hold on to your heritage.’ She and her colleagues were pondering the implications of this challenge, recognising that many traditions had grown up over the years that might have been valuable once but were now hindering the organisation from fulfilling its primary calling.

If you recognise this in your own North American Anabaptist-related tradition, The Naked Anabaptist is for you.

And it is not only in Britain and Ireland that Christians from diverse backgrounds are appropriating the Anabaptist tradition. There are Anabaptist centres in Korea, Japan and South Africa. There is an Anabaptist Association in Australia and New Zealand, and a new Anabaptist Network is emerging in Scandinavia. None of these nations have any historic Anabaptist connections. There is also a new Francophone Anabaptist centre in Montreal.

In North America, too, where Mennonite, Hutterite, Amish and other Anabaptist groups are part of the cultural and religious environment, Christians from other denominations (including evangelical and emerging networks) are discovering the Anabaptist tradition. Some are now identifying themselves as Anabaptists; others are urging the Mennonites to value more highly their own heritage and recognise its contemporary significance.

And in academic circles, after centuries of neglect, marginalisation and caricature, there is growing interest in Anabaptism way beyond the Mennonite community. I am currently supervising two doctoral students working on Anabaptism. One is from Korea. The other is a French Canadian who has been church planting in Belgium and is now teaching in Rwanda. And the Anabaptist Network website frequently receives emails from students writing essays or dissertations on Anabaptism, asking for advice and resources.

In many nations, then, not only in Britain and Ireland, there are growing numbers of 'neo-Anabaptists' and 'hyphenated Anabaptists'. Neo-Anabaptists identify with the Anabaptist tradition and are happy to be known as Anabaptists, but have no historic or cultural links with any Anabaptist-related denomination. Hyphenated Anabaptists find inspiration and resources in the Anabaptist tradition, but do not identify themselves as Anabaptists. They might be Baptist-Anabaptists, Methodist-Anabaptists, Anglican-Anabaptists, Pentecostal-Anabaptists or various other combinations.

If you identify with either of these designations, The Naked Anabaptist is for you.

In 1953, the London Mennonite Centre was established, bringing an Anabaptist presence back into Britain for the first time in nearly four hundred years. Its influence gradually permeated British and Irish churches, encouraging Christians from many backgrounds to reflect afresh on issues of community, peace, justice and discipleship. But only in the 1980s did ‘Anabaptism’ begin to be used more widely, and it is even more recently that the Anabaptist movement has really become visible.

In 2004, the first book in the ‘After Christendom’ series was published. This series is an initiative of the Anabaptist Network steering group, which has invited various authors to reflect on the implications of the end of the Christendom era in many western societies, drawing on Anabaptist perspectives. By 2009, five books had been published, and others are currently being written or awaiting publication. 'Post-Christendom' celebrated the demise of imperial Christianity and welcomed the opportunity to rethink all kinds of issues as the church found itself back on the margins of society. It suggested that, as the mainline traditions associated with imperial Christianity struggled to adjust to this new situation, perhaps some of the necessary resources are to be found in the radical tradition associated with Anabaptism. Could it be, as some have suggested, that Anabaptism is ‘a vision whose time has come’? The ‘After Christendom’ series, which has been widely read and enthusiastically received, has introduced many others to this tradition.

So, all over the place, Christians (and others) in Britain and Ireland (and elsewhere) are bumping into Anabaptists. But who are these people? What do they believe? What practices do they have in common with other Christians, and what are their distinctives? Why have they suddenly emerged in post-Christendom western societies? And can you really be an Anabaptist without living in a common purse community like the Hutterites, driving a buggy like the Amish, or belonging to a Mennonite church and singing in four-part harmony?

If you’ve encountered Anabaptists and want to know more about them, The Naked Anabaptist is for you.

Welcome to The Naked Anabaptist!