One of the churches in the Anabaptist network of communities with the most explicit Anabaptist convictions is in King’s Heath, Birmingham.
What kind of community are you and where are you based?
We’re a curious group. We’ve never actively named ourselves – for us, ‘peace church’ is a way of thinking about being a faith community rather than the title of our group, but since ‘peace church’ is what we get called, we’re quite happy with that really.
Peace church for us is a table church, a home church, a community where sharing food is important, a safe place in which dangerous things can happen, a place with children at the heart, a place where no question is out-of-bounds or too challenging, difficult, awkward, naïve, heretical, offbeat, a community where leadership is shared, where decisions are by consensus, and everyone has valuable stuff to share. And we like our food. Did I already say that? We’re based in and out of each other’s homes, in the south of Birmingham.
How and why did you begin?
Peace church in Birmingham began with Sarah and Joe Baker around 10 years ago. They had both studied on Workshop, and Joe in particular found it quite hard to adjust back to life in their then local church. After trying several things in that church community, becoming increasingly frustrated and uncomfortable in that setting, and then talking things over with Noel Moules for quite a while, they decided the only way to progress was to try starting a church community of their own that would draw explicitly on the Anabaptist tradition. And peace church is the result. So, really, peace church was started to scratch a relentless itch.
Several things happened at the beginning. First, Sarah and Joe wanted to leave their existing local church in peace, so talked things over with the leaders there in detail to ask for the support and their blessing. Joe wrote a ‘manifesto’ to explain to them what they had in mind for peace church, and then left that previous church as quietly and peacefully as possible to go and get on with it. Initially, it was just Joe and Sarah and their children, and frequently Joe’s brother Tom too. Then, after a number of months, a couple of other families decided to join them, then a few more people and soon peace church was a houseful.
What are your values, activities and priorities?
Our primary, centring value is shalom – peace church is really an exploration of how shalom can be embodied in a worshipping local church community. So, for us, shalom expands out into the many other things we value. Jesus is at the centre of all we do – we take Jesus’ life, actions and teachings very seriously, and Jesus frames the way we engage with being human.
Community is very important for us, and this manifests in the way we organise ourselves, how we make decisions and how we live with them, how we read the Bible together, and so on. Children are also valued very highly in our community life, and we construct our gatherings with children at the heart: participating, leading, following, thinking, talking, listening, deciding, responding, engaging on an equal footing with adults. We see our church life as an oasis for people engaged deeply with the world at large.
We meet together every Sunday, from 11am, in someone’s home; in the summer months often we’ll meet somewhere outdoors, in a park or off for a walk. After drinks and catching up, we do our churchy-bit, which includes: home-grown liturgies; usually a Bible passage, story or theme; lots of arts and crafts; physical ways of connecting such as treasure hunts and acting; brainstorming and discussion; multi-sensory acts of reflection; intercessory prayers; and lots more.
No one ever preaches – no one would be allowed to get away with that! We sing together, but not that often, and when we do we usually prefer chants and plainsongs to hymns and choruses. We always move from the churchy-bit into a bring-and-share lunch, where the theme will often carry on being the conversation, and this is a really important part of passing on the faith from one generation to the next as we all listen to participate in the discussions.
Every once in a while, more frequently in the summer, we’ll go on a Pilgrimage Walk – a long walk in the countryside to a spiritual destination (a ruined abbey, say), with the walk framed by a theme (often defined by the history of where we are going) and shaped by prayers and reflection along the way, moving towards an encounter with God at our journey’s end. We’ve made a few urban Pilgrimages, as well, that have been real eye-openers.
We also meet during the week as just adults, usually every other week, and these gatherings almost always involve food – from a simple cup of tea to a full-blown feast, depending on the occasion. We do creative Bible readings, have film nights, read books together, and present ideas for discussion; we have meditations or alternative worship with stations for prayer and reflection; and we do all manner of things to challenge each other in the way we think and act as followers of Jesus.
Every two or three months we do something we call Table Talk – a meal, and a challenging subject for the evening, often with someone who’s an authority in the field – and these are a real high-point of our community life.
For the last few years we’ve been working with the idea of ‘living towards believing’ – engaging with the behaviour and practices of Christians as a manifestation of the way Christians see the world and what they believe in. We’ve been doing this in ‘seasons’, 12 or so weeks of working with a value, a virtue or a theme, from our existing understanding, through stories from Christian history and Jesus’s life, to examining issues in the world at large that impinge on that theme, and ending up with a feast reflecting on the impact of the virtue on our lives and finally a challenge to live transformed in the light of what we’ve learned together. So far we’ve explored things like wisdom, joy, peace, grace, mercy and hope and our current season is on living in the footsteps of Jesus.
In what ways do you draw on the Anabaptist tradition?
Anabaptist thought and practice inform how we have formed ourselves. There’s a few ways we clearly draw from Anabaptism:
• Jesus is central, and Jesus is normative for us;
• The Gospel is about good news to the marginalised, and harmony with the character and person of God;
• The Kingdom of God is upside-down;
• The Bible is read together;
• Church is a multi-voiced community of followers of Jesus, a place where life and faith is shared;
• Leadership is held lightly, in mutual submission;
• Mission is holistic and revolutionary, and is about engaging with what God is already up to;
• Following Jesus is profoundly ethical.
We try to engage creatively with all of these.
What are your hopes for the ANC?
We hope to learn lots from all the fascinating ways that each of the communities live out the Gospel and follow in the footsteps of Jesus. There are so many interesting, thoughtful and inspiring things going on across the network, and it’s invigorating to discover more! We also hope for support and encouragement – it’s tiring work ploughing a new furrow.