What Makes Anabaptists so Annoying?

by Ruth Gouldbourne, Bristol

I think I was ten or eleven, and the family was on our annual holiday. This year we were travelling in northern Germany, dividing our time between finding swimming pools and looking at sites of historical interest. On this day, which was unbearably hot, I was standing with my father in the middle of the town square waiting for my mother and sister to return from some shopping. “Look up at that spire,” said my father. “Do you see those cages? That was where the captured Anabaptists were hung on display.” We were spending a few days in Münster, and it was the first time I had heard of the Anabaptists as a group of real people rather than a name for my sister (Ann). My father told me as much of the story as a ten-year-old could pay attention to, and I started to wonder just what kind of people these could be that everybody hated and feared so much.

Fifteen years later, I started a course in Reformation history as part of my theological degree, and the Anabaptists recurred to my consciousness, and I found in them a welcome antidote to the very high Anglicanism of the college, always a little uncomfortable to a Baptist. And again, I found myself puzzled about why a group, which seemed so innocuous, was so hated and feared. This time the puzzlement became so insistent that it became part of the desire to do further academic research, and led to my current PhD work.

However, I found that an interest in the Anabaptists could not be limited to an antiquarian one, especially as I was serving in a local pastorate and beginning to find that reflection on the meaning and practice of the nature of the church was an immediate issue. It was about this time that the Anabaptist Network was formed and I was able to join a group. Here I found a space where my historical interest and my pastoral and personal concern in the nature of discipleship and church came together.

Since then I have found my interest in and drawing from the Anabaptist tradition has become both more focused and more frustrating. As I have become more shaped by the tradition, and found that the ideas have become more and more important to me, partly through the discussions with others in the Network, so I have found my discontent with my present experience of church life and my own level of commitment has grown. In that way, I would not say that my involvement with Anabaptist ideas and people has been an unmixed comfort; in fact, my original impression has stayed with me. What is it about these people that makes them so annoying? But I have made some progress – what makes them so annoying is that they challenge, undermine and de-centre so much of what I and others take for granted about the way of being Christian at this time and in my place. To be involved with Anabaptist ideas does not make for a comfortable life – thank God.

Ruth Gouldbourne is the minister of Bloomsbury Baptist Church, London.