Anabaptism, An Introduction

The Anabaptist Network’s theology forum takes place twice a year – an opportunity to explore topics of mutual interest, to investigate aspects of Anabaptist history and theology and to read and discuss papers. We meet for 24 hours, usually at Offa House, near Leamington Spa.

Currently there are about 40 people to whom we send information about these events and invitations to participate and generally somewhere between 12 and 25 people attend each forum. No theological qualifications are required, but the conversations require at least some familiarity with theological language and concepts.

If you are interested in receiving information and an invitation to a future forum, please contact the forum convenor.

At the June 2005 forum we explored three unrelated subjects. Sue Sainsbury presented a session on Menno Simons and his understanding of suffering (based on her PhD thesis). Ruth Gouldbourne led an interactive session on the implications of being personally committed to or inspired by Anabaptist values but belonging to a church that had little interest in these. And Veronica Zundel stimulated our thinking as she suggested nine examples of unbiblical ways of thinking within Evangelicalism.

Graham Old from Northampton has written a brief report of this (his first) forum:

On Thursday June 9th, the Anabaptist theology forum met for 24 hours of dialogue, learning, worship and fellowship. For some present, myself included, the forum represented something of a breath of fresh air – an Anabaptist oasis! Here are some highlights:

Sue Sainsbury, soon-to-be lecturer in Christian Doctrine at Mattersey Hall, led us in a session on Menno Simons and his approach to suffering. This was a stimulating and fascinating time! Sue began by encouraging us to be aware of how historians have often been guilty of re-writing Anabaptist history – and Anabaptist themselves are far from innocent on this count (i.e. it’s not only those who still describe Anabaptism in the light of Munster!).

We then examined Menno’s own account of his ‘Enlightenment, Conversion and Calling,’ which struck me as peculiarly Pauline – whether Menno intentionally wrote it that way or not. At times, Menno almost appears to veer into self-righteousness as he explains how he has suffered for the gospel – sleeping in ditches and jumping at the sounds of dogs barking – whilst the ‘preachers lie on comfortable beds and cushions.’ Again, some might say this is reminiscent of Paul the apostle. Yet, the following quote, taken from The Cross of the Saints, gets to the heart of Menno’s teaching on Christian suffering:

When we consider, worthy brethren, our very weak and sinful nature, how that we are prone to evil from our youth, how that in our flesh no good thing dwelleth, and how we drink unrighteousness and sin like water… and when we consider how that we have a tendency at all times (although we do seek and fear God) to mind earthly and perishable things, then we see that the gracious God and Father, who through his eternal love always cares for His children, has left behind in His house an excellent remedy against all this, namely, the pressing cross of Christ.

Essentially, Menno is expounding the thought found in Scripture that it is precisely because we are beloved children of God that he disciplines us. Discussion then followed on whether such an emphasis might be unhelpful, particularly for a people committed to peace. Do we really want to produce passivity in victims of violence by encouraging them to embrace it joyfully? It’s an important question and one that I feel we need to discuss much further, but I note that it is as much a question for the biblical authors as it is for Menno Simons.

Sue then left us with two questions to consider further: What if ‘perfect peace and prosperity’ really is the ultimate killer in God’s economy? What if suffering (for Christ) really is the blessing of God to keep us from true death?

On Thursday evening, Ruth Gouldbourne (Tutor in Church History at Bristol Baptist College and a Baptist minister) and Chris Burch convened the first meeting of Anabaptists Anonymous! For many, an interest in all things Anabaptist is not the kind of thing that can be talked about too often or too openly – hence the forum being something of an oasis. Christ Burch, former Canon Precentor of Coventry Cathedral and now working in an Urban Priority Area, knows how that feels. Chris feels the tension of working within the establishment, whilst sharing the values of those at the margins. Ruth invited us to address Chris about these tensions and a lively discussion followed (surprisingly and probably thankfully, infant baptism only came up in passing!)

This was an important discussion as we looked at the dissolution of Christendom from a number of angles and questioned how we might best respond. Do we recognise the errors of the past, but still gladly embrace the remaining opportunities that it presents? Or do we employ a hermeneutic of justice and refuse to accept the position of privilege? My own response is very different to Chris’, but I guess it helps to have people on the inside!

Finally, Veronica Zundel (from Wood Green Mennonite Church) led us in an exploration of ‘Unbiblical Evangelicalism’ (or, as one participant described it, ‘9 Evangelical heresies’!). Essentially, we were looking at the question, How does (popular contemporary) Evangelicalism differ from Scripture – and how can we as Anabaptists learn from that? One point that repeatedly occurred was the individualistic and ‘other-worldly’ nature of much popular evangelicalism (though it was suggested by a number present that this is changing). In contrast, Scripture – and Anabaptism – emphasises the importance of building Kingdom communities.

For a number of people present Veronica managed to capture the journey that we had been taking in recent years. Speaking as someone who might be considered part of the emerging church, it was fascinating to hear Veronica sharing ideas that are sometimes presented as a recent re-discovery or even a post-modern innovation! One statement particularly struck me – and fed into later discussions on the relationship between Eastern Orthodoxy and Anabaptism: As salvation is a process (rather than a single crisis event) then we ‘cannot separate the means of sanctification from the means of salvation.’ Again, this is discussion that needs to continue!

Other events included the sharing of news, prayer, book reviews, planning of future forums, discussion of potential books in the After Christendom series and web-site recommendations. Yet, at the end of the day, nothing could beat the refreshing sense of fellowship that came from knowing that, regardless of how we might differ theologically on many other issues, this one thing we shared: a living passion for the tradition of Jesus-centred discipleship. That, for me, is what Anabaptism is all about.

At the December 2005 forum the three main sessions were led by Philip Meadows, Christopher Rowland and Stuart Murray Williams. The overall theme was ‘Christian Perfectionism’. Some of the papers from this forum are available in the Articles section of this website.

There was no forum in June 2006 to make room for participants to attend the Mennonite theological forum organised by Vic Thiessen in London.

The December 2006 forum explored environmental and medical ethical issues with contributions from Michael Northcott (paper, not in person), Jo Rathbone, Chris Walton and Alun Morinan.

The December 2007 forum discussed papers on ‘Knowing and Following’ by Brian Haymes, ‘What has God to do with Religious Freedom?’ by Ruth Gouldbourne and ‘Creating Community: Marianne Farningham and her girls’ class, 1857-1901’ by Linda Wilson.

At the October 2008 forum, Lloyd Pietersen presented material from his forthcoming book, Reading the Bible after Christendom.

At the May 2009 forum, there were presentations from Fran Porter on ‘Faith and Feminism’, Simon Barrow on ‘Putting the Difficult Peace of Christ into Practice’ and Simon Woodman on ‘Can the Book of Revelation be a Gospel for the Environment?’

At the May 2010 forum, we discussed papers on ’16th Century Anabaptism in Central and Eastern Europe – a forgotten story’, ‘The Nakedness of The Naked Anabaptist’, and ‘Anabaptists, Atonement and R S Thomas’.

At the December 2010 forum,Mike Pears gave a paper on ‘A Theology of Urban Landscapes’, Jonathan Bartley explored ‘Christian Persecution in Europe? Why history is not repeating itself’, and Simon Barrow led a session on ‘Worship and Mission after Christendom: a discussion on Alan and Eleanor Kreider’s new book’.

At the May 2011 forum, there were papers from Simon Perry on ‘Different Truths: Fiction and the Bible’, Paul Lusk on ‘State and Society in Christian thought: Anabaptist Perspectives’ and Andrew Francis on ‘Reflecting on Anabaptism as Radical Christianity’.

At the November 2011 forum, speakers included Professor Chris Rowland on ‘Blake and the Bible’ and Symon Hill on the debate about religion. There was also some discussion of the book in honour of Alan and Ellie Kreider.

At the May 2012 forum,the themes included the significance and function of memory and its loss, the way Bridge Builders tackles conflict transformation, and religions as ‘vestigial states’.

At the December 2012 forum,Ruth Gouldbourne spoke about Balthasar Hubmaier’s Communion Service, and there was further discussion of where we are and where we are going with the post-Christendom analysis.

The May 2013 forum sadly had to be cancelled because the venue used for many years (Offa House) closed.

Anabaptism in relation to the developing ministry, profile and theology of the Churches of Christ (Andy Vail), urban mission (Stuart Murray Williams), restorative justice (James Fehr), political witness, and learning from early Anabaptist women (Linda Wilson) were the topics that produced lively input and discussion at the forum meeting in Birmingham in December 2013.

The October 2014 forum was led by Tom & Rebecca Yoder Neufeld, visiting Canadian Mennonites.

The April 2015 forum focused loosely on ‘God and the nations’, with sessions on nationalism and two of the new ‘After Christendom’ books. There was no forum in October 2015.