My first week of sabbatical has flown by quickly and it seems I haven’t got in anything like as much study as I had hoped. But I’m trying not to get too discouraged about that. I had to get here, get established, get over jet lag, get Nick off to Manchester, get my cell phone set up etc. etc. Not surprising that life was busy.
At present I’m still working on two books: Arnold Snyder’s Anabaptist History and Theology in the mornings, and Stuart Murray’s Post-Christendom at some other time during the day. Snyder’s book is a superb historical study of Anabaptism and gives a good summary of the stories and ideas of all the early people in the movement. It’s also good in that it flags worthwhile books for further reading. I’m about half way through it now (it’s about 400 pages), but when I’m done I’ll need to go back and make some notes.
Snyder has been particularly good in identifying the historical and sociological background of early Anabaptism. He notes how in the sixteenth century in Europe there was a huge amount of discontent amongst the peasant classes, and how the established churches were seen as being in league with the ruling classes and landowners. Two common church-related themes emerge at the time: the lower classes wanted the right to appoint their own clergy (and thus have some control over the morality of their pastors, which apparently was very lax), and they wanted the right to keep their tithes in their own communities and use them to help the local poor rather than having to send them off to pay some canon in a distant cathedral.
Some of you probably know that in the 1520s there was a peasant uprising in south Germany and Austria, the ‘Peasants’ War’. At this time not all of the early Anabaptists were pacifists, and several of them supported the peasants and fought in their army. The mainline denominations, however, overwhelmingly supported the landed gentry and aristocracy. Snyder believes that much of the appeal of early Anabaptism lay in the fact that it was seen as a people’s movement. Something for us to learn there, I think.
Stuart Murray’s book is covering a lot of ground I’m familiar with, but he has a good way of summing things up and fitting them together into a coherent whole. His theme is ‘Post-Christendom’, and he defines the shift from Christendom to Post-Christendom as follows:
- From the centre to the margins: in Christendom the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.
- From majority to minority: in Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Chrisendom we are a minority.
- From settlers to sojourners: in Christendom Christans felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aiens, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.
- From privilege to plurality: in Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.
- From control to witness: in Christendom churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.
- From maintenance to mission: in Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.
- From institution to movement: in Christendom churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom we must again become a Christian movement.
In the first half of the book Stuart is telling the story of Christendom (it has several tie-ins with Snyder’s work, actually). One very telling point he makes is that when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire it changed dramatically, and one of the changes was (as he puts it), that ‘in order for the church to come in from the margins to the centre, it had to banish Jesus from the centre to the margins’. What he means by that is that Jesus said some things that were very uncomfortable for a church in league with an empire – things about loving your enemies, about selling your goods and giving to the poor and so on. This didn’t sit well with a church newly allied to power and prestige. He points out that in the early years of Christianity, ethical instruction of converts was almost always based on the teachings of Jesus, but after the Christendom shift Old Testament norms like the Ten Commandments became more prominent.
Lots to think about, and I’m really looking forward to getting into these books again today.
I had a weekend that was mainly fun, though. On Friday I went out to Maidenhead, west of London, to spend the weekend with my old high school friend Steve Palmer and his family. Steve and I played music together when we were teenagers and have been best friends for thirty years. On Saturday we took his kids to an open day at the Berkshire College of Agriculture (donkeys, parrots, tractor rides, bricklaying, sheepdog shows etc. etc.). On Sunday I went to church with them at St. Mary’s Maidenhead, an evangelical Anglican church that is wonderfully free from tradition (!). Steve drove me back to London Mennonite Centre at lunch time, and in the afternoon I joined in the worship of Wood Green Mennonite Church. More about these two worship experiences in a day or so – they were both very enjoyable in different ways and I want to reflect on them a bit. Afterwards some of the folks from WGMC came back here to the Centre for wine and snacks on the patio. There was another folk-singing guitarist here, and they asked the two of us to play. We ended up trading songs back and forth for a couple of hours while it got dark – very enjoyable.
That’s it from me at the London Mennonite Centre. Talk to you all again soon.