Sabbatical Report #10: Residential Conference

Over the long weekend (May 26th – 28th) Marci and I attended the residential conference of the Anabaptist Network. The conference was held at Barnes Close, a conference centre which is also the headquarters of the Community for Reconciliation. The building used to be the country home of the Cadbury family, makers of famous chocolate; it is set in idyllic countryside, with the rather glaring exception that a very busy motorway runs about half a mile from the back garden, in full view down the slope of the hill, its noise always in the background whenever you are wandering the grounds!




The speakers at the conference were Alan and Ellie Kreider from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. Alan was the director of the London Mennonite Centre for many years, and he and Ellie were instrumental in the journeys of many people in England toward an Anabaptist view of Christianity. They are obviously well-loved; many people at the conference knew them and there were lots of hugs and ‘catching up’ type conversations going on all through the weekend. Alan and Ellie have a wonderful teaching style; most of their talks are given jointly, with each of them chipping in, and Alan also explained to us how they develop the content together.





This conference had a sensible schedule: breakfast at 8.30 a.m., first activities at 10.00 a.m., lots of time for breaks and conversations. This was important, as someone told me that they saw the residential conference as ‘more of a family get-together than a conference, really!’ It was good for me too, as I had the opportunity to get to know some of the people who make up the Anabaptist Network around the country. This included the opportunity to have some serious conversation with Stuart Murray Williams on the subject of interactive preaching, and (as I mentioned in my last post) the opportunity to meet fellow-bloggers Graham Old and Richard Gillingham.





Worship at this conference was a great joy. For the most part it was not liturgical (with the exception of one Evening Prayer using the new Anabaptist daily office materials), but neither was it the usual ‘contemporary’ mass of emotional choruses repeated ten times over (all about how I feel about Jesus). It had real content – readings, thoughtful contemporary songs, broad intercessions – and was capably led by Sian Murray Williams.





The theme of the ‘conference’ part of the weekend was ‘Worship and Mission after Christendom’. Stuart Murray Williams explained to us that Alan and Ellie are writing a book on this subject for the ‘After Christendom’ series, and were using this conference as an opportunity to test out some of the material. Some of their main emphases were:





Mission and Worship are locked together. It isn’t that church services are intended to be evangelistic events (they aren’t – they are primarily intended to worship God and build up believers). Rather, genuine worship transforms the worshippers so that we go out to take our place in God’s mission in the world. Also, God’s mission has as its goal cosmic reconciliation and universal worship – the whole creation joining together to worship the one true God – and so worship leads to mission which leads back into worship.





Mission in post-Christendom is changing its focus. In the ‘classical missionary tradition’ the church sent full-time, trained, specialist missionaries from Christendom to far-away places – heathendom – with the intention of saving souls and building up the church. In post-Christendom we are recovering the sense that we all participate in God’s mission, which is not just about saving souls but restored relationships – with God, with one another, and with the creation. This goal is portrayed in Isaiah 11:1-9. In this ‘Missio Dei’ (‘Mission of God’) approach, God is the one who sends, and he sends all his people – not just full-time, trained specialists – to every place where brokenness exists. Every Christian is involved in this and most of us will participate in it in our place of work. This involves learning to ask the question ‘Where is what I am doing leading? How is it contributing to the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 11:1-9?’





Story is tremendously important. God’s story is a big story in five acts. Act 1 is the Creation, Act 2 the rebellion, Act 3 the story of Israel, and Act 4 the story of Jesus. Act 5 is divided into four scenes: Scene 1 is the rest of the New Testament, scene 2 the story of the church, and Scene 4 is the future. We are in this story; we are helping to shape scene 3!





Biblical worship takes story seriously. Stories of worship in the Bible are full of narrative: the worship service on the shores of the Red Sea in Exodus 15, the Passover story in Exodus 12, the historical psalms, the gospel stories which were probably told and retold in New Testament worship before being written down, sermons which consist largely in telling stories, and rites like Holy Communion and footwashing which also tell stories.





The biblical story seems ‘odd’ to modern people, firstly because its values seem upside down (God works through marginal people), and secondly because it assumes that God exists and does things. So we need to be socialized into a society which is shaped by God’s story. God’s story also has a hook in it – the ‘motive clause’: ‘As God has treated you, so you are to treat others’. We tell God’s story preeminently in worship – in sermons, in stories, in pictures, in drama, and through the church year – and in this way worship shapes the community.





God also calls us to tell stories of our immediate past – to ‘give testimony’, which Alan and Ellie described as ‘Christians giving reports from the front’. ‘The Church’s task is to collect evidence that God is alive and share it with others’.





Biblical worship is multi-voiced. In a study of 1 Corinthians 14 we examined the ‘pot-luck supper’ style of worship in the early Christian communities, where it seems that everyone was expected to contribute, bringing a psalm, a song, a revelation, a word of prophecy etc. All contributions were weighed and tested, and leaders (if they were there) would need to be skilled in enabling the participation of all. The result is a strong sense of the presence of God (‘Surely God is among you’ – verse 25).





Why do outsiders come to join in worship services that are not designed with them in mind? Three reasons. First, because they are coming with a friend they have learned to know and trust. Second, because the Christians appear to be interesting (the church needs to be a mysterious place where surprising things happen!). Third, because as a result of these first two reasons, people sense that God exists. To sum up: friendship, intrigue, and the rumour that God is there.




I thoroughly enjoyed Alan and Ellie’s presentations and found them very thought-provoking. The idea of ‘Missio Dei’ – the mission of God, in which all Christians take part, whether they are ‘professional’ or not, is one I’ve believed and taught for a long time. Members of St. Margaret’s, I hope, will recognize it! Success in church life comes, not when the pews are full to bursting, but when we all go to work on Monday morning, not just to make a living, but to make a difference for Christ and his Kingdom. This means thinking of so-called ‘ordinary’ Christians as the front line of Christian mission. Clergy, pastors, priests – we’re the support workers, equipping God’s people for their mission in the world. And that gives us an enormous responsibility to make sure that the equipping we do does actually help them live as faithful followers of Jesus in the world in which they live.





Not that this means we never mention anything but professional ethics. As Alan and Ellie said, one of the most important things we do as we worship week by week is immerse ourselves in the big story of God’s love as it has been at work from the beginning of creation until the last day comes. In the Anglican church, I think in some ways we do quite well here. Because we follow the Christian year, we tell the story of Jesus regularly, going over and over the big events of his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Where we fall down, I think, is helping people to connect the little stories they hear in the weekly lectionary readings to the big story, the grand narrative of the Bible. As I’ve presented ‘Christian Basics’ and ‘Growing and Living as a Christian’ courses to people, over and over again they’ve told me that one of the most helpful things has been the overview of the whole story of the Bible, which gives them the sense of where the individual parts fit in.





I love the idea of testimony as ‘stories from the front’, and the idea that the church is in the business of collecting evidence that God is alive and then sharing it with people. We don’t do enough of that in our church. Lately we’ve decided to try to give people more opportunities for sharing their stories, as a way not only of raising our level of expectation in the gospel but also of getting to know one another better. Alan and Ellie also emphasized that we aren’t only sharing personal stories here but also big stories of how God has done the seemingly impossible, such as the ending of apartheid in South Africa without the blood bath that was expected.





I’m comforted by the idea of outsiders coming to worship because they come with a trusted friend, and because the Christians are interesting, and because they suspect that God is real – but a little nagging doubt inside is saying, “Is this based on empirical evidence? Can we actually point to non-churchgoing people who have been attracted to the Christian faith in this way? Or is it just a nice theological idea?’ I’d like to know the answer to that one. I do know of people who were lapsed churchgoers who have joined our church family at St. Margaret’s, despite the fact that we use a liturgy and don’t specialise in seeker-sensitive churches. But I’m not sure if it would work as well for people who have no church memory at all. I just don’t know.





The aspect of Alan and Ellie’s vision that was the mot challenging was the multi-voiced worship as found in 1 Corinthians 14. Our system in the Anglican church is so clerical, even today, even though we have people doing readings and intercessions, lay readers helping to lead the service, and so on. We don’t have the sense that Paul had, that every member is free and expected to contribute a hymn, a prayer, a word from God, etc. I’m not even sure how we would build that into our way of doing Sunday worship – or if people would accept it if we tried to do it. Personally I find it tremendously attractive, and am moving a little in that direction as I experiment with preaching that is more interactive rather than exclusively monologues from the front of the building.





All in all, a great weekend, and much to ponder and be thankful for.





The conference at Scargill, which I was supposed to be attending from May 30th – June 3rd, was cancelled, so I have the opportunity to join Alan and Ellie at the London Mennonite Centre this weekend where they are presenting a Cross-Currents seminar on Spirituality in the Anabaptist tradition. I’m looking forward to that one in a big way!





Sabbatical Report #9: Book Report


John D. Roth, Editor: Engaging Anabaptism

In this fine book John Roth, an American Mennonite scholar, author, and editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review, has invited thirteen scholars who have been influenced by Anabaptism to share their reflections on the Anabaptist tradition. Most of the essays include autobiography and tribute; some of them also offer friendly criticism. The authors include names that were familiar to me (Stanley Hauerwas, Glen Stassen, Samuel Escobar, Christopher Rowland, Stuart Murray, Richard Hays, Rodney Clapp) and others with whom I was not familiar (James McClendon Jr., Christopher Marshall, Nancey Murphy, Eoin de Bhaldraithe, Richard Mouw, Michael Cartwright).


I will point out right from the start that this is a book written by scholars, and so it cannot help but have a scholarly flavour to it. The editor acknowledges from the beginning that this is problematic: ‘Does the growing impulse to frame Anabaptist-Mennonite theology in the systematic, highly self-conscious language of the academy inevitably attenuate a faith that is best expressed in daily discipleship and the living experience of the community?’ (p.13). Anabaptism has a theological tradition, but at heart it is a way if living; I suspect that most of the authors represented in this volume would acknowledge that fact (Hauerwas is particularly eloquent on the issue!)..


What has drawn these thirteen scholars (none of whom are Mennonites and very few of whom belong to Anabaptist denominations) toward Anabaptism? One name appears over and over again in the pages of this book: the late John Howard Yoder. Perhaps the greatest of all twentieth century Mennonite theologians (and not one with whom all Mennonites are happy, I might add!), his magisterial 1972 volume The Politics of Jesus is mentioned in almost every essay in this book as having had an enormous impact on the thinking of these scholars. Some of them (Hauerwas, Escobar, Cartwright) knew Yoder personally; most knew him only through his writings. Yoder’s ideas about the call of the Church, about Constantinianism and its corrupting influences, about pacifism as integral to the gospel, and (above all) about Jesus and the Kingdom of God, have obviously been formational for these scholars.


What attracts them about the Anabaptist way? Christopher Marshall’s essay is perhaps one of the clearest on this question; he talks about the impact of Yoder’s Politics of Jesus and, delightfully, The More With Less Cookbook, and writes about how both books emphasized ‘the same fundamental Anabaptist conviction: that to be a Christian means following Jesus; that following Jesus means taking Jesus’ ethical teaching seriously; and that taking Jesus seriously means a lifestyle of simplicity, service, and peacemaking’ (p.41). Listing the things he has gained from Anabaptism, he mentions first ‘its integrative Christocentrism. From Anabaptism I have learned that the essential mark of Christian identity is not simply a correct theological evaluation of the person and work of Christ but a conformity to the way of life taught and demonstrated by Jesus in the gospel records’. On this subject he mentions an issue that I have also seen highlighted by other Anabaptist writers:


‘…in the mainstream traditions, doctrinal Christocentrism has tended to eclipse ethical Christocentrism. In other words, what one believes about Christ has been more important than whether one actually obeys him in action…Tellingly, the church’s historic creeds are all but silent on ethics in general and the strenuous demands of Jesus in particular. This has allowed the church historically to bear the name of Christ but to do the work of the devil at the same time. In the interests of doctrinal orthodoxy the church has raised armies and waged war, tortured heretics and burned witches, persecuted dissenters and compelled conversions’.


Marshall goes on to mention how the ethical Christocentrism of Anabaptism has furnished him with a framework for interpreting the scriptures: the three principles he lists are (1) that the proper setting for the interpretation of the scriptures is the gathered community of believers, not the academic ivory tower, (2) that whatever in scripture agrees with Jesus’ teaching and example conveys God’s word for today, and whatever contradicts the way of Jesus is no longer God’s intention for the new covenant community, and (3) that in order to understand correctly what is written about Christ in scripture and what is consistent with his life and teaching, one must also walk with Christ the path of costly obedience. I suspect that all the contributors to this book would echo Marshall’s words here.


Stanley Hauerwas lists some of the things he has learned from the Anabaptism tradition.


  • The obligation of Christians to tell one another the truth requires us to develop skilful modes of speech in order to say no more than needs to be said.
  • Lack of money can be a resource that enriches a community as it makes cooperation and agreements necessary for survival.
  • Theology is not a thought that can be abstracted from the practices of a people. Theology has to be understood as just one more practice of a people who have learned that their lives depend on learning how to share their lives.


Other authors add to the list.


  • Glen Stassen mentions his conviction that Christendom has developed a tradition of evading the way of Jesus. He points out that very few textbooks on Christian ethics actually learn anything constructive from the Sermon on the Mount, and pays tribute to the way that the Anabaptist tradition has made the Sermon central in its understanding of discipleship.
  • Samuel Escobar mentions John Howard Yoder’s influence in Latin America, where marginalized evangelical Christian groups made ready connections with his teaching, coming as it did from the heart of another marginalized tradition, Anabaptism.
  • Chris Rowland, who has written extensively about liberation theology, also draws parallels between the 16th century Anabaptist congregations and the contemporary Latin American Base Ecclesial Communities (Chris, like other British contributors to the book, mentions the influence of Alan and Ellie Kreider in his own journey toward the Anabaptist way).
  • Stuart Murray mentions the clear understanding in Anabaptism of the negative impact of Constantinianism and Christendom on the mission of the church. He also points out that today, in a culture in which ‘fewer and fewer people are looking for a ticket to heaven’ but are more interesting in learning to live authentically, Anabaptism’s emphasis ‘on the person and life of Jesus and on the call to follow him in life (is)…helpful and challenging’ (p.100). Another feature he mentions is Anabaptism’s ‘insistence that spirituality and economics belong together’ (p.101).




It would be easy to go on, but I don’t want to write a lengthy review, and I do want to mention the criticism that comes up most frequently in the pages of the book. As I said, none of the authors come from Anabaptist traditions and most of them do not belong to denominations which identify themselves as Anabaptist. The editor, John Roth, mentions in his preface how, for those authors who belong to more liturgical traditions, ‘the absence of a sacramental theology within Anabaptism leaves its adherents susceptible to a works-righteousness that allows the divine initiative to be overshadowed by human efforts’ (p.13). As Roth says, this is particularly noticeable in those authors coming from more liturgical and sacramental traditions, such as Hauerwas, Cartwright and Hays (Methodists), and Clapp (Anglican).




Stanley Hauerwas admits that the aspect of Mennonite life he finds most problematic is the way Mennonites worship; ‘Zwingli’s rationalistic tendencies have won’. Mennonites, he says, ‘need to consider, in a way faithful to Mennonite life, why Word and Table cannot be separated’. Rodney Clapp testifies that, indebted as he is to Anabaptism, he remains an Episcopalian because of ‘the sacraments and sacramental theology…Zwinglian memorialistic understandings of baptism and the Lord’s Supper all too readily play into individualistic, subjectivistic tendencies’. He also points out that, in the modern age in which the word is becoming less important than the image, traditions which emphasise the visual as well as the verbal may be better placed to engage in mission. Michael Cartwright, a friend of John Howard Yoder who helped edit one of his collections of essays, also engages with him vigorously on this same point of sacramental theology and practice, offering perhaps the most negative assessment of a point of Anabaptist thought to be found in this collection. Understandably, those authors who come from more Baptist or evangelical traditions do not share this view, and in fact do not mention the issue at all.







This has been very enjoyable book and has helped me to understand both my attraction to Anabaptism and the weaknesses I see in it, which (for the moment at least) cause me to remain an Anglican. Like the authors of this volume, I love the clear Christocentrism of Anabaptism: its commitment not just to believing in Jesus and worshipping Jesus, but actually practicing the things Jesus taught and demonstrated. I love historic Anabaptism’s emphasis on the ministry of all Christians, its understanding of the church as a gathered community of believers, its connection of baptism with discipleship and church discipline, its unapologetic commitment to peace and nonviolence, to truth-telling, to simplicity of life and mutual aid. I also love and admire the way that its best-known contemporary practitioners, the Mennonites, are so committed to mission and service (Glen Stassen writes of how almost all of the faculty of Goshen College ‘had worked or taught in service or mission projects somewhere abroad’, and how most of the students ‘spend a semester in service among needy people in Latin America or elsewhere’).




But I have to admit that when I worship with Mennonites, I miss the liturgy and the sacraments. I’m not a nitpicky liturgist; my tradition is evangelical, which means I love simplicity and informality. But I also love the way traditional liturgies combine all the essential elements of worship: praise and thanksgiving, reading and exposition of scripture, penitence, thanksgiving, intercession, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Especially the last one. For better or for worse, the Anglican Church of Canada has moved toward a weekly celebration of the Eucharist, and I have come to really appreciate this. Once every three months just won’t cut it for me.





One more thing this book has done for me is to give me a direction for my continuing sabbatical reading. I have already read a couple of Yoder’s books, but am now determined that The Politics of Jesus will be my next sabbatical book (I bought it when I was in London). Also, when I go back to London Mennonite Centre next month I plan to buy some more of his books, and to read as much of his writing as I can lay my hands on. I suspect that coming to grips with Yoder will be one of the best ways of coming to grips with the significance of contemporary Anabaptism.



May 19th 2007: Dad and Mum’s 50th Wedding Anniversary

Saturday was my Mum and Dad’s 50th Wedding Anniversary. We had a thanksgiving service at St. Mary’s Church, Ketton, where my Dad and Mum attend, followed by a tea at the parish hall. My brother Mike preached at the service, and Jacqui and I led a bit of singing beforehand. Some of our relatives were there, and some of Mum and Dad’s friends as well. It was a really happy time and they really enjoyed themselves.




Here are Mum and Dad cutting the cake.






This is my Dad and his two siblings who live on this side of the Atlantic, Uncle John and Auntie Mary.






And here are Mum and Dad with our bunch.






Update: Jacqui’s got a good post about the anniversary on her blog here.

Sabbatical Report #8: Book Report

 Stuart Murray: Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition


My book this past week has been Stuart Murray’s excellent Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition. I suspect it is the most important book I have read so far on my sabbatical leave; I think that everything else in the Anabaptist tradition flows logically out of their approach to biblical interpretation. Stuart does not claim that the sixteenth-century Anabaptists had a completely developed and logically consistent approach to biblical interpretation; this would have been an unrealistic expectation of a largely uneducated and vigorously persecuted movement. However, he identifies a surprisingly coherent approach across the various sixteenth century Anabaptist streams, while acknowledging differences of emphasis and admitting shortcomings.


He points out six general principles:


  1. Scripture is self-interpreting.

Statements from Anabaptists show their confidence about the clarity of Scripture and its sufficiency without external additions. They strongly affirmed the right of private interpretation of Scripture, insisted that Scripture was clear enough to be understood and obeyed, and rejected the imposition of an interpretive grid on Scripture to force passages into consistency with preconceived theological systems. Statements from Anabaptists on trial show that their leaders’ attitudes had enfranchised the membership and produced tremendous faith and confidence in the ability of the ordinary Christian to understand and apply the Scriptures to their lives.


This principle has to be understood in the light of the historical situation of the Anabaptists. They were concerned that the 16th century Reformers such as Calvin and Luther were paying lip service to the plain sense of Scripture and the right of private interpretation but actually hedging these around with many qualifications. They suspected that priests and scholars were using their learning to find sophisticated reasons why simple obedience to Scripture was impossible and unnecessary.


Criticisms of this principle include the fact that Anabaptists failed to appreciate textual difficulties that cannot be resolved without good scholarship. What many readersassume is the plain meaning of the text may actually bear little resemblance to the original intent of the author when understood in a different cultural setting. Also, the disagreements and divisions about biblical interpretation within the Anabaptist movement would seem to indicate that the plain meaning of the text is not as plain as they assumed!However, for thousands of Christians, during the formative years of the Anabaptist movement, this approach was genuinely liberating. Whatever its shortcomings, it enfranchised people in ways the Reformation promised but often failed to deliver.


  1. Christocentrism

Confidence that Scripture was clear and that all Christians could understand it applied pre-eminently to the passages containing the words and actions of Jesus. The belief that Jesus clarified what was previously obscure appears frequently in Anabaptist writings; it meant that Jesus’ words took precedence over all other words of Scripture.


Christocentrism meant that the Bible was not ‘flat’: some passages had greater authority for doctrine and practice than others. The New Testament took precedence over the Old, and Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching were the pinnacle of God’s revelation and primary in all questions of interpretation. Christocentrism meant that the whole Bible pointed to Jesus. It meant that his teaching was authoritative for ethics as well as doctrine; it meant that he was the authorised interpreter of the Old Testament, and that a living experience of him was a prerequisite for biblical interpretation. The Anabaptists focussed on Jesus himself rather than doctrines about him, and saw him not only as Saviour but also as Example to imitate and Teacher to obey.


  1. The Two Testaments

Within Christendom many issues were decided on the basis of Old Testament texts. In contrast, Anabaptists emphasized the discontinuity between the Testaments and saw the New Testament as primary; the Old had validity only where Christ had not suspended it and only where it agreed with the New. This view led the Anabaptists to oppose practices they felt were grounded only in Old Testament texts (e.g. war as a legitimate option for Christians, the swearing of oaths, persecution, infant baptism).


Stuart points out that neither Reformers nor Anabaptists handled the Old Testament well. The Reformers insisted on the unity of Scripture, but in practice tended to justify practices from Old Testament texts in ways that marginalized the teaching of Jesus. Anabaptists challenged this, but in overreaction some tended to jettison the Old Testament altogether.


  1. Spirit and Word.

Stuart sees the early sixteenth-century Anabaptists as a proto-charismatic movement and cites passages where a living experience of the Holy Spirit appears prominently in their writings. He points out that their expectation was mainly that the Spirit would transform them so that they could live obedient lives, although ecstatic experiences of the Spirit were not absent either.


The relationship between Spirit and Word was a major issue at the Reformation, and on this subject the Anabaptist movement did not speak with one voice. Some (the Swiss Brethren and the Hutterites) tended to emphasise the literal word of Scripture and of Christ, while others (the South German Anabaptists) emphasized following the inner guidance of the Spirit. Excesses in the latter movement led to an eventual reaction in a more literalistic direction. However, the Anabaptists’ Christocentric approach meant that they were never fundamentalists in the modern sense.


Reliance on the Spirit was expected to check naïve and legalistic interpretation of Scripture. Openness to the Spirit was preferred to reliance on education and scholarship. Approaches that polarized Spirit and reason were normally unwelcome. The Spirit’s work included conviction and persuasion so that the interpreters acted on what they had learned, and also included openness to correction and fresh insights. It should also be noted that the Anabaptist emphasis on the gathered congregation as the primary interpretive authority often helped to check individualistic interpretations of Scripture.


  1. Congregational Hermeneutics

The Anabaptists took a communal approach to biblical interpretation and resisted tendencies to restrict the teaching office to recognized leaders. They rejected both the Catholic emphasis on the authority of ecclesiastical traditions and the Reformers’ practice of replacing priestly tyranny with the tyranny of the preacher. Their view of the congregation as the interpretive community presupposed a congregation of believers, which was not the experience of the Christendom churches with their view of the Church as a mixed community of believers and unbelievers.


The Swiss Brethren explored congregational hermeneutics extensively, allowing multiple participation in services, discussion of Scripture texts, and communal judgement. Some Dutch and German groups also developed this approach. Congregational hermeneutics does not require that every contribution carry equal weight, but it does require that every contribution be weighed.


In practice, this approach tended to die out in later years and was replaced by reliance on church leaders and received understandings of Scripture. Criticisms of this approach point out that if every congregation is an autonomous interpreter of Scripture there is no objective authority which can prevent division. Mistakes, disagreements, and poor interpretations would also suggest that Anabaptists underestimated the difficulties involved. Another limitation was the virtual exclusion of Christian wisdom from prior centuries; the focus was on present consensus, and little attention was paid to the consensus of the past.


There were obvious weaknesses in the Anabaptist congregational approach, but it also had significant strengths, especially in its conviction that every member could contribute to the interpretive task, its openness to correction, and its willingness to consider fresh interpretations rather than squeezing texts into conformity with set doctrinal positions.


  1. Hermeneutics of Obedience

Anabaptists often complained that biblical interpretation was divorced from application. They saw the Scripture as plain enough to call for radical obedience, and the congregation as the interpretive community best placed to apply it to daily life.


Anabaptists saw obedience as a crucial prerequisite to biblical interpretation; ethical qualifications took precedence over intellectual abilities or official appointments. Only those actively committed to discipleship could be trusted to interpret the Scriptures. Obedience to one’s present understanding of Scripture, and openness to new understandings were essential for true interpretation. Interpreters must also be free from the influence of secular power and vested interests, as these would limit their ability to interpret in ways that challenged the status quo.


Reformers and Anabaptists disagreed about what norms to apply in their ethical application of Scripture. For the Reformers, social stability was crucial. For Anabaptists, obedience to Christ’s specific teachings and imitation of his lifestyle outweighed this, as they committed themselves to establishing in their churches a new social order rather than preserving the existing one.



In the last chapter of the book Stuart proposes that Anabaptism be seen as a conversation partner with contemporary Christian traditions and the way they interpret the Bible. He gives two examples of how this might work, discussing the similarities and differences between the Anabaptist approach and that of Liberation Theology on the one hand, and the charismatic movement on the other. In each case he points out things that the traditions have in common and things they could learn from each other.


I would be delighted to have Stuart outline a similar dialogue with the Anglican tradition. I think some of the characteristics of Anabaptist biblical interpretation which he outlines are very congenial to our approach. Liturgically we have always emphasized the Incarnation and the gospels, although some of our traditions have perhaps been more Pauline in the way Stuart identifies with the Reformed approach. We also believe strongly that the Bible is the Church’s book and needs to be read and interpreted in the community of the Church.


Other characteristics of the Anabaptist approach would be more of a challenge to us. We have often been wary of the right of ‘private interpretation’, observing how this often leads to multiple divisions over little points of disagreement. We have a strong sense of the authority of tradition (meaning the living faith of the dead, not the dead faith of the living!) and tend to defer to past voices in our biblical interpretations, believing that the Spirit has guided the Church as Jesus promised. And ‘Congregational Hermeneutics’ has been almost unknown to us.


However, a conversation with Anabaptism might help us to identify some of our weaknesses here. We believe that the Bible is the Church’s book and that the Church has authority to interpret it – but, in practice, does this actually mean ‘the priests and scholars of the Church’ rather than ‘the whole Church’? Anabaptism would remind us – helpfully and awkwardly – that in the New Testament ‘the Church’ means the whole people of God, and that in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul expected every member to bring a prophecy or an interpretation or a psalm etc. Does the way in which the Bible is taught in the Anglican tradition actually encourage our members to read it for themselves? Or do we communicate the message that it’s really only a book for scholars?


Stuart himself suggests that the ‘congregational hermeneutic’ approach could easily be extended in two ways to compensate for its innate weaknesses. The first way would be to include scholars in the conversation – not as authoritative voices above the rest, but as partners in the conversation, offering their insights alongside those of the other members. The second way would be to include past generations as conversation partners as well. In this way the voice of tradition could be included in the work of biblical interpretation.


This has been a fascinating book for me, and one that I would recommend without hesitation to others interested in exploring Anabaptist approaches to biblical interpretation.


A wonderful time with the best friends anyone could ask for

My two longest standing friendships are with Jan Barnes and Steve Palmer. Jan and I were in the same class all through high school, and Steve and I were in the same tutor group. For a brief time in my last year in England we were also a musical act together.

We have kept in touch over the years, but our families have never all met at once. This past weekend we came very close to that – all the Palmers, all the Barnes’, and all the Chestertons except for my son Matthew who wasn’t able to be with us.

Here we all are outside Hedingham Castle, just down the road from the Barnes residence.


And here are a few more pics from Castle Hedingham and from our reunion.




Steve and Jan: you’re the best friends anyone could ask for. And your families are warm, welcoming, and loads of fun.


Sabbatical Report #7: Book Report


Donald Durnbaugh: The Believers’ Church

My book for the past week has been Donald Durnbaugh’s The Believers’ Church: The History and Character of Radical Protestantism. This book was written in the late 1960’s and so reflects the conditions and viewpoints of an earlier era. Also, some of the summaries toward the end of the book seem to me to give a rather rosy view, as Durnbaugh lists the positive achievements of various ‘believers’ churches’ but is perhaps a little less forthcoming about their weaknesses. Nonetheless, the book has been an interesting and enjoyable read and gives a good overview of the ‘radical protestant’ tradition.


The book falls roughly into two halves. In the first part, Durnbaugh traces the history of believers’ churches from medieval times to the present, beginning with the Waldenses and the Unitas Fratrum and then taking two representative movements in each century up to the twentieth. In the second half he explores certain common characteristics of the various groups he has described.


What does ‘The Believers’ Church’ mean? The author is using this title to refer to denominations and movements which historically have been composed of Christians who have voluntarily chosen to come together on the basis of their common faith in Christ, in distinction from churches in which everyone is considered to be a member of a geographical parish simply by virtue of being born within its boundaries. Although Martin Luther did not begin a ‘Believers’ Church’ by this definition, he nonetheless wrote a good definition of it in 1526, which Durnbaugh quotes. Luther, he says, wrote that what was truly necessary was an ‘evangelical order’, held privately for those who ‘want to be Christians in earnest and who process the gospel by hand and mouth’.


They should sign their names and meet in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and do other Christian works. According to this order, those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, corrected, cast out, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ, Matthew 18. Here one could also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given and distributed to the poor, according to St. Paul’s example, 2 Corinthians 9. Here would be no need of much and elaborate singing. Here one could set out a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and centre everything on the Word, prayer, and love.




Durnbaugh draws out the following elements of Luther’s definition:
  1. The church is a voluntary community of those freely confessing Jesus Christ as Lord (for this reason infant baptism as a rite of entrance, or membership by virtue of citizenship in a state or territory, are both rejected).
  2. The believers freely covenant with God and each other to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus Christ – therefore a mixed assembly of believers and unbelievers (as was often the reality in the past in the state church parish system) is rejected.
  3. They perform Christian works – as regenerate Christians they know they are expected to maintain a higher level of life.
  4. They accept that being a disciple means being under a discipline, and that according to Matthew 18:15-20 this includes faithful admonition of one another, not just easy tolerance.
  5. They practice mutual aid, ‘benevolent gifts willingly given and distributed to the poor’.
  6. There is neither complete formalism nor complete spontaneity; however, forms of worship evolve from within the group and can be changed if need be.
  7. The Word given in the Scriptures and apprehended through the Holy Spirit provides the sole authority. Tradition must bow if the clear statement of the Word as understood in the covenant community so demands.




Not every element of this definition is found in every ‘Believers’ Church’ surveyed in the book (Methodists, for instance, continued the tradition of infant baptism), but on the whole they are an accurate representation of the movement. Durnbaugh summarises as follows:



‘The Believers’ Church, therefore, is the covenanted and disciplined community of those walking in the way of Jesus Christ. Where two or three such are gathered, willing also to be scattered in the work of their Lord, there is the believing people’.




Having defined the ‘Believers’ Church’ movement, Durnbaugh then goes on to trace it through history, beginning in the middle ages. He examines the following movements:





The Waldenses were a movement begun in Lyon in the 12th century under the leadership of Peter Waldo (1140-1218?). Arrested by the text ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me’ (Mt. 19:21), Waldo set himself to practice this way of life. His innovation was that he applied these counsels of poverty and discipleship not just to monastics but to all true Christians. His followers went out two by two to preach, and this aroused the opposition of the local archbishop, as they were ‘unauthorized laymen’. In 1184 the Waldenses were officially condemned as heretics and the persecution began; nonetheless, the movement spread through France and Italy. They translated the scriptures into the vernacular and memorized them, especially the gospels and the Sermon on the Mount. They lived exemplary lives, practiced nonresistance and took no oaths; some accepted infant baptism, some did not.





The Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren) were a Czech group inspired by the teachings of a yeoman with no formal education, Peter Chelcicky (1390?-1460?). He taught the law of love (which has become the basis of all Christian life since its explanation and example by Jesus Christ), nonresistant pacifism, dissolution of class distinctions, the authority of the New Testament, and a radical separation of church and state. In 1457/58, in an isolated village in Bohemia, a group was organised with Peter’s writings as their guide. They soon took the name ‘Unity of the Brethren’. In 1467, in response to persecution, they set up their own church structures; church membership was divided into ‘the beginners’, ‘the proficients’, and ‘the perfect’, and they followed a strict discipline according to Matthew 18:15-20. They were viciously persecuted through the years. In 1722 a small group crossed the German border to seek refuge and religious liberty on the estate of Count Nicholas Von Zinzendorf. From the community of settlers there emerged in 1729 the Renewed Moravian Church.





The Anabaptists. This group began in Zurich in the early 1520s. They felt that the mainline Reformation was not radical enough and wanted a church patterned on the New Testament and free from the control of the city council. The breaking point was their adoption of believers’ baptism in 1525. Most of the early leaders (Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, and later Michael Sattler and Balthazar Hubmaier) died young, mostly through persecution. In 1527 they produced a statement of faith called ‘The Schleitheim Articles’, in which they described their belief in believers’ baptism, the Ban (i.e. church discipline according to Matthew 18:15-20), the Lord’s Supper as a memorial to be celebrated by believers, separation from the world, the work of the pastor, the sword as being ‘outside the perfection of Christ’, and the non-use of oaths. Related movements spread through south Germany, Austria, northern Germany and the Netherlands. The early Anabaptists were mainly illiterate and were enthusiastic evangelists. An early disaster for the movement was the seizure of the city of Munster by radical (non-pacifist) Anabaptists in 1534; after the city was retaken and the Anabaptists slaughtered, a Dutch priest named Menno Simons emerged as the major leader of the north German and Dutch movement and laid the foundations for the continuing Mennonite tradition, emphasizing pacifism, active discipleship after the teaching and example of Jesus, and church discipline.





The Hutterites emerged from the Anabaptist tradition in Nikolsburg in Moravia. Under the leadership of Jacob Wiedemann, they were expelled from Nikolsburg, and formed a community of disciples in which all goods were held in common; this was their distinctive characteristic within the wider Anabaptist movement. They settled in Austerlitz in 1529 where they founded the first Bruderhof. They took their name from Jacob Hutter (d. 1536), a strong early leader who helped to define the traditions of the movement. Like other Anabaptists they were persecuted, but from 1565 until the end of the century they experienced a ‘golden period’ during which at least a hundredBruderhofs were founded. They were great evangelists and sent their missionaries all across Europe. Their definitive statement of faith was written by Peter Riedemann in 1540. Successive persecutions drove them in turn to Slovakia, Transylvania, Romania, Russia, and finally North America.





The English Baptists emerged within the Puritan movement in the early seventeenth century. Thomas Helwys (d. 1614) was the leader of the first English Baptist congregation, established circa 1611-1612; he had learned his convictions from a group in the Netherlands which may have been influenced by some local Mennonites. However, the group that developed in England believed Christians could serve as magistrates and take oaths, which the Anabaptists would not allow. By 1644 they numbered 47 congregations and became known as the General Baptists because of their Arminian theology. Another group, the Particular Baptists (who were Calvinists) arose in 1638-1640 and later became predominant. The Baptists were not pacifists and indeed many served in the Roundhead army during the civil war. Their most famous seventeenth century figure was John Bunyan (1628-1688), the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. A later leader was the shoemaker William Carey (1761-1834), who helped found the Baptist Missionary Society and went himself as a missionary to India. Baptists have spread around the world and are now the largest non-Roman Catholic religious body in existence.





The Quakers, or ‘Society of Friends’, began around 1652, and their early leader was George Fox (1624-1691). They rejected creeds, ceremonies and cultic practices and sought an experiential contact with God in simplicity and silence. The tireless efforts of Quaker evangelists spread the movement rapidly in Great Britain, Europe, Asia Minor, North America and the West Indies throughout the seventeenth century. As usual for dissident groups they were persecuted; before 1689 about 15,000 had been jailed and 450 died either in prison or as a result of their imprisonment. The Quakers were pacifists, and their recognition of ‘that of God in each person’ led them to early convictions about the evil of slavery.





The Church of the Brethren grew out of German Pietism in the early eighteenth century (Pietism was a reaction against sterile Protestant scholasticism; it was experiential, emotional, individual, biblically-centred and ethically-minded. Instead of inquiring about the relationship of the individual to the institutional church and its clergy, Pietism asked about the personal relationship with Christ, about conversion). In 1708 a group of eight German Pietists led by a miller named Alexander Mack (1679-1735) established a covenant of discipleship together and sealed it with believers’ baptism. Their group grew and called themselves ‘Brethren’, though they were known by their peers as ‘New Baptists’. Their meetings were simple, consisting of singing, reading the Bible and discussing it, and praying together. The movement spread, but early persecution led to forced relocations. Between 1719 and 1735 the majority of the Brethren migrated to Pennsylvania. Today the Church of the Brethren is found mainly in North America and is recognized as an expression of the Anabaptist movement.





The Methodists grew out of the labours of John Wesley (1703-1791). A strict high church Anglican, he had a crisis of faith as a result of a failed missionary experience in the American colonies, but at a Moravian meeting in 1738 came to an experiential understanding of justification by faith and found the peace he was looking for. He and his brother Charles preached as they had opportunity in London, but George Whitfield invited him to preach in the fields with him, and so began his life’s work. The response to his preaching was often dramatic and emotional, but Wesley formed his converts into classes and introduced them to a disciplined system of Christian growth. The lack of ordained clergy for the movement led him to employ lay-preachers, a controversial step. His insistence on converted, committed, regenerated Christians tightly organized into voluntary societies was in direct opposition to the prevailing church culture, and his ordination of Thomas Coke to ordain others in North America was seen as a direct challenge to the Anglican system. The movement grew rapidly in North America, spread by the labours of circuit-riding preachers; their doctrines of free grace, Christian perfection and active piety seemed to resonate well with ordinary people.





The Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) are a coming together of several small groups, which had in common a desire to restore what they saw as ‘primitive New Testament Christianity’, including separation of church and state, a plurality of elders rather than a single paid pastor, and a weekly observance of communion. Believers’ baptism was also adopted very early. In 1832 two of the groups (‘Disciples’ and ‘Christians’) united; their church grew rapidly in the nineteenth century and they were often in the forefront of bringing the gospel to newly-settled areas.





The Plymouth Brethren were a British group with similar convictions to the American Disciples, including especially the weekly breaking of bread and the ministry of all believers. Two early groups joined together in 1829; any member could speak in their meetings, which were held Quaker style except for the hymns that were sung. John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) became the outstanding theologian of the movement, which spread rapidly throughout the nineteenth century; George Muller of Bristol was another well-know member. The Brethren practiced church discipline and abstained from political involvement. Their best-known theological idea was Darby’s ‘Dispensationalist’ system, which was popularized by the Schofield Reference Bible.



The Confessing Church was a protest movement against the way the majority of German Christians co-operated with Hitler in the 1930s. In late 1933 a group of pastors led by Martin Niemoller formed the Pastors’ Emergency League and drafted a pledge which, within four months, had been signed by almost half the pastors in Germany. However, pressure from the Nazis prompted many to back down. In May 1934 a synod meeting in Barmen produced a confession of faith (largely drafted by Karl Barth). The Confessing Church saw itself as the one true Christian Church in Germany in distinction from those who had surrendered control to Hitler. A well-known early leader was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From the very beginning they were persecuted; Karl Barth was expelled from his chair of theology at Bonn and went to Switzerland, and Niemoller was arrested, imprisoned in 1938 and held throughout the war. After the war Niemoller became an early leader in the World Council of Churches and a convert to pacifism.





New forms of church in the 20th century include the Church of the Saviour, founded by Baptist former military chaplain Gordon Cosby in Alexandria, Virginia in 1946, a community which requires a very high level of commitment from its members. Another example is East Harlem Protestant Parish, initiated by Don Benedict to do mission work among the poor in the inner city after World War Two.





Having described these movements, in the last section of the book Durnbaugh focuses in on some of the characteristics they have in common. He singles out five subjects for special comment:





Discipleship and Apostolicity. Mennonite scholar Harold Bender saw the idea that discipleship is the essence of Christianity as the first principle of the Anabaptist movement, and this same orientation is demonstrably evident among other expressions of the Believers’ Church movement, as also is their conviction that this quality was lacking within Christendom where lip-service to the faith rather than life-service to Jesus Christ seemed common. Most of the Radical Reformers felt that this ‘Fall of the Church’ had occurred in the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (John Wesley expresses this view very strongly). Apostolicity, to these radicals, meant simply living in the manner and virtue of the first followers of Jesus Christ, and to do this they tried to pattern themselves on the way of life of the New Testament Christians. This often included church discipline after the pattern of Matthew 18:15-20 as a means of restoration of wayward members.





Mission and Evangelism. Strangely, most mainline Protestants in the early years did not evangelise; they saw the Great Commission as having already been accomplished in the establishment of Christendom. It was the Believers’ Church groups which showed the way; the Waldenses, the Unitas Fratrum, and the Anabaptists were all great evangelists, and one writer points out that ‘the astonishing thing about Anabaptism is not so much the activity of the ordained leaders as the missionary commitment of the ordinary members’ (although sustained persecution later prompted them to be much less vigorous in this). Quakers, Pietists, Moravian Brethren, Baptists and Methodists have all been enthusiastic missionaries and evangelists.





Church and State. Believers’ churches advocated a clean separation of church and state, in contrast to the Constantinian situation which was accepted by the mainline Reformation tradition. Peter Chelcicky was one of the first to make this point, and the first Anabaptists followed the same line when they would not accept the authority of the Zurich City Council over the church. For many members of Believers’ churches (but not all) this separation of church and state has included a refusal to participate in military service, a view which they see as an integral part of following the teaching and example of Jesus. Quakers and Anabaptists are best known for this view today. The issue of how Christians ought to be involved in the affairs of state is a live one in many Believers’ Church traditions.





Mutual Aid and Service. It has been the tradition in many Believers’ Church traditions that a member will not be left to their own devices; if help is needed, it will be given by the other members. For example, in 1557 candidates for baptism at a Swiss Anabaptist congregation were asked whether, if necessity required it, they would devote all their possessions to the service of the brotherhood and would not fail any member in need if they were able to render aid. In the Anabaptist tradition the Hutterites have of course taken this as their guiding principle with their practice of complete community of goods. Members of Believers’ Church traditions have also been active in reaching out beyond the community. The early Quakers were amongst the first advocates of the abolition of slavery and were also active in prison welfare and in the care of the mentally ill. The early Methodists were active in care for the poor. The Friends Service Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee are in the forefront of this work today.





Sectarian and Ecumenical. The history of Believers’ churches is checkered with divisions (although they are not alone in this in the Christian world). Ecumenism sees this as a scandal robbing the church’s testimony of its credibility. Others take the view that the presence of many Christian bodies is a witness to the vitality of the Christian faith and a way to reach more people; new groups tend to emerge from a fresh surge of conviction and devotion, rather as monastic orders did in the Catholic tradition. Many Believers’ churches have been ‘leavers’ churches’, to use George Williams’ phrase – groups wanting to be separate from not only the world but also mainline church groups they saw as contaminated by it. But many of these groups have willingly worked together, although not all have joined recognized ecumenical institutions. A difference in emphasis, however, has been that whereas many in the ecumenical movement have concentrated on unity in church order (such as Anglicans with their concern for proper forms of ordination in the apostolic succession) or a unity of doctrine (such as Lutherans and many Reformed Christians), Believers’ Church traditions have tended to focus on unity in service together.








Durnbaugh’s book is a helpful introduction to the Believers’ Church tradition, although I would maintain that it is in dire need of being updated in the light of developments over the past forty years. The book left me with several impressions.





I was impressed by the stories of the Christian groups he describes, especially in their early stages. Many of their early members were gripped by a passion for the gospel and for Christian discipleship, and a desire to create forms of church which clearly exhibited New Testament Christian convictions, unencumbered by the chains of the state-church connection or by centuries of traditions which had long since passed their ‘best-before’ dates. Because of my own convictions I was most impressed by the stories of the Waldenses and the Unitas Fratrum, by the Anabaptists and the early Pietists and Methodists.



I must confess to being skeptical about the connections Durnbaugh draws between some of these groups. United they may have been in their desire for separation of church and state and the establishment of New Testament church order, but the convictions which guided the Plymouth Brethren, for instance, are very different from those which led to the Anabaptist movement. I would argue that the Plymouth Brethren are far more doctrinally-motivated than the Anabaptists with their emphasis on following Jesus as he is seen in the gospels, and that the English Baptists with their easy acceptance of military service (and their descendants, the American Baptist tradition with its loyalty to American militarism) are different again.





I am also doubtful about Durnbaugh’s easy acceptance of the multiplication of Christian bodies which the Believers’ Church movement has promoted. Most of these groups have had as their aim the restoration of a New Testament form of church life. Whilst one ought not to idealise the New Testament situation (divisions are clearly reflected in Acts and in Paul’s letters, for instance), nonetheless the visible unity of the Body of Christ is a major concern in the early church. How to combine this emphasis on visible unity on the one hand, with the Believers’ Church desire for the freedom to structure their worship, ministry, and church discipline in ways outside the accepted norms of mainline Christianity on the other, is an issue not only for the Believers’ Church tradition, but also for those of us today who are attracted by its vitality and yet choose to remain within mainline denominations.




‘Time to Pray’

9780715121221This ‘Anabaptist Anglican’ blog has been heavily tilted toward the ‘Anabaptist’ side lately, so I want to pause for a moment to tip the hat to a very fine resource I’ve discovered on the Anglican side of my spiritual pedigree – from the Church of England, no less!

Most people I know who pray the Daily Office – daily Morning and Evening Prayer, that is, using one of our service books such as the Book of Common Prayer or the Book of Alternative Services – will admit to having a love/hate relationship with it. Sometimes we find that the structure strengthens our ability to pray through dry periods; at other times we find it inhibiting of true encounter with the living God who can’t be captured between the pages of any book. Sometimes we find having a book with lots of alternatives helps us avoid monotony; at other times it just makes prayer times confusing (it’s so much effort just to look up those darn canticles and responsories!).

The Church of England has recently produced a daily office book called ‘Common Worship: Daily Prayer’ which has literally hundreds of pages of texts for daily prayer. This, however, is not the resource I’m recommending. I have just discovered a little extract from that book, called ‘Time to Pray’. It includes two specific resources:

  • ‘Prayer During the Day’, an outline for a daily ‘quiet time’, with a few liturgical texts to bring focus and a lot of freedom for experimentation (you’ll find an online example here). There are outlines for ‘Prayer during the Day’ for every day of the week, plus special outlines for the seasons (Christmas, Easter etc). I find there’s enough structure to give my prayers shape, but not so much that I feel constricted. For instance, no lectionary (i.e system of daily Bible readings) is given in the book; people are encouraged to find a system of Bible reading that they like and to use it in combination with ‘Prayer During the Day’ (some suggestions are made in the introduction).
  • Night Prayer’, which is the Church of England’s contemporary version of the ‘Compline’ service, traditionally offered in monasteries last thing at night. I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t like Compline, and this modern version of it keeps all the features we’ve come to love over the years, but updates the language and structure a bit.

Morning and Evening Prayer can be ‘ho hum’ sometimes, but so far for me ‘Prayer During the Day’ and ‘Night Prayer’ have been spot on. I hope that the Anglican Book Centre in Toronto gets some copies of this little book very soon, and makes them widely available in Canada. I think this book could do a lot to help people who are struggling with the discipline of daily prayer.

Sabbatical Report #6: More on ‘Post-Christendom’.

Stuart Murray: Post-Christendom – my own reflections

Having given two posts over to a summary of Stuart’s book, I now want to offer some of my own reflections on the subject, interacting with some of his arguments and applying them to my own situation.

Are the ecumenical creeds adequate statements of faith?

I’m personally intrigued by Stuart’s insight that Christendom emerged at a very formative time theologically for the early church – the time of the ecumenical councils. The Council of Nicea (which produced the first draft of the Nicene Creed) was presided over by Constantine, an unbaptised emperor who wanted a unified religion for his empire. But as Stuart reflects, the historical Jesus would have been a very uncomfortable figure for a powerful empire to swallow! His teaching about loving your enemies, about not storing up treasure for yourself on earth, about caring for the poor and needy, about the greatest among you being your servant – all of this and more besides would have been a real challenge to the empire. And so, as Stuart records, as Christendom began to take hold there was an increased emphasis on the worship of the majestic Christ and a decreased emphasis on actually following his counter-cultural life and teachings. This is exemplified in the Creeds – Nicene and Apostles’ – which have absolutely no mention of his life and teaching at all – they go straight from his birth to his death.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to abandon the Nicene Creed, but on the other hand I do have new questions about the adequacy of these creeds: are there vital things that they miss out? ‘Jesus is Lord’, the earliest creed, was simpler and more direct – it claimed things for Jesus, not just our worship and belief, but also our absolute obedience above all other authorities. The practice of discipleship is every bit as fundamental to the church as belief in the divinity of Christ.

Isn’t it funny how we’ve made some things non-negotiable as Christians? To most Christians, Sunday churchgoing has become a non-negotiable – all Christians should come to church on Sundays, that’s how you tell they are Christians (even though in our modern society our attendance is often more sporadic than it used to be). But caring for the poor and needy, or living a simple life without storing up for yourself treasures on earth, have not become non-negotiable – even though they are commands of Jesus. Churchgoing you must do if you want the church to consider you a good Christian, but following Jesus has become optional. In things like confirmation instruction we put far more time and energy into teaching doctrines about Jesus and his church than we do into actually talking about the way of life he taught us.

Church hierarchy

I don’t know enough detail about the history to be able to test the historical accuracy of Stuart’s statements about the development of hierarchy. His point of view seems to be that the church hierarchy developed along the same lines as the civic administration of the empire. The sharp division of clergy and laity, the emphasizing of clerical role through titles, ornate robes, liturgical roles etc. would all go along with this.

The New Testament of course does have roles (pastor, apostle, prophet, evangelist), but the fundamental concept is the priesthood of all believers and the equipping of all God’s people for the work of ministry. There is no hard and fast distinction between clergy and laity – all Christians are the laos (people) of God, and all are called (kleros) to serve him in ministry.

By coincidence (if there is such a thing!), this past two Sundays I have worshipped at two Anglican churches in which no robes or clerical collars are worn, and in which no clergy titles are used. Also ‘lay people’ (so-called) share in the leadership of worship with no distinction of title or dress being made between them and ‘clergy’, only the bare minimum of role distinction being made in order to make it a legal Anglican service.

I like this. I want to go further with it, not because it tickles my fancy, but because I think it’s biblical Christianity.


I’ve grown up with the experience of Sunday as a state-sanctioned day of rest, but this has been eroding throughout my lifetime and will probably continue to erode for the rest of my life. Sunday will be a working day like any other day by the time I retire – I’m fairly sure of this.

There’s a part of this that I think it is legitimate to mourn. God has created us as beings who need rest, and the concept of one day off in seven to rest and recreate is a good one. And we Christians need to speak prophetically about this, given the mad rush of our society into longer and longer working hours. Balance is important.

But state support of the Christian holy day is a Christendom thing that the early Christians did not enjoy. They got up early on the Lord’s Day and worshipped together before the working day began. This took determination and commitment on their part. I have to live and teach the same determination and commitment.

Buildings, congregations, wealth.

Massive and ornate church buildings date from the time of Constantine; they are not an obvious part of the New Testament which does not require Christians to have a church building to meet in at all. In fact, as the early Christians met in houses, everything essential to New Testament Christian worship must be doable in a living room! Furthermore, the diversion of massive amounts of cash for the building and maintenance of these structures is surely a departure from the teachings of the revolutionary Christ who told us to sell our possessions and give to the poor and needy. To those who say ‘But this is a way of honouring the Lord’, the answer surely is ‘The Lord we read about in the New Testament doesn’t want to be honoured in this way; he wants to be honoured and loved by honouring and loving ‘the least of these my brethren’.

What Christendom vestiges still continue in my own context? I can think of the following:

  • Many Canadians still have the idea that ‘Canada is a Christian country’. This is especially the case in the context of discussions about immigration and about immigrants being open about their own religious traditions and practices. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Christendom crowd that when the first European settlers moved to Turtle Island (as First Nations people call North America), we newcomers were very strong in imposing our own religious traditions and practices on the local inhabitants! Now the shoe is on the other foot!
  • As a ‘priest’, I am still called on to provide religious ceremonies for the population at large – ceremonies which imply that those who take part in them are Christians and church members. This includes infant baptism of people who are not regular members of our church community or (as far as I can see) followers of Jesus; weddings for people who have no intention of becoming a part of our congregation, and funerals for people who had no faith at all. I am not saying that we ought not to minister to people who are not Christians or churchgoers; rather, that our ministry should take the form of evangelism and works of mercy and love, not ceremonies that assume faith and membership, where there is no real faith and membership. What is the New Testament justification for officiating at weddings and funerals of non-Christian people?
  • Church people continue to assume that their neighbours are all potential churchgoers, and that if ‘we want our church to grow’, all we have to do is build a nice church building and be welcoming of people who drop in to try us out. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to us that the vast majority have absolutely no interest in trying us out and will never be evangelized unless we take the initiative and go to them.
  • As Stuart points out, a lot of Anglican churches have flags and military paraphernalia in them – though not as many as in Europe or the USA. Certainly the vast majority of Christian denominations in Canada endorse the just war theory.
  • The church continues to enjoy tax privileges based on the assumption that giving to support churches is ‘charitable giving’.

Practical steps we might consider trying.

  • De-emphasising the church building. In Christendom it was seen as ‘the house of God’, needing to be kept ‘holy’ for worship, and religious activities were imprisoned within its walls. Today a lot of time and money still goes into buildings. But perhaps it’s time to step back from that. Two of my own personal preferences would be: (a) replacing the pews with chairs so that we can use the worship space for more than just Sunday worship, and (b) moving meetings and groups out of the building and into homes or cafés – including vestry, committee meetings, Bible studies and so on, and especially finding alternative venues for ‘Christian Basics’.
  • Long-term, relational evangelism. Christian people need to learn multiple ways of sharing the gospel with their non-Christian friends in a conversational, non-confrontational way. We need to emphasise ‘going’ to share the gospel rather than waiting for people to come to us. This means that every member must be equipped to be a witness.
  • More experimentation around inquirers’ courses, including things like ‘Agnostics Anonymous’ and groups in which people’s questions set the agenda, and in which conversation is the main tool, not formal presentation.
  • A strong emphasis on the teaching and example of Jesus and the counter-cultural nature of his Way – openly and unapologetically inviting people into a lifestyle which contravenes dominant social values. This will include, as a community, practical caring for the poor and needy and finding more and more ways to live that out.
  • Being willing to experiment with forms of outreach and worship, challenging the requirement of uniformity that Anglicanism still promotes, constantly being on the lookout for things that work in our context and are also faithful to the Gospel.
  • Continued experimentation with dialogue sermons, including starting with questions, ending with questions, asking for questions, taking questions seriously. Perhaps allowing people to submit written topics and questions to be considered in sermons.
  • Going as far as we possibly can in the direction of multi-voiced worship. Stressing not just lay-readers but others being up front and leading. Having a churchwarden or vestry member do the announcement time. Getting as many different people as possible involved in music, reading, praying etc.
  • Exploring conflict-resolution and teaching and practicing Matthew 18:15-20 (look it up!).