A Peculiar People


Rodney Clapp: A Peculiar People

Rodney Clapp, a former associate editor of Christianity Today (the flagship evangelical journal in North America), is an Anglican who has been strongly influenced by Anabaptism – especially by the writings of John Howard Yoder, who he quotes extensively in the earlier part of this book. In fact, I suspect that he would not be displeased if the title of this blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican’, were to be applied to him. That, of course, made this a very interesting book for me.

The last phrase of the book is a good summary of its theme: ‘church as a way of life’. This is a book about the church in post-Christendom, and Rodney Clapp has fully accepted John Yoder’s criticism of Christendom and all that it stood for. What makes the book particularly interesting is his awareness of the potential of the liturgy and the sacraments to form post-Christendom disciples. This is an emphasis that is missing in Yoder (although other Anabaptists such as Alan and Ellie Kreider are aware of it).

Rodney begins by talking about the end of Christendom, or, in his phrase, ‘How Christians became useless’. In a post-Christendom age, he says, the church has become like a chaplain on the bridge of a ship in danger; we want to feel that we’re useful, but we’re haunted by a sneaking suspicion that we’re just getting in the way. He continues by telling the story of Christendom, quoting heavily from Yoder’s ‘The Royal Priesthood’. There follow chapters on two responses to the end of Christendom: on the one hand, the privatization of spirituality, and on the other, the desire to re-assert the Christendom idea of a ‘Christian nation’.

Rodney’s theme is that the church is called to be a distinct culture in its own right – ‘church as a way of life’ – and as the book progresses he discusses different aspects of that way of life. Christianity is inescapably communal – in fact, the modern idea of the ‘autonomous individual’ is an anachronism when applied to the biblical story. Worship is the central activity of this community; worship, he says, is ‘practice in learning to see through common sense’ and glimpse the real world beyond, the world as God sees it. Baptism, in which we take on a new loyalty to Christ, is truly an act of civil disobedience, preaching gives us a new language with which to describe our lives, and the Eucharist not only proclaims Christ’s cross but also shows us to be a fundamentally egalitarian people – ‘one of the key questions attached to eating is “Who eats with whom?”’

There is much more. In the chapter entitled ‘Church as Parade’ he tells the story of two parades – the Palm Sunday processions in his Episcopal Church, which proclaim the message of Jesus the suffering servant, and the militaristic Fourth of July parades in which many American Christians participate, which convey triumphalism and the message that military might is the key to America’s strength, and promote the idea that violence is the best way to solve real problems. In ‘The Church as Listening Community’ he asserts the importance of communal reading of scripture (private Bible reading, he asserts, is second-best and should not be the centerpiece of the devotional life as it so often is in the evangelical world), but beyond this, what he calls ‘the performance of scripture’: ‘And so it is that Scripture is genuinely respected and obeyed only in community. And so it is that Scripture really has authority only when it is performed and not merely applied’. Further chapters discuss the church’s engagement with the world, its post-Christendom (non-triumphalistic) mission and evangelism, and the church as a community of friends.

Rodney Clapp is an American and so writes from that perspective; some of the things that he has to say are specific to the peculiar situation of the church in the United States, a nation which seems particularly susceptible to the temptation of Constantinianism. However, this does not detract from the power of his vision of the call of the church to be a culture, an alternative society living a distinctive way of life in a post-Christendom world. He combines an Anabaptist awareness of the dangers of Constantinianism with a catholic vision of the power of Christian community, liturgy and sacraments to shape Christian disciples for mission. I found this a perceptive and inspiring book which renewed my hope in the potential of my Anglican form of Christianity, despite its Constantinian heritage, as a venue for genuine discipleship.

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ – Part Eight

Is there something of a convergence going on between Anglicanism and Anabaptism? Perhaps that might be too much to claim. However, I would argue that the Anglican family of churches has become a much more congenial place to practice an Anabaptist understanding of Christianity than it once was, and is definitely far more congenial to Anabaptism than many other denominational families. Let me outline a few points where I see some convergence and some interesting dialogue taking place.

First, both our traditions emphasise the incarnation. As I have already outlined in this series, the Anabaptist tradition places the highest emphasis on Jesus – on his life and teachings as the interpretive centre of the Bible and the focus for Christian life. The Bible is to be interpreted according to Jesus, who is God’s final Word, and Christian living consists in putting the teachings and example of Jesus into practice.

But this is a big part of the Anglican tradition as well. It’s certainly present liturgically; whatever else we read when we get together for worship on Sundays, we always read from the Gospels, and we make that reading the high point of our celebration of God’s Word by standing to mark our respect for Jesus and his words. In many of our churches, the gospel is read from the centre of the congregation – a reminder that the Word of God did not stay safely in heaven but came down among us as one of us – and the people turn toward the reader to hear the Word.

But emphasis on the incarnation is strong in our theology as well. We understand it to mean that God has not rejected the material world but has come among us as one of us, thus hallowing our human nature and all the created order with it. Inspired by this, Anglicans have tended not to be as world-rejecting as some other Christians – we have embraced the material world, for instance, and have rejoiced in human culture as a good gift of God.

However, while there is some convergence here, there is also a subtle difference between this approach and the Anabaptist emphasis. John Howard Yoder spells it out in an address he gave to a group of Episcopalians:


It is especially from the Anglican tradition that the rest of us have learned something of the pervasive intellectual power of the idea of incarnation. It has been a most impressive vision, to say that all human concerns have been divinely sanctioned and hallowed by God’s coming among us, taking on our flesh. Gardening and the weather, our work and our family, the total fabric of our society – economics and warfare, have been bathed in the light of God’s presence. All of humanity is now seen to be good, wholesome, holy. This seems to a non-Episcopalian to be a deceptively incomplete way of saying something that is nonetheless deeply true. When God came into human society, God did not approve of and sanction everything, in “normal, healthy, human society”; God did not make of all human activity, not even of all well-intentioned human activity, a means of grace. There are some loyalties and practices in human community that God rejected when God came among us… The pattern of faithfulness is one of genuine obedience in human experience – which we may well call Incarnation; but it is always also a break with the continuities of human civilization and the loyalties of local human societies, which we call Election or Exodus. When we then speak of incarnation it must not mean God sanctifying our society and our vocations as they are, but rather God’s reaching into human reality to say what we must do and what we must leave behind.

In other words, if I may make a dangerous generalization: while Anabaptists and Anglicans both emphasise the Incarnation, Anglicans tend to emphasise it as God’saffirmation of the created order and of human life and culture, whereas Anabaptists tend to emphasise it as God’s demonstration to us of what he intended human life to be like, thus giving us direction about those activities we should turn away from and those which we should turn towards.

Second, both our traditions emphasise Christianity as a community activity. The foundational document of Anglicanism is a book called The Book of Common Prayer; ‘common’ here means not ‘ordinary’ but ‘prayers we pray together’. Unlike many of the more recent evangelical traditions, our tradition has not tended to emphasise the priority of private prayer and Bible reading. For us, the prayer together on Sunday is the primary prayer of Christians, where the Word is read and preached, prayers are offered, bread and wine are shared. And for some of us, this extends into the week as we meet together with small groups for the Daily Office, or in more informal groups for prayer and Bible study.

In the Anabaptist tradition too, the community is central. As a ‘free church’ tradition, Anabaptism protested against the idea that all of the citizens living in a geographical parish should be considered to be ‘the church’ in that area. While they emphasized the choice of the individual to become a follower of Jesus, they placed an equal emphasis on the church as a gathered community of disciples of Jesus, supporting one another, teaching one another, and even admonishing one another.

In the best examples of Anglican and Anabaptist practice, neither of our traditions has been content for this idea to remain just untested theory; we have wanted to put it into practice. In Anabaptism this has shown itself in two ways: in mutual aid, and in the practice of brotherly and sisterly admonition. Mutual aid is the term Anabaptists used historically for the responsibility of the members of the church to give financial and material support to those of their number who needed it. Whether or not a particular Anabaptist group practiced literal community of possessions (as the Hutterites did), all were agreed that a Christian’s goods were not his or her own private possession, but were entrusted to them by God for the good of the whole community.

Brotherly and sisterly admonition is also a strong part of the Anabaptist tradition. It is not faithfulness, they would argue, for us to see a sister or brother living in unrepentant sin and not to speak to them about it. Anabaptists emphasized what Martin Luther called ‘The Law of Christ’ in Matthew 18:15-20 – if you see your sister or brother in sin, go and speak to them about it, just between yourselves. If they don’t listen take a couple of others along and try again. If they still don’t listen, tell it to the church. Anabaptists understood that in becoming followers of Jesus they were committing themselves to this process; their early baptismal promises included an indication of their willingness both to give and to receive this admonition.


Historically, Anglicanism too has rejected the idea that each person is master of their own soul and that the rest of us should just mind our own business. Our earliest prayer books have contained rubrics about Christian discipline: what the priest is to do if he (in those days it was always ‘he’) perceives members of his congregation to be at odds with each other or to be living in sin (which in practice often meant sexual sin). A procedure for the denial of communion to the unrepentant parties is laid out in theBook of Common Prayer – and has occasionally still been practiced in my lifetime, although it is now very rare.

Both Anglicanism and Anabaptism have had problems with our traditions at this point. The Anabaptist practice of ‘the ban’ – the exclusion from the community of those who refuse to listen to brotherly or sisterly admonition – has often been used in unjust and pharisaical ways – as a means of judgement rather than as a way of winning back the brother or sister, as Jesus describes it. Similar problems have been perceived in the practice of excommunication as outlined in the Book of Common Prayer. And, frankly, both practices have run up against the modern heresy of individualism, which says that my soul is my own and is no one else’s business, and if my fellow-Christians don’t leave me alone to do what I think is right I’ll go and find another church, one that will respect my individual freedoms. The outcome has been that both traditions have tended to go to the other extreme and abandon the older practices altogether – with the result that individual Christians are often left to navigate the Christian life on the strength of their own (naturally selfish and limited) insights and impulses, rather than with the guidance of a loving and disciplined community.

I have outlined two ways in which there is convergence between Anglicanism and Anabaptism – in our understanding of the centrality of Jesus, and in our view of the Christian life as fundamentally communal. In the next section I will discuss three more areas of convergence – the church as a distinct community from the world, conversion as a personal response to the gospel, and social justice and care for the poor and needy as an integral part of the Christian life.

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ – Part Seven

(This section is based on an article by Alan Kreider in the book ‘Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland’).

The name that was used for these persecuted refugees from Flanders, the name ‘Anabaptist’, was a name given them by those who persecuted them. In the long story of the Christian church, it was a name with a history. In the early Christian centuries it was used for the Donatist heretics, who rebaptized those who had already been baptized by clergy they considered to be apostate. At the time of the Donatist controversy it was made a capital offence to rebaptize someone, and those who did so were called ‘Anabaptists’. This name was purposely revived in the 16th century so that the death sentence could be imposed on the ‘Brethren’, or the ‘Defenceless Christians’ – two of the names they actually used for themselves.

But in 16th century England the title was used very loosely. As Alan Kreider says, ‘there were many people who called others, whom they didn’t like, Anabaptists. “Anabaptist” was the way that one stigmatized someone whose social or theological stance was more radical than one’s own. But everyone in the period agreed: there were no English Anabaptist congregations, and there were very few English Anabaptists’. The persecuted Flemings in prison concurred with this; they wrote:


They pretend there are so many thousands of us in the country, who want to take possession of countries and cities; whereas no such thoughts have entered into our hearts, for it is impossible to take possession of countries and cities without violence and bloodshed… We have not so easy a faith, that they flock to us in crowds; only here and there may be a household, which are very solitary.

Nevertheless, fear of Anabaptism was widespread, and opposition to it was famously incorporated into the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles, as follows:


The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast.

It seemed that everyone wanted to make sure others knew that they weren’t Anabaptists. Contemporary Baptist theologian Nigel Wright is fond of saying, “When Baptists want to appear respectable they talk about their Puritan roots; when they want to appear radical they talk about their Anabaptist heritage – and most of the time most Baptists have wanted to appear respectable!”

But why did the established Church of England in the 16th century see these people as such a threat? Alan Kreider points to the concern for social cohesion at the time, the fear of a Muenster-like revolution, despite the fact that all parts of the Anabaptist movement had repudiated the ethics and social strategy of Muenster. In 1575 it seemed that the moderate Protestantism represented by the Queen and the Church of England was on the ascendancy, but extremists on both sides were simply biding their time, as the civil war of the next century showed. For the stability of the country it was felt to be necessary to maintain the underlying assumptions of Christendom, and it was precisely these assumptions that the Anabaptists seemed to be challenging.

Alan Kreider lists six areas of disagreement between the Anabaptists and their Anglican persecutors.

First, heresy. The Anabaptists knew that the leaders of the Church of England referred to them as ‘heretics’. And indeed there was some justification for this. The first article which the Bishop of London demanded that they sign referred to a bizarre doctrine called ‘The celestial flesh of Christ’ – the idea that Christ got his human flesh not from the Virgin Mary but directly from heaven. This teaching was adopted by Dutch Anabaptists, including Melchior Hoffman and Menno Simons, although most 16th century Anabaptists repudiated it, and Mennonites have long since abandoned it.

But as Alan Kreider points out, ‘the church authorities viewed an amateurly constructed statement on the incarnation as heresy to be extirpated at all costs, but they did not consider their own behaviour to be a deviation from the gospel or from the earliest Christian traditions’. To the Anabaptists, doctrine was not just a matter of theory, but of walking as Christ walked. And judged by this light, how was it, they asked, that persecution is not wrong teaching? Why isn’t persecution heresy?

Second, establishment. To the Anabaptists the Church of England was an alliance with the civil power; as Bishop Sandys put it in one of his sermons, “One God, one king, one faith, one profession, is fit for one monarchy and commonwealth”. But to the Anabaptists this was an unacceptable path for Christian disciples; being a Christian meant submitting to the Lordship of Jesus and evaluating all other allegiances in the light of that primary allegiance. And to them, whether or not Queen Elizabeth really knew Jesus, it seemed plain that she embodied policies which seemed to disobey him, policies of violence and persecution. Furthermore, it seemed clear to them that the Church of England, in submitting itself to the English state, was compromising its loyalty to Jesus at several key points such as the use of violence, the swearing of oaths, and the persistence of huge differences in wealth and power between the rich and the poor.

Third, ecclesiology. To the Anabaptists, membership in the Church of England was based on compulsion: everyone in England was legally required to belong to it, and many who were thus declared its members by law were in fact behaving in ways that were incompatible with Christian discipleship. To the Anabaptists this was an inevitable result of compulsion; it doesn’t produce committed disciples who will live out the way of Jesus. The true church, in contrast, would be made up of volunteers who would commit themselves of their own free will to following Jesus together, and thus within every nation would live the life of a community of resident aliens.

Fourth, baptism. The Anabaptists saw infant baptism as yet another instance of religious compulsion. Baptism was important to them, and in their minds it was a matter of Christian obedience to follow the biblical order of first evangelism, second faith and baptism, and third teaching, an order that, to them, precluded infant baptism. But perhaps the most telling of their complaints is found in a little aside in one of their letters, where they say of their persecutors, “They accuse us of being disobedient to the magistrate, because we do not have our children baptized”. Baptism, to them, could not possibly be a matter of compulsion, either for parents or for their ‘speechless children’, as they called them.

Fifth, hermeneutics. The Anabaptists saw their Anglican persecutors as having an inconsistent way of interpreting the Bible. Bishop Sandys and his fellow-clergy appealed to Deuteronomy 13:5: “It is the Lord’s commandment; let the false prophet die”. But if Deuteronomy were to be the law for Christians, the Anabaptists reasoned, “we would have to kill not only the false prophets, but also the adulterers, whoremongers, and those who take the name of the Lord in vain and curse”. In contrast, the Anabaptists had adopted an alternative hermeneutic whereby the words and the way of Jesus provided the interpretive key to the rest of the Scriptures; everything else was judged by their light.

Sixth, learning and status. The Anabaptists viewed themselves as simple poor folk and saw the representatives of the Church of England as their social and intellectual betters. Nonetheless, throughout the whole process of their imprisonment and trial they held onto their self-respect. Alan Kreider comments:


They were holding on, it seems to me, to the intuition that they could see things that others were missing. The gospel talks about persecution, but never about imposing it; persecution, as numerous New Testament texts pointed out which the Anabaptists never tired of quoting, is the price of following Jesus seriously. Thus the Anabaptists could, perhaps with a wry smile, appropriate to themselves the Pauline self-designation – “the off-scouring of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:13). And we might, as we contemplate their day and ours, begin to ask, “In what social setting can one best read the Bible with understanding? Is there perhaps a hermeneutical privilege of the ‘off-scoured’?

So the initial contact between Anabaptism and Anglicanism did not have a happy ending, and although in the next century there came to be Baptist congregations in England, some of which had some contacts with Dutch Mennonites, nevertheless for three hundred years the distinctive Anabaptist voice was silent in Britain.

But in recent years that situation has changed, and I would also argue that subtle shifts in the Anglican ethos over the years have made Anglicanism a much more congenial place to practice an Anabaptist understanding of Christianity than it once was. Of this, more in the next section…

A Great Read on the Aircraft


Billy Bragg: The Progressive Patriot

I picked this book up in ‘Borders’ at Heathrow Airport this morning and read it on the flight back to Edmonton, finishing it about half an hour before we landed. It was a great read.

Billy Bragg is a year older than me. He was born and brought up in Barking, which used to be an Essex town but now is part of the greater London area. I spent my teenage years in southeast Essex. I first caught a whiff of the magic of folk music when my friend Steve Palmer lent me his copy of ‘Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits’, and the first songs I worked hard at learning to play were the songs on the album. Surprise, surprise, Billy Bragg also fell under the spell of ‘The Boxer’, ‘Scarborough Fair’, ‘Kathy’s Song’ and all the rest. For Billy, the folk music trail took him through Bob Dylan and back to the deep wells of English traditional music as performed by masters like the Watersons and Martin Carthy. It’s taken me a bit longer, but I’ve finally followed the trail back there as well.

For obvious music reasons, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. but nonetheless, it’s not primarily a book about music; it’s about being English without being bigoted and narrow and right-wing. Billy traces the progressive tradition in English political life back to Magna Carta, through the civil war and the Diggers and the Levellers, the glorious revolution with the Bill of Rights, the Chartists and the early days of the trade union movement. The genius of English politics, he says, is that we’ve never been comfortable giving our rulers absolute power over us. Dissent and resistance to oppression has been part of the English tradition for centuries!

Billy’s political vision lays a lot of emphasis on human rights, and in the past I’ve been one who has been wary of this approach, as I think it too easily becomes individualistic. But Billy is not individualistic; he’s about fairness, and everyone getting a chance in life, and the fact that its better if we work together as a collective to make sure everyone gets cared for, rather than leaving it to the cut-throat world of the faceless markets (and the venture capitalists who benefit from them) (yes, if you hadn’t guessed it already, the man’s a committed socialist – and no fan of New Labour either).

Billy celebrates the fact that, while the English class system has not disappeared, it has become irrelevant to the question of whether or not people get a chance to succeed in life. And his great passion is to look forward to the day when the same can be said in England about race (one of the most fascinating sections of the first half of the book is his historical survey of all the different strands which actually make up ‘Englishness’ – multiculturalism is by no means a new thing!).

I loved this book. I’ve enjoyed Billy Bragg’s music for a long time, and I’ve always resonated with the message he tries to communicate through his songs, but now I’ve gained a fresh appreciation for the passion that drives him and the wells from which he has drunk for inspiration. And I hear he’s playing at Greenbelt this year! Too bad they don’t do a Canadian edition…

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ Part Six

I now want to tell the story of the first recorded contact between the Anglican tradition and the Anabaptist movement, and I need to say at the beginning that my account will essentially be a summary of what Alan Kreider has written in his essay ‘When Anabaptists were last in the British Isles’ in the book Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland.

In April 1575 a small group of refugees from Flanders gathered on Easter morning in a private home to hear the Word of God and to pray. The group comprised fifteen women, ten men, and a young lad. But some of their neighbours had gotten suspicious about them; at nine o’clock there was a knock on the door, and there stood the constable and some beadles, who arrested the group and took them to the Mersey prison.


A few days later they were visited by Edwin Sandys, bishop of London, by two aldermen and four preachers, who confronted them with four articles that they must sign or be burnt at the stake. The articles were:

  1. That Christ had assumed his flesh and blood from the substance of the flesh and blood of Mary.
  2. That infants ought to be baptized.
  3. That a Christian might administer the office of a magistrate, and
  4. That a Christian might swear an oath.

They replied cautiously at the time, and over the next few weeks increasing pressure was brought to bear on them. They were kept in solitary confinement and were visited by church officials who continued to press them to sign the articles. Five of the men eventually recanted, but the rest held firm.

Five weeks after their arrest a Commission was appointed to examine them, including two bishops, two deans and several civic officials. When the prisoners still refused to recount they were separated; the women and the lad were sent to Newgate, the prison for those confined for capital crimes, where the pressure on them continued. Eventually this group was carted to a ship and deported to Holland; the young lad was tied to the front of the cart and whipped along the way.

Meanwhile attempts were made to forestall the execution of the male prisoners; overtures were made by the Dutch and French congregations in London and by John Foxe, the famous martyrologist, who disagreed with the Anabaptists but felt that it was wrong to persecute them. On June 2nd Bishop Sandys called them before his Episcopal court and threatened them with burning. When they refused to sign the four articles, he proceeded to expel them from his church. Hendrick Terwoort, one of the prisoners, said, ‘How can you expel us from your church, where we have never yet been one of you?’ Sandys replied that ‘in England there is no one who is not a member of God’s church’. He then condemned them all to death and handed them over to the secular arm.

They were taken to Newgate and put in a deep dungeon, where they were placed in cages so that they could not even converse with their neighbours. And in the end it was Queen Elizabeth who pressed the issue of their execution; she ordered Lord Chancellor Bacon to prepare the writ ‘for the execution of justice… and to give example to others lest they should attempt the like hereafter’.

One of the prisoners died of the privations of prison life, but of July 22nd 1575 the oldest two, Jan Pieterss and Hendrick Terwoort, were burned at Smithfield in the slowest way possible, without strangulation or gunpowder. Hendrick Terwoort was 35 and had been married for six months. Jan Pieterss was 50 years old; his first wife had been burned at the stake in Ghent, and together he and she left nine children to the care of his second wife, whose first husband had also previously been burned in Ghent for his Anabaptist faith. The other two prisoners were eventually released; as Alan Kreider says, evidently Elizabeth and her councilors felt that the two executions had made their point.

We know about these events because the Anabaptists left letters and accounts, and other people saved copies of their letters to the Queen and to John Foxe. All of these and other documents were passed down to Dutch Mennonites and were eventually included in the Mennonite equivalent of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the massive‘Martyrs’ Mirror’ compiled by the Dutch Mennonite preacher Thielemann van Braght in the 17th century.

What were the points of disagreement between these simple Flanders refugees and the established Church of England? And why was the Anglican establishment so afraid of them? Stay tuned…

Sabbatical Report #23: Time to Mosey On Home

It’s hard to believe that it will be thirteen weeks on Monday since I got on a plane in Edmonton and flew over to Heathrow to begin my sabbatical leave. On Monday I’ll be getting on another one at Heathrow and flying home.

The sabbatical has been wonderful, in all sorts of ways:

  • The incredible hospitality of the folks at the London Mennonite Centre, who welcomed me into their community and went out of their way to make my stay comfortable and my reading useful.
  • The opportunity to spend extended periods of time with family and friends, especially with my Mum and Dad, my brother and his family, my aunts and uncles and my cousin Angela, Jan and Mark and Adam and Komi, Steve and Alicia and Matilda and Will, Ken and Kath and the old crowd down in Southminster. Especially, the privilege of participating in my Mum and Dad’s 50th wedding anniversary on May 19th, and of having Marci and three of our four children here for it – the first time Marci had been in England with me since 1989.
  • The hospitality of the folks from the Anabaptist Network, at conferences and seminars and study group meetings and individual conversations.
  • The incredible experience of six days down in Southminster, my old home town, and still the spot I love more than any other in England.
  • A chance to meet blogging friends like Sam, Paul, Peter, Graham, and Richard.
  • Reading, reading, and more reading.
  • John Howard Yoder; need I say more?
  • Time to be a tourist in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Stamford, Peterborough, etc. etc.

I could go on. but it’s time to go now; it’s six and a half weeks since I said goodbye to Marci and the kids at King’s Cross Station, and that’s long enough. Time to go home, have some family time, and then get down to work putting this stuff into practice.

Not that this blog will finish. It won’t be called my ‘sabbatical blog’ any more, but I’ll be continuing my exploration of the dialogue between my Anglican and Anabaptist sides, sharing more book reviews and so on. Especially I’ll continue the series I just started, ‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’

Tomorrow I leave Oakham at 2.03 p.m., travelling to Maidenhead by way of Birmingham and Reading. Then on Monday I fly out of Heathrow at 12.05 p.m. and get into Edmonton at about 2.30 p.m. local time.

I’ll talk to you all at the other end!

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ – Part Five

There is not time or space for me to recount in any detail the long story of the Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish from the 16th century to the present day. For those who are interested in pursuing it, I highly recommend Cornelius J. Dyck’s highly readable book An Introduction to Mennonite History. All I can do in the context of this article is to sum up some trends, and I will do so using the following words: Migration, Isolation, Fragmentation, Assimilation, and Engagement.

First, migration. To read the continuing history of the descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists is to read a story of migrations. How does it happen that in Canada today you can still meet older people who live in an Anglophone society, but who describe themselves as Russian Mennonites, even though the ancestral language they speak is not Russian but Low German? The answer to that question is in the one word: migration.

Simply put, the Anabaptists were hard pressed to find a society that would allow them to practice the way of life they had chosen for themselves. The freedom to opt out of the Christendom system, and especially to opt out of military service, was a rare thing in 16th century Europe, and continued to be a rarity in the centuries to come. Most of the early Anabaptist leaders died young. I have heard it said that throughout the Reformation period in Europe and England approximately ten thousand people were executed for their religious beliefs. Even in the places where their movement was the strongest, the Anabaptists never made up more than ten percent of the population, but they make up more than fifty percent of the martyrs! Persecuted by Catholic and Protestant alike, they eventually migrated to places where they could find sympathetic princes or governments who would let them live in peace. In the early years Strasbourg was one such place, and the territory of lords of Lichtenstein was another. In the 17th century many Mennonites moved to Poland, where their skill as engineers who knew how to drain waterlogged land made them very useful in the draining of the Vistula delta. In the 19th century large numbers of Mennonites moved to Russia, where they were able to negotiate an exemption from military service and the freedom to educate their own children as they chose. They lived there for a century, preserving their distinction from the society around them by means of their ancestral language, low German. But in the 20th century with the communist takeover in Russia, persecution began again, and many fled for refuge to Canada, the United States, and South America.

In many cases the negotiations for safe places to live involved the Mennonites in some compromises. The most telling one, in light of early Anabaptist history, was the willingness not to try to convert others to their beliefs. And so the greatest evangelists in Europe gradually became ‘the quiet in the land’, content to live by themselves and bring up their children in their ancestral beliefs. This leads to the second word,isolation.

Separation from the world had been part of the Anabaptist theological understanding from the beginning of the movement. They understood that their primary loyalty was not to an earthly ruler or to a nation state, but to Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom. They understood that being followers of Jesus meant that they were committed to a different way of life.

As Mennonite history progressed, however, this separation from the world began to take on a geographical and cultural dimension which has become so strong that in the twentieth century there has even been a serious discussion in Mennonite circles about whether the term ‘Mennonite’ is primarily a religious or cultural/ethnic term. In order to preserve their distinctive way of life Mennonites grouped themselves in their own villages and settlements (in the case of the Hutterites, in their own colonies, where they had all things in common); they ran their own schools, married only amongst themselves, spoke Low German in ordinary life and High German in worship. They did not attempt to influence the political or social life of the world around them, and of course took no part in its wars. They tended to look for isolated places to live – the Russian steppes, or the Canadian prairies – where they could exist as ‘the quiet in the land’. And because they were frugal and hard working, their farms often prospered and became the envy of the people around them.

Something rather interesting was happening here. Anabaptism had begun as a protest movement against the idea of Christendom – the idea that church and society were one, and that every member of a given society was also a Christian and a church member. Early Anabaptists protested that the decision to become a Christian should be a free adult decision, made with no compulsion from the society around. However, as John Howard Yoder has pointed out, over time the Mennonite farming communities became little Christendoms of their own, with community decisions made at church meetings, with social institutions such as schooling under effective church control, and so on. And once again, as in the days of the Christian empire, the heathen were seen as living ‘out there’ on the edges of the new Constantinian communities.

A third characteristic of Mennonite history is fragmentation. To an Anglican, brought up with a story of a church which values visible unity and has a long history of hanging together – sometimes very uncomfortably – despite disagreements, the proliferation of Mennonite denominations can be bewildering. The Mennonite Church, the General Conference Mennonite Church, the North West Conference, the Evangelical Mennonite Church, the Mennonite Brethren – and so it goes on; there are literally hundreds of Mennonite denominations around the world today. How did this happen? My observation as an outsider would be that two things were involved: perfectionism and renewal.

First, perfectionism. One of the strengths of Anabaptism has been its high ideals for individual and church life, but paradoxically, this has also been one of its weaknesses. Anabaptism has not dealt well with imperfection and failure.

In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus gives instructions to his followers that if they see someone in sin, they are to go and talk to them about it; if this fails they are to go again with one or two witnesses, and if the sinner still does not listen, they are to tell it to the church. If the sinner refuses to listen to the church, then they should be treated ‘as a Gentile or a tax collector’. The purpose of this process is reconciliation and restoration of relationships, and in the early years of the Anabaptist movement this was so. However, this process very quickly came to be described as ‘the ban’, with the emphasis on the last stage, the exclusion or ‘banning’ of the unrepentant sinner. And within the lifetime of the first and second generations of Anabaptists, the ban was being used by leaders such as Menno Simons and David Joris against other leaders with whose views they disagreed. This continued throughout Mennonite history: over and over again, different groups excommunicated each other while seeing themselves as the true heirs of the authentic Anabaptist tradition.

But the other factor in the fragmentation of Anabaptism has been renewal. As in the history of monasticism, when Christian institutions become lukewarm and comfortable, God often seems to raise up new movements to fan the flame of the Spirit into life again. This has happened in Mennonite history, and often the new movements became new Mennonite denominations. In some cases in the 18th and 19th century the new movements attempted to import elements of other traditions into Anabaptism: for instance, the Mennonite Brethren began as a revivalistic movement which brought elements of evangelical pietism into the Anabaptist tradition. Of course, traditional Anabaptists often looked askance at this, and the new groups themselves responded by looking down on what they saw as the compromised and worldly churches they had left.

Migration, isolation, fragmentation – a fourth word is assimilation. Isolation was not the whole story amongst Mennonites. In some societies they were welcomed, and they prospered as integrated members of the community. One example of this would be the Netherlands in the 17th century where Mennonites lived in relative freedom and were respected members of their communities. As I said in my review of the bookThe Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, these Mennonites gradually opted to conform to the society around them, to dull the edge of simple living, nonviolence, and the refusal of the oath, and to become simply another pietistic form of Christianity like many others, giving no challenge to the structures of the world around them except by pointing toward a faith in Jesus which had very little bite to it. This story has a contemporary ring to it, and I suspect that Mennonites are far from being the only ones who have been tempted by it.

In recent years this has definitely been the temptation of Mennonites in North America as the isolation of the past has ended and as young people have moved to cities where they live at close quarters with everyone else. It has recently been observed in Canadian Mennonite magazine that the incidence of SUVs in the parking lots of Mennonite churches does not seem to be appreciably lower than in other churches. And it is a well known fact that during the Second World War many young Mennonite men – on both Allied and German sides – chose to ignore the convictions of their ancestors and enlist in the armed forces to fight for their country.

And this leads me to the fifth word: engagement. It is undeniable that in the past fifty years a huge change has taken place in the Mennonite world; the quiet in the land have begun to get noisy! A tradition which for centuries had lived in isolation has begun to think seriously and creatively about engaging with the world around it. Undoubtedly, this has partly to do with the fact that many Mennonites no longer live in isolated farm communities where they only rub shoulders with their own kind. But it has also to do with the subject of Harold Bender’s essay, with the recovery of the Anabaptist vision and the sense of having something worthwhile to say and show to the world.

Partly this engagement has taken the form of service and social action. And so the middle of the twentieth century saw the formation of the Mennonite Central Committee, which has evolved into a huge international organization engaging in relief and development work; it is also one of the bodies in which most Mennonite denominations are involved. Increasingly, at least in North America, Mennonites are turning away from their earlier refusal to be involved in civil government; they are engaging in political action, and some of them are running for elected office.

Another part of this engagement has been at the level of ideas and books, and in particular the influence of two American Mennonites, John Howard Yoder and Ronald J. Sider, must be acknowledged. John Howard Yoder, who died in 1997, was a Mennonite theologian who taught for many years at the University of Notre Dame; his 1972 book The Politics of Jesus (see my review here) had a huge influence, far beyond the Anabaptist tradition, and served as the first introduction to Anabaptist ideas for many people in other Christian traditions. His influence over non-Mennonite scholars and writers such as Stanley Hauerwas, Michael Cartwright, Richard Hays and James McClendon has been enormous. On a more popular level, Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger first came out in the 1970s and was highly influential in pointing many Christians to their responsibility to care for the poor. In the early 1980s Sider gave a highly influential speech to an international Mennonite gathering, calling for Anabaptists to be prepared to lay down their lives for peace just as soldiers were willing to lay down their lives in war. Out of that speech came the beginnings of the Christian Peacemaker Teams movement.

Migration, Isolation, Fragmentation, Assimilation, and Engagement; I hope that Mennonites would recognize their story in the five words I have used here, and that they will forgive me for some of the unavoidable generalizations I have made! But having (I hope) described the Anabaptist tradition in some detail, in the next section I want to begin to address the title of this series: What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism? And I want to begin to address this question by going back to the 16th century and telling the story of the first contact between the Anglican tradition and the Anabaptist movement…