I’m beginning the process of trying to sum up some of the learnings of my sabbatical leave, in a form which I hope I might eventually present to a clergy day in the Diocese of Edmonton and perhaps in some other venues as well. I hope to explore what Anabaptism actually is, how it has developed in the world today, and the things that we in the Anglican tradition can learn from it. In the process I also hope to answer the question my friend Graham Old left on an earlier post on this blog: ‘How are you still an Anglican?’
I’m going to post this in sections as it is very much a rough draft and is taking shape in my mind as I write it. I must also apologise that I will not be giving references to materials I quote as I’ve already mailed a lot of the books home to England and am quoting from memory!
Please feel free to leave comments, as always!
Here’s the first installment…
Anabaptist Anglican? How is that possible?
One of the churchwardens at St. Margaret’s, in explaining to the congregation what my sabbatical leave was going to be all about, explained that Anabaptism is ‘the spiritual movement represented in the world today by the Mennonite, Hutterite, and Amish traditions’. It seems difficult, on the face of it, to imagine what such traditions have to do with Anglicanism. On the one hand we have horses and buggies, little groups of pacifists who live in separated communities, speak German and practice adult baptism; on the other hand we have huge medieval cathedrals, ornate robes and elaborate liturgies, chaplains who bless battleships and archbishops who put crowns on the heads of queens. How is it possible for two such disparate traditions to connect?
That is the question I hope to answer in this presentation.
Let’s start by asking the question my churchwarden attempted to answer: What, actually, is Anabaptism? She explained that it is represented today by the ‘Mennonite, Hutterite, and Amish traditions’, and in a sense that is true; they are definitely the linear descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists. But I will argue that in some rather important ways their traditions are actually very different from the original ideals of their 16th century forebears. And I will also argue that some very unlikely people have a good claim to the name ‘Anabaptist’ today. J. Denny Weaver, in his book Becoming Anabaptist, argues that in different places in the world today there are people of many denominational backgrounds who are embracing some or all of the ideals of Anabaptism while remaining part of their own church families. Weaver sees these people as a legitimate part of the Anabaptist ‘family’.
So what makes someone ‘Anabaptist’? In the 1940s Harold Bender, a highly respected American Mennonite historian, addressed a group of scholars on the subject ‘The Anabaptist Vision’. Bender argued that the original vision of the 16th century Anabaptists could be summed up under three headings: discipleship as the essence of Christianity, a new conception of the church as a brotherhood rather than an institution, and a new ethic of love and nonviolence.
Let me unpack Bender’s definition for a moment before offering a critique.
First, ‘discipleship as the essence of Christianity’. This is the thrust of the well known quote from the 16th century Anabaptist leader Hans Denck: ‘No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life’. As distinct from the magisterial reformers of the 16th century who adopted the paradigm of the ‘believer’ to characterise the Christian life, the Anabaptists definitely opted for the ‘discipleship’ model. To be a Christian, to them, meant a commitment to following the example of Christ and putting his teaching into practice in their daily lives. And they understood this in a fairly straightforward and literal sense; hence their commitment to unfashionable practices such as nonviolence and pacifism, the refusal to swear oaths, and the avoidance of riches and ostentation.
Second, ‘the church as a brotherhood’ (excuse my sexist language, but this is how Bender phrased it in the 1940s). The Anabaptists began what another Mennonite scholar once described as ‘a spiritual emigration from Christendom’. They rejected the concept of the unity of church and society, and recovered the New Testament concept of the church as a gathered community of people who have voluntarily chosen to be its members, and have symbolised that choice by their commitment to Christ and to one another in adult believer’s baptism. They also embraced the practice of mutual ministry rather than the model of the ‘professional religionist’ (to use John Howard Yoder’s phrase) which characterised the state churches of their day.
Third, ‘a new ethic of love and nonviolence’. This followed from their commitment to obeying the teaching of Jesus in a fairly literal way. They read Jesus’ teaching about loving their enemies and turning the other cheek, and felt themselves bound to attempt to live by it. The most famous example of this was of course Dirk Willems, the young Anabaptist leader from the Netherlands who was running away from his persecutors when one of them fell through the ice and was in danger of drowning. Willems immediately turned back and helped his pursuer to safety, following which he was promptly re-arrested and later burned at the stake.
Discipleship, brotherhood and sisterhood, love and nonviolence; it was a compelling vision, and in the 1940s many found it attractive. But is it really true? Does this really describe the 16th century Anabaptists, and should it be prescriptive for Anabaptists today?
In the next installment I will critique Bender’s summary. In common with a number of contemporary Mennonite scholars such as Denny Weaver and Arnold Snyder, I will show that although there is a lot of truth in it, the actual historical reality was not quite so clear cut…