In the last section, I 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 this section I want to 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. These three areas of convergence come from particular traditions within Anglicanism, rather than Anglicanism as a whole.
First, the church as a distinct community from the world. This of course has been a primary emphasis in the Anabaptist movement from the very beginning. Article Four of the Schleitheim Confession begins with these strident words:
We have been united concerning the separation that shall take place from the evil and the wickedness which the devil has planted in the world, simply in this; that we have no fellowship with them, and do not run with them in the confusion of their abominations.
Throughout their history, Anabaptists have tried to preserve the distinction between church and world. They have not been afraid to take unpopular ethical stands such as pacifism or the refusal to swear oaths. Some of them have taken this to extremes, using the German language and distinct forms of clothing as marker points to differentiate the Mennonite community from the world around them. At its best, this emphasis has freed Anabaptism from the Christendom burden of having to discuss Christian ethics on the basis of ‘what will work for an entire (nominally Christian) society. As John Howard Yoder puts it so succinctly, ‘Christian ethics is ethics for Christians’.
However, most people would not see this as a typically Anglican emphasis. Rather, in our history we have been the ultimate ‘state church’, created by a king as an excuse for him to do what he wanted in terms of divorce and remarriage. The mother church of our worldwide communion is still in the ridiculous position of having its bishops appointed by the state; some of them sit in the House of Lords, and they preside over coronations and royal weddings. I would argue that even beyond the shores of England, we Anglicans tend to be most comfortable as a state church, responsible to be a good ecclesial citizen, shore up the monarchy and the government, pray for the soldiers in time of war and be a good chaplain to the current values of society.
But our history has some noble examples of protest against this view, and the best known is the original Anglo-Catholic revival. In the early 1830s the British government proposed to abolish a number of bishoprics in Ireland. This prompted a powerful response from the Rev. John Keble, professor of Poetry at Oxford. On 14 July 1833, he preached the Assize Sermon at Oxford. His sermon was called “National Apostasy,” and denounced the nation for turning away from God, and for regarding the Church as a mere institution of society, rather than as the prophetic voice of God, commissioned by Him to warn and instruct the people. The sermon was a nationwide sensation, and is considered to be the beginning of the Anglo-Catholic revival. It was Keble’s view – and the Anglo-Catholic movement has followed him here – that the Christian church is not a mere arm of the State but an independent, divine society, with the right and responsibility to order its own life. To him it was preposterous that the government should have anything to do with the appointment or abolition of bishops and their positions.
To be sure, the Anglican world as a whole has not been markedly effected by this emphasis, but I would argue that there is a growing awareness amongst us of our call to be a distinct society, and that there is at least the beginning of a convergence here with our Anabaptist brothers and sisters.
Second, conversion as a personal response to the gospel. The sixteenth century Anabaptists did not accept the idea that a person could be a Christian just by virtue of being brought up in a so-called ‘Christian country’, or by going through a perfunctory ritual of infant baptism (which, in those days, was given to every child at birth, irrespective of the faith or non-faith of the parents). They argued that the gospel of Jesus called for a personal response on the part of the hearers. People became disciples by personal decision, and believers’ baptism was meant to be a sign of this free-will commitment to Christ and to his church.
Historically, in the Anglican family, the evangelical movement has been most closely identified with this view. Evangelical Anglicans were wary of the idea of baptismal regeneration – the view that all that is necessary to make a person a Christian is to baptize them (as an infant). Evangelicals have preached for conversions, believing that people needed to make a personal response to the gospel, a response of repentance and faith. Traditional evangelical testimonies have emphasized the sort of experienceJohn Newton immortalized when he wrote the words, ‘I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see’, and ‘How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed’. Many evangelicals point to a distinct ‘hour they first believed’, when they committed their lives to Jesus Christ. Those who do not have such a distinct time of conversion (and many do not) would still say that they have made a personal choice to be Christian; it is not a matter of ‘being brought up in a Christian family’ or ‘being born in a Christian country’.
As our society has become less and less Christian, this idea is finding a wide acceptance. Most Christians today are Christians by choice, not by heritage. Here again, I would argue, we see a growing convergence with historic Anabaptism.
Third, social justice and care for the poor as an integral part of the Christian life. This again was a part of the Anabaptist tradition from the beginning – although, to be sure, in the earliest days of the movement it had more to do with caring for the poor and needy members of the Anabaptist congregations themselves, rather than reaching beyond to others. Not all Anabaptists held their goods in common, but all agreed that their goods were not their own – they were to be shared with the needy members of the congregation. They questioned the reality of the Christian profession of the people around them on these very grounds – how could they be true followers of Jesus when in their churches there were such huge differences between rich and poor?
In the Anglican Communion we can thank both the evangelical and liberal sides of our tradition for bringing these issues to our attention. The eighteenth century evangelicals were great social reformers – we need only think of William Wilberforceand Thomas Clarkson and their work on the abolition of the slave trade, or Lord Shaftsbury and his work. The so-called ‘Clapham Sect’ made the transformation of the nation their goal and worked tirelessly to better the lives of the poor. They can certainly be faulted for their blindness to the evils and inequalities that were an intrinsic part of the English class system, but this does not invalidate the magnitude of their achievements.
The liberal catholic tradition associated with names like F.D. Maurice (1805-1872) has also championed the cause of care for the poor and social transformation. Wikipedia says of Maurice:
He…threw himself with great energy into all that affected the social life of the people. Certain abortive attempts at co-operation among working men, and the movement known as Christian Socialism, were the immediate outcome of his teaching… As a social reformer, Maurice was before his time, and gave his eager support to schemes for which the world was not ready. The condition of the city’s poor troubled him; the magnitude of the social questions involved was a burden he could hardly bear. Working men of all opinions seemed to trust him even if their faith in other religious men and all religious systems had faded, and he had a power of attracting both the zealot and the outcast.
In recent years this has become a standard part of our Anglican understanding of mission. In Canada we have the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, which partners with organsations all around the world to improve the lives of people in need. Numerous coalitions and political advocacy groups have been formed to lobby governments on various social issues. Anglicans and Anabaptists have often found themselves standing shoulder to shoulder in these efforts, and here again, we see a growing convergence in our two traditions.
In the next article I will address the questions, ‘How does the Anabaptist in me challenge the Anglican? And how does the Anglican in me challenge the Anabaptist?’