Six years ago this month, I travelled to the UK to begin a three-month sabbatical leave, the first and only sabbatical I have ever taken. I made the decision to spend my time continuing my reading and exploration of Anabaptist Christianity. A lot of people were surprised that I elected to do that in England (rather than, say, Goshen, Indiana), given that there is no ethnic Mennonite tradition in England. But I did this deliberately, because I was not interested in learning about ethnic Mennonite culture per se, but rather in Anabaptism as a spiritual tradition, a tradition of discipleship.
As it happened, in the course of the sabbatical I became less confident that generic Anabaptism and Mennonite history and practice can be separated – generic ‘Anabaptism’, ungrounded in the real practice of a real, flesh and blood congregation, can easily become a mirage rather than a movement made up of flawed and fallible human beings – but I remain grateful for the time I spent in the UK. It was through the website of the Anabaptist Network in the UK that I had first been captivated by Anabaptist thought, and I relished the opportunity to meet the people involved in the Network, to spend time at the London Mennonite Centre (now The Mennonite Trust) reading in their library, and to continue my reading and pondering over the course of the three months I was in England.
Of course, it would be wrong to say that I knew nothing of Anabaptism before that day some time in 2005 when I first (accidentally) clicked on the website of the Anabaptist Network. I’d had Mennonite friends for years, I’d read some of the novels of Rudy Wiebe, and I’d read about the Anabaptists in church history classes in college. But, of course, I’d read about them from the perspective of people who disagreed with them – never allowing the Anabaptists themselves to explain their convictions to me. Now I did, and immediately I felt at home.
I did not become a Mennonite – although I came close for a while – and so it would be easy to come to the conclusion that Anabaptism was a ‘phase’ I went through. That would be a wrong conclusion. I continue to this day to think of myself as an ‘Anabaptist Anglican‘. Many of the key emphases of Anabaptism – discipleship as the controlling paradigm of the Christian life, the centrality of the life and teaching of Jesus, reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus (yes, the much-maligned ‘canon within the canon’), the separation of church and state and the primary loyalty to Jesus as Lord and King above any allegiance to the state, a distrust of clericalism, every-member ministry, a preference for simple worship and simple living, pacifism and nonviolence, reconciliation – these and many more things have continued to be central to my understanding of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be ‘church’. The Anabaptist in me continues to challenge the Anglican, just as sometimes the Anglican continues to challenge the Anabaptist. I know that I am no longer entirely comfortable as an Anglican (if I ever was), but I am sure I would not be entirely comfortable as a Mennonite either. And maybe that’s a good place to be.
Still, the seven ‘Core Convictions‘ of the Anabaptist Network continue to express some of my deepest ideals of what being a Christian is all about – even if I am not in entire agreement with every single detail of them. Stuart Murray Williams has written a fine book exploring them – ‘The Naked Anabaptist‘ – and that book has been an inspiration to me as I continue on this journey as an Anabaptist Anglican. I have no idea where that journey will lead, but one thing I am sure of is that it’s not ‘just a phase’ I’m going through!
At about the same time I began to get interested in Anabaptist Christianity, I also began another new interest – traditional folk music. It would not be strictly accurate to say that I was unaware of trad folk before this; I had listened to Planxty as a teenager, I knew about Martin Carthy, and I knew that Paul Simon had pinched Martin’s arrangement of ‘Scarborough Fair’ without acknowledging that it was a traditional song. I had been a Pentangle fan since my teens, I knew about Steeleye Span, and I occasionally sang songs like ‘The Water is Wide’.
Nonetheless, my main musical interest was not trad folk – it was ‘singer-songwriter’ music. I had been a big Simon and Garfunkel fan as a teenager, and Bruce Cockburn’s guitar playing had wowed me as a young adult. I saw Martin Simpson at the Edmonton Folk Festival in the 1990s and barely noticed him. But that began to change about eight years ago. I heard Andy Irvine play at the folk festival and heard him talk about how he had learned his songs from old singers in pubs in Ireland, and I began to catch a glimpse of a living tradition. I was captivated by the magical voice of Kate Rusby and began to be interested in where these old traditional songs she sang came from. And then, a single album by Martin Simpson, ‘The Bramble Briar‘ (quickly followed by ‘Kind Letters‘) exploded on my consciousness, and gradually I began to realize that what I wanted as a musician was to take my place in the long line of people who had sung these old songs, shaped them and moulded them and passed them on to a new generation.
It was about that time that I started playing at open stages in Edmonton, so a lot of people here assumed I had always been a traditional singer, but in fact it was very new at the time. Now, however, it seems to have stuck. Yes, I do write songs of my own, but I don’t see myself primarily as a songwriter. I love the traditional music of the country of my birth (and its North American offshoot), and I want to pass it on.
So (to misquote 10cc’s ‘I’m Not In Love’) these two interests are apparently not ‘just a silly phase I’m going through’. I’ve had those sorts of phases, but these two have stuck. And I’m thankful for that.