Ten years ago today…

Ten years ago today I started my first (and, so far, only) sabbatical leave. I spent three months in England resting and reconnecting with friends and family, as well a spending time with the good folks from the Anabaptist Network in the UK. It was certainly a transformative time for me and I look back on it as one of the best experiences of my life. I left Edmonton on the evening of Tuesday April 15th 2007 and arrived in London the next day. Here’s the post I wrote after arriving at the London Mennonite Centre:

Hello from the London Mennonite Centre in Highgate, London, England.

Nick and I flew over on Monday night and arrived at Heathrow airport about 11.00 a.m. on Tuesday morning. After clearing customs we traveled by Underground and got here to the LMC early afternoon. We were warmly welcomed by Ed and Phyllis, the hosts, and the other staff and volunteers here. A lot of the people who work here seem to be from Canada or the United States – in fact, English accents are a distinct minority! The director, Vic Thiessen, and his wife Kathy are actually members of Holyrood Mennonite Church in Edmonton, a congregation which is very familiar to Marci and me.

My time so far has been made up of (a) getting started on my study and (b) doing little housekeeping jobs to help my stay in London and in the UK in general run more smoothly. The latter include things like: getting an ‘Oystercard’ to make travel on the Underground and the bus system more reasonable; getting a ‘mobile phone’ (i.e. cell phone) (haven’t successfully done that yet, although there have been a couple of false starts); and negotiating the mysteries of cyberspace to get my Canadian laptop hooked up to the wireless network here at LMC.

As far as study goes there is plenty of material in the library here and a wonderful book service from which I can buy the stuff I need to continue when I leave here on the 30th. I will be spending my mornings reading Anabaptist history and source material from the 16th century, and then another study period each day (afternoons or evenings) on contemporary stuff, especially the issue of the end of Christendon and the insights Anabaptism has to offer about Christian mission in the new situation we find ourselves in today. My first study book is C. Arnold Snyder’s Anabaptist History and Theology, and although I’ve only just begun he’s already helped me make sense of the mass of tenuously connected movements that make up 16th century Anabaptism. I didn’t have a second study period today (owing to a little adventure I had on the Underground – a long delay when the Northern Line was closed for two hours), but when I begin that period tomorrow I’m going to be working with Stuart Murray Williams’ book ‘Post-Christendom’. I’m also really looking forward to Stuart’s book ‘Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition’. All Christian traditions have interpretive grids to help them make sense of the Bible; we all tend to assume that ours is the ‘correct’ grid, and I think it’s really good to check out someone else’s grid and see what we can learn from them.

It was good to spend a day with Nick; he and I sat out in the yard (or the ‘garden’ as they call it here) last night and said Evening Prayer together, and today we had tea out there. We took some pictures too, which I’ll post below. I put him on the train this afternoon, and he is now up in Manchester spending a week with my brother.

That’s it from me at the London Mennonite Centre; here are a few pictures for you.

Nick in the ‘garden’ at the London Mennonite Centre.


Me having a cup of tea in the ‘garden’ behind the LMC. The house used to belong to a doctor and incorporated his surgery; it was built in the 1850’s and is four stories high.


Getting down to work in the library here at LMC. 
 

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Core Convictions of the Anabaptist Network (2016 rewrite and repost)

In my last couple of posts on Anabaptism, I talked a bit about Anabaptist history. History is interesting to me, but I’m sure it doesn’t turn everyone’s crank, and if all I had been doing on my 2007 sabbatical leave was historical study, I’m sure some members of my parish might well have questioned its relevance to our vastly different contemporary situation. So let me bring these discussions to the present day.

One of the main reasons I journeyed to England for my sabbatical in 2007 was because of 51gppjuMNvL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_the existence of the Anabaptist Network. The Anabaptist Network is made up of people from all sorts of backgrounds and denominations who are finding inspiration for their Christian lives in the Anabaptist understanding of discipleship. Under the ‘drawn to Anabaptism’ section on their website you will find articles by a Baptist, a United Reformed Church member, a Pentecostal, a Quaker, a ‘new church’ leader, an Anglican, a Methodist, and a leader in the ‘Jesus Army’, all telling their stories about how, while continuing to be members of their various churches, they have found a spiritual home in Anabaptism. Many more of these stories are told in the book ‘Coming Home’.

The Anabaptist Network has adopted the following seven ‘Core Convictions’, and it was these convictions, more than anything else, that cemented my interest in the Anabaptist way.

  1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.
  2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.
  3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalized Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
  4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.
  5. Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship. As we eat together, sharing bread and wine, we sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.
  6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.
  7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society, and between nations.

Obviously, at a couple of points these core convictions stand in tension with historic Anglican church polity (eg. ‘baptism is for believers’ contradicts our traditional practice of infant baptism). But for the most part, these convictions are compatible with my membership in the Anglican Church, and they serve to sum up a way of living the Christian life that I find tremendously attractive.

41AlOH50AlLSince I went to England for my 2007 sabbatical, Stuart Murray has published the book ‘The Naked Anabaptist’, in which he reflects on these principles and their relevance for today’s Christian world. He uses the word ‘naked’ to mean ‘without the usual Mennonite or Amish or Hutterite cultural clothing’. Many aspects of contemporary Mennonite experience are shaped by five hundred years of culture and history (German language hymns, ethnic foods, traditional Mennonite names, unaccompanied singing in four-part harmony, the existence of dozens of squabbling Mennonite denominations etc.). The core convictions try to sidestep all this and address the question ‘What would faithful discipleship in the Anabaptist tradition look like in the twenty-first century?’

Personally, I’m not so sure it’s possible to extract ‘ideal Anabaptism’ from five hundred years of historical embodiment. More than many other Christian traditions, Anabaptism demands embodiment in a real, flawed congregational setting made up of inmperfect human beings. And in the real world, those human beings have to face difficult issues. What do you do when you’re trying to love your enemies and pray for those who hate you, while everywhere you go you find that the rulers are out to kill you? One of the answers given by Mennonite history is, ‘You find a sympathetic ruler who will allow you to live in peace, farm the land and bring up your kids according to your beliefs and traditions, and when that ruler asks you not to try to convert others to your beliefs, you say “Okay”’. The first Anabaptists, who were committed to evangelism, might well have turned over in their graves at such an agreement, but those who made it were concerned for the safety of their children and their own continued existence as a community of disciples committed to pacifism. They were trying to live out their convictions in the context of a real, flawed and dangerous world.

Anabaptist Christianity can’t remain a shining ideal. It has to be a way of life lived out in the real world. I have nothing but respect for the Mennonite, Amish and Hutterite followers of Jesus who have tried to live out that ideal for the past five hundred years. But my situation is not their situation. I am an Anglican follower of Jesus, and the world I live in is not Christendom Europe or early twentieth century Saskatchewan; it’s prosperous, post-Christendom, suburban Edmonton. It’s my job to figure out how the seven core convictions of the Anabaptist Network help me live as an Anabaptist Anglican in the world I live in. Ultimately, that’s what my sabbatical leave was all about, and that’s the question I continue to reflect on today.

More About the Beliefs of the Sixteenth Century Anabaptists

This article first appeared on my blog early in 2007, a couple of months before my sabbatical leave. I have slightly revised it here.

Dirk.willems.rescue.ncsAnabaptism in the sixteenth century was a diverse movement; it didn’t have any strong central authority (unlike the Anglican reformation in England, which was entirely under the control of the King). But most Anabaptists would have shared the following convictions:

The Bible. Anabaptists agreed with the 16th Century Protestant Reformers that, under Christ, the Bible (not Church Tradition) has supreme authority in the life of the Church. However, they disagreed strongly with them about its interpretation and application. They focused on the New Testament and especially on the life and teachings of Jesus – a ‘Christocentric’ interpretation – and this radically affected the way they understood the Bible. They started from Jesus and interpreted everything else from him, and they suspected that the Reformers started from the doctrinal passages and tried to fit Jesus into them.

So, for instance, Catholics and Protestants justified their belief in the ‘just war’ theory by appealing to Old Testament passages in which God seems to command his people to go to war. Anabaptists saw this interpretation as contradicting the teaching of Jesus to ‘love your enemies and do good to those who hate you’, and so they used Jesus to interpret the rest of the Bible, rather than the other way around.

Salvation. The Protestant Reformers emphasized justification by faith (which they understood to mean that we are declared righteous by God because of Jesus’ death, not our own good works, and that we receive this as a free gift, by faith) and forgiveness of past sins. Anabaptists did not necessarily disagree. but their main emphasis was on new birth and the power to live as Jesus’ disciples. They stressed the work of the Holy Spirit in believers, and taught that Jesus was to be followed and obeyed, as well as trusted; he was not only Saviour but also Leader and Lord. So Dirk Philips (1504-1568) wrote: “Jesus with his doctrine, life and example is our teacher, leader and guide. Him we must hear and follow.” Hans Denck (1495-1527) insisted that faith and discipleship were inter-connected: “No one can truly know Christ unless he follows him in life, and no one may follow him unless he has first known him.”

The Church. Anabaptists formed churches made up of committed disciples and denied that all citizens should automatically be regarded as church members (as Catholics and Protestants assumed). They insisted on differentiating believers from unbelievers, so that church membership could be voluntary and meaningful, and they resisted state control in their churches. They rejected infant baptism as unbiblical, forcibly imposed on children, and a hindrance to developing believers’ churches. They challenged the way clergy dominated the life of traditional churches and also the lack of church discipline. Their gatherings were informal and unstructured, concentrating on Bible study and singing. Some of them encouraged women to participate much more actively than was normal in church and society in their day. One of their early documents, A Congregational Order (1527), says, “when the brothers and sisters are together, they shall take up something to read together. The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it…when a brother sees his brother erring, he shall warn him according to the command of Christ, and shall admonish him in a Christian and brotherly way.”

Evangelism. In the 16th century, Catholics and Protestants did not normally practice evangelism. When they had state support they relied on legal sanctions to enforce church attendance. They assumed that church and society were the same, so their policy was to pastor people through the parish system, rather than seeing them as unbelievers and evangelizing them. The Anabaptists rejected this interpretation of church and society, and so they embarked on a missionary venture to evangelize Europe. Evangelists like Hans Hut (1490-1527) traveled widely, preached in homes and fields, interrupted state church services, baptized converts and planted churches. Such evangelism, ignoring national and parish boundaries, and carried out by untrained men and women, was regarded as outrageous by the state churches.

Ethics. Anabaptists departed from the accepted norms of their society and lived in anticipation of the Kingdom of God.

They questioned the validity of private property. One group, the Hutterites, lived in communities and held their possessions in common. Most Anabaptists retained personal ownership, but all taught that their possessions were not their own but were available to those in need. The 1527 Congregational Order urged: “Of all the brothers and sisters of this congregation, none shall have anything of his own, but rather, as the Christians in the time of the apostles held all in common, and especially stored up a common fund, from which aid can be given to the poor, according as each will have need, and as in the apostles’ time permit no brother to be in need.” When they shared communion they confirmed this mutual commitment.

Most (but not all) of them rejected the use of violence, refusing to defend themselves by force. Conrad Grebel (1498-1526) described his congregation: “Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them.” They urged love for enemies and respect for human life. Anabaptists accepted that governments would use force but regarded this as inappropriate for Christians. Felix Mantz (c1498-1527) concluded: “no Christian could be a magistrate, nor could he use the sword to punish or kill anyone.” They aimed to build an alternative community, changing society from the bottom up.

Many refused to swear oaths. Oaths were very important in sixteenth-century Europe, encouraging truth-telling in court and loyalty to the state. Anabaptists often rejected these, citing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and arguing that they should always be truthful, not just under oath. Nor would they swear loyalty to any secular authority.

Suffering. Anabaptists were not surprised by persecution. They knew they would be seen as revolutionaries, despite their commitment to non-violence; as heretics, despite their commitment to the Bible; and as disturbers of the status quo. They regarded suffering for obedience to Christ as unavoidable and biblical: suffering was a mark of the true church, as Jesus had taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Their very persecution of Anabaptists showed that the reformers themselves were not building a biblical church.

Some Anabaptists talked about the three baptisms a follower of Jesus must undergo: the baptism of water (which, in their belief, must be a conscious, adult decision), the baptism of the Holy Spirit (for regeneration or the new birth), and the baptism of blood (meaning the persecution that followers of Jesus were to expect).

These are a few of the most important beliefs of the sixteenth century Anabaptists.

Note: this post is adapted from this article on the Anabaptist Network website.

What is Anabaptism?

jesus12-follow-jesus_footsteps_beachNine 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, 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 – 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.

Early in 2007, before I went to England on my sabbatical leave, I wrote the following article on Anabaptism. I continue to stand by it for the most part, and republish it today to introduce people who’ve started reading my blog since then to the spiritual riches of the Anabaptist way.

*****

 

“Okay, Tim, so you say you’re going to study Anabaptism on your sabbatical. Now, what the heck is that?”

Good question, and it’s not one I can give a short answer to. In this post, I’ll say a little about the early history of the Anabaptist movement.

I should say at the outset that the word ‘Anabaptist’ was not a name the early followers of this movement gave to themselves; it was a name given to them by others who disagreed with them. It means ‘rebaptizer’, and comes from the fact that the Anabaptists did not believe an infant baptism was a valid baptism; therefore they practiced adult believers’ baptism. More about that later.

Anabaptism was originally a sixteenth-century radical Christian renewal movement in parts of western and central Europe. The early Anabaptists consciously put the person of Jesus (as he is revealed in the gospels) at the centre of their Christian faith, in contrast to the mainstream Reformation leaders who often appeared to be more interested in the teachings of St. Paul.

The Anabaptists believed that Christians are born again to a life of following the teaching and example of Jesus (‘discipleship’), and in this life they especially emphasized simple living and economic sharing, nonviolence and love for enemies, and truth-telling (they refused to participate in war or take oaths in court because of this). They tried to establish believers’ churches, free from the control of the state, in which they attempted to restore a simple New Testament Christianity as they understood it. In this New Testament Christianity there was no distinction between clergy and laity; all were followers of Jesus, and all joined together in interpreting the Bible and in doing Christ’s work. Although the movement had similiarities with both Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity, it is best understood as being neither Catholic nor Protestant, but a distinct Christian tradition with its own vision of what Christian faith and life is all about.

The early Anabaptists came mainly from the poorer end of society, and many of them were in fact illiterate, although a few were university graduates, monks, and priests. The movement was driven underground by persecution from both Catholics and Protestants, who saw it was a threat to the order of society, in which church and state were one and the same, under the control of the powers-that-be. Many of the early Anabaptist leaders were executed for their beliefs, by burning at the stake or by drowning (a cruel parody of their belief in adult baptism). There were four main geographical branches of the movement: the Swiss Brethren, the South German and Austrian Anabaptists, the Dutch Mennonites, and the Hutterites. It was not an organized movement, and pinning down its essential beliefs is sometimes difficult.

Anabaptists were radicals who believed that the Calvinist, Lutheran and Anglican reformers had not gone far enough; they had made the Bible authoritative for doctrines, but not for ethics or the way church was organized. Anabaptists believed the Bible (and especially the teachings of Jesus) should be followed for these things as well. Hence their rejection of war and violence, or the oath, or the idea that a king could decide the religion of his subjects, or the idea of priests being intermediaries between God and the people (the list could go on).

Anabaptists emphasized the difference between church and state, or church and society. Since the fourth century when the Roman emperors first tolerated Christianity, and then made it the official religion of their empire, the ‘Christendom’ worldview had seen church and society as one. In Christendom, people did not choose to become Christians as they did in New Testament times; rather, they were assumed to be Christians because they lived in a Christian country and had been baptized in a state church as infants. Churches were under the control of the local prince, who decided the religion of his subjects, and the churches generally refrained from emphasizing aspects of the teaching of the New Testament that threatened the prince’s power (like pacifism, for instance, or simple living). Anabaptists challenged this, and sought to re-establish the New Testament vision of the church as an alternative to society, a counter-culture, a resistance movement, an outpost of the Kingdom of God.

Anabaptism was largely a church of the poor. Anabaptists were mostly poor and powerless, with very few wealthy, academic, or influential members. They were seen as subversives and were strongly opposed by those with a vested interest in the wealth and power structures of society. Some Anabaptist views owe much to their powerless position: Anabaptists were prepared to obey the Bible regardless of social consequences.

“Well, what has all this got to do with us today, and why are you planning to spend three months studying an obscure sixteenth-century movement?” For a couple of reasons.

First, the Christendom system has largely collapsed in our time. Church and society are no longer one and the same. Society in general no longer believes or practices the Christian faith, and no longer helps people to become Christians; in fact, rather the opposite. The Church is no longer in a position of power in society; we are a marginal movement, like the Anabaptists and in fact like the New Testament Christians. How do you do Christian mission in this new situation? The Anabaptist tradition has a lot to teach us about this.

Second, the things the Anabaptists believed are highly relevant to us today. They believed that the decision to become a Christian is a free choice, not something coerced by state or family. They believed that following the teaching and example of Jesus is the centre of the Christian life. They believed that the Bible should be interpreted by the standard of Jesus, and that if parts of it seem to contradict Jesus, we should understand them according to his life and teachings. They believed that churches are fellowships of disciples who minister together and help one another –even holding one another accountable for their discipleship – rather than passive communities under the rule of a priest who alone has the authority. They believed that Christians should not accumulate excessive wealth and should share what they have with those in need. They believed that the teaching of Jesus requires Christians to love their enemies, to reject war and violence, and to speak the truth at all times.

As I said, I think these things are highly relevant for us today. I think they challenge us to base our life as a church and as individuals on the teaching of Jesus and the early apostles and not on traditions that grew up during the Christendom era.

In my next post I will say a little more about the distinctive beliefs of the Anabaptists.

(Note: this post is largely based on this article from the Anabaptist Network website).

Apparently not just a ‘phase’ I’m going through

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.

Loyalty to Jesus on election day

Mennonite pastor Mark Schloneger will be observing U.S. election day tomorrow by going to the Lord’s Table. It’s a profoundly political act – remembering the ultimate Lordship of Jesus Christ, and remembering that the only true Christian nation is the Church of Jesus Christ (see 1 Peter 2:8-10). Here are some of the money quotes:

Continue reading “Loyalty to Jesus on election day”

Sabbatical Report #8: Book Review

Note: This is part of a series of reposts from my sabbatical leave from mid-April to mid-July 2007. This piece was originally posted on May 15th 2007.

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 readers assume 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

Conversations
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.