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.

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Is Prayer Effective?

‘“Effectiveness” is an important word in our culture, but it is an over-rated concept. It is far better to speak of “fruitfulness.” In relating to God and conversing with God, in praying to God and praying for others, we can trust that our efforts are never wasted, even if we do not see their immediate results or effects. I do not judge time spent conversing with my children, or eating meals with my wife, or going on hikes with my friends on the basis of effectiveness. Yet I have no doubt that they are fruitful and eminently worthwhile. Prayer is always fruitful, even when we don’t know whether it is effective.’

Arthur Paul Boers, in an interview with World Vision World Watch, November/December 2011. Read a lot more here. Arthur Paul Boers previously taught at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, and is now Professor of Leadership at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. Read about his books here.

Writers who influenced me

Sally Coleman has tagged me on Facebook in one of those meme things – in this case, listing fifteen authors who have influenced you.  As it happens I don’t do memes – there are so many of them floating around on the Internet that once I started it could very easily turn into a full time job, and I already have one of those, plus a family and a very enjoyable other life as a folk musician too! However, Sally’s post got me thinking about writers who have influenced me. I’m not sure I’ll come up with fifteen, but I’ll mention a few, and say a bit about how they’ve influenced me, too – which is always more interesting to me than a list.

My initial difficulty is to know what’s meant by ‘influence’. There are many authors I enjoy – J.R.R. Tolkien, John Grisham, George Eliot, Dante, Homer, Rudy Wiebe, Ellis Peters, C.J. Sansom – but I’m not sure if they’ve influenced me. Perhaps I’m not the best person to judge; maybe it would be more honest to ask others – people who know the authors I read and who know me – to tell me if they see the marks of a particular author’s writing in my life.

Still, here we go.

Dennis Bennett influenced me to become a committed Christian. When I was thirteen my Dad lent me Dennis’ book Nine O’Clock in the Morning; it was the first Christian book I read all the way through, and when I finished it I was hungry to know more. Dennis was one of the first Anglicans to ‘come out of the closet’ about speaking in tongues and the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Before I read his book my default image of God was rather remote, but Dennis introduced me to a God who did real things in the real lives of real people. Today I would probably not go along with much of what he taught, but he definitely influenced my early years.

I know that C.S. Lewis influenced me, because a friend told me so. In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. I went on to read pretty well everything Lewis had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Adrian Plass had a huge influence on me; he helped me believe that God might actually like me. Of course I always believed (in theory) that God loved me, but in 1987 along came Adrian’s hilarious book The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 3/4, in which I discovered the life-changing phrase ‘God is nice and he likes me’. It took a few years for that phrase to work its way down from my head into my heart, but when it got there, it helped set me free.

Philip Yancey influenced me not to be afraid of difficult questions and not to be afraid to admit that I didn’t have all the answers. I first ran across him in the early 1980s when I was a subscriber to ‘Christianity Today’, in which he wrote a regular column; I then read his early books Where is God When it Hurts? and Disappointment with God. His writings about grace and discipleship (especially The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing about Grace?) had a pretty formative effect on my worldview. In one of his books he talks about certain authors being, in a sense, his ‘pastors’; I know just what he means, and would include him in that category in my own life.

Grace and discipleship also figured highly in the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – Tolstoy in his high ideals of what Christianity was all about, Dostoevsky because of his strong sense of human failure and God’s forgiveness. Their big stories – The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, and especially Anna Karenina – were hugely influential to me and remain some of my all-time favourite books.

Jane Austen influenced me because, as well as being such a fine and entertaining writer, she is (as C.S. Lewis once observed) ‘a sound moralist’. She has a common-sense, down to earth attitude toward duty and the good life; she understands sentiment but she is not in the least sentimental, and she’s merciless toward spoiled, self-indulgent, self-pitying types. I particularly like Sense and Sensibility, where I resonate far more with the sense than the sensibility!

Speaking of literature, I hated Shakespeare in school but loved him once I started watching him on stage, and now never a summer passes in our house that we don’t go to the Free Will Shakespeare Festival here in Edmonton. I love Shakespeare’s characters, so human and so up front about it, and I love his use of the English language and his love of invention (how many words and figures of speech did he coin?).

Thomas Cranmer has had a huge influence on my devotional life and my approach to theology. Funnily enough I didn’t grow up on The Book of Common Prayer (my Dad was an early promoter of modern liturgies), but in later years I grew to appreciate it, with its balanced approach (Word/Sacrament, Catholic/Protestant, Grace/Faith) and elegant language. I like Cranmer’s books on the Eucharist, too; even today, his theology of Holy Communion still makes more sense to me than anyone else’s, ancient or modern.

The two writers who have influenced my pastoral style the most are definitely Eugene Peterson and David Hansen. Peterson’s books on pastoral work (especially The Unnecessary Pastor and Under the Unpredictable Plant) have helped me focus on the big issues in pastoral ministry and given me a healthy skepticism about fads. He emphasises prayer, Scripture, relationships – and also patience; Peterson has not given up on the institutional church although he is well aware of its flawed nature. I don’t care for his translation of the Bible, though – The Message – I find it far too interpretive, to the point that at times I can’t really see how it’s related to the original text at all!

David Hansen’s The Art of Pastoring is without doubt the best book about pastoral ministry I have ever read, but once again it’s not rocket science – it’s about prayer, holiness, love, and all those other difficult things that we like to escape from into the latest gimmick.

Two authors made me a much better preacher – John Stott and Donald Coggan. I read Stott’s I Believe in Preaching in the 1980s and it definitely changed my practice and made me much more disciplined in my biblical exegesis and sermon preparation. Not long afterwards I read Coggan’s little 1958 book Stewards of Grace, which I still say is the best book on preaching I’ve ever read (and only about 120 pages too!). Among many other things, Coggan prompted me to start writing my sermons out in full (for clarity of thought) and then reducing them to short notes which I place in my preaching Bible for the actual delivery of the sermon.

N.T. Wright definitely changed the way I read the Bible and especially the gospels (particularly in The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God), but I think he didn’t start the process. The one who got the whole process started for me was A.E. Harvey and his book Jesus and the Constraints of History, which was where I first encountered the idea that in the religious culture of his day there were certain categories that were available to Jesus in his self-understanding, and we ought to see him in the light of those categories before turning to ones imported by later theologies.

John Howard Yoder has been a huge influence on me; he has helped form the whole Anabaptist side of my Christian life (especially in The Politics of Jesus and The Royal Priesthood). The revolutionary idea that we are actually supposed to do the things Jesus said (including loving our enemies, which means not killing them) is of course never far from the surface in Yoder’s writings; also other ideas, such as the first responsibility of the Church being, not to manage the world, but to truly be the Church (the city on the hill, a distinct community with its own characteristic lifestyle shaped by the teaching of Jesus), and the idea that Christian ethics are meant to be ethics for Christians, not a lowest-common-denominator system that you can reasonably expect of the nominal and the unbeliever. Through Yoder, the 16th century Anabaptists have entered my life (I think his teaching is really a 20th century application of the thought of Michael Sattler and Pilgram Marpeck).

My approach to writing has definitely been influenced by Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing. Funnily enough, I don’t actually care for a lot of what King has written (I’m not a big fan of the horror genre) although I did enjoy The Stand and The Green Mile. But I liked his common sense approach to writing (things like ‘second draft equals first draft minus ten percent’, or the insight that if you think you’re a writer and you’re constantly saying that you just can’t describe or explain something, you might just be in the wrong job!).

I’m a lover of history and have particularly enjoyed Alison Weir’s fine books about the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty. Robert Massie’s Dreadnought shaped my understanding of the period 1870-1914 more than any other book. I’ve enjoyed Thomas Cahill’s books (especially The Gifts of the Jews, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, and Mysteries of the Middle Ages). The historical novel is probably my favourite form of fiction and in that regard I especially enjoy Patrick O’Brien, Mary Renault, Ellis Peters, C.J. Sansom, and Herman Wouk (The Winds of War and War and Remembrance have had a huge influence on me).

Finally, I haven’t been influenced by a lot of poets (except possibly Robert Frost and Wendell Berry) but I have been deeply influenced by the vast body of work produced by that incredibly prolific songwriter, ‘Anonymous’! His (or her) songs have been the mainstay of my music for the past few years and have definitely shaped my own songwriting and performing in more ways than I can fathom.

Okay – I think I’d better stop there!

Core Convictions of the Anabaptist Network in the UK

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 the generous souls who are funding my sabbatical would be right to ask about its relevance to our vastly different contemporary situation. So let me bring these discussions to the present day.

 

 

 

One of the main reasons I am planning to journey to England for my sabbatical is because of the existence of the Anabaptist Network. The AN is made up of people from all sorts of 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, marginalised 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 membership in the Anglican Church, and they serve to sum up a way of living the Christian life that I find tremendously attractive. In my next few posts I will reflect on each of these convictions in turn, and detail some of the related questions I hope to take on my sabbatical with me.