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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Since 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.