Sabbatical 2007: ‘Time to Pray’ (a repost from 2007)

Note: this is the seventh in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican’, from thirteen years ago. This post was originally posted on May 2nd 2007.

9780715121221This ‘Anabaptist Anglican’ blog has been heavily tilted toward the ‘Anabaptist’ side lately, so I want to pause for a moment to tip the hat to a very fine resource I’ve discovered on the Anglican side of my spiritual pedigree – from the Church of England, no less!

Most people I know who pray the Daily Office – daily Morning and Evening Prayer, that is, using one of our service books such as the Book of Common Prayer or the Book of Alternative Services – will admit to having a love/hate relationship with it. Sometimes we find that the structure strengthens our ability to pray through dry periods; at other times we find it inhibiting of true encounter with the living God who can’t be captured between the pages of any book. Sometimes we find having a book with lots of alternatives helps us avoid monotony; at other times it just makes prayer times confusing (it’s so much effort just to look up those darn canticles and responsories!).

The Church of England has recently produced a daily office book called ‘Common Worship: Daily Prayer’ which has literally hundreds of pages of texts for daily prayer. This, however, is not the resource I’m recommending. I have just discovered a little extract from that book, called ‘Time to Pray’. It includes two specific resources:

    • ‘Prayer During the Day’, an outline for a daily ‘quiet time’, with a few liturgical texts to bring focus and a lot of freedom for experimentation (you’ll find an online example here). There are outlines for ‘Prayer during the Day’ for every day of the week, plus special outlines for the seasons (Christmas, Easter etc). I find there’s enough structure to give my prayers shape, but not so much that I feel constricted. For instance, no lectionary (i.e system of daily Bible readings) is given in the book; people are encouraged to find a system of Bible reading that they like and to use it in combination with ‘Prayer During the Day’ (some suggestions are made in the introduction).
    • Night Prayer’, which is the Church of England’s contemporary version of the ‘Compline’ service, traditionally offered in monasteries last thing at night. I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t like Compline, and this modern version of it keeps all the features we’ve come to love over the years, but updates the language and structure a bit.

Morning and Evening Prayer can be ‘ho hum’ sometimes, but so far for me ‘Prayer During the Day’ and ‘Night Prayer’ have been spot on. I hope that the Anglican Book Centre in Toronto gets some copies of this little book very soon, and makes them widely available in Canada. I think this book could do a lot to help people who are struggling with the discipline of daily prayer.

Sabbatical 2007: Innovative Church Experiences (a repost from 2007)

Note: this is the sixth in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican’, from thirteen years ago. This post was originally posted on April 27th 2007.

This weekend I have had three different experiences of innovative church.

On Friday I went over to the east end of London to meet with the East London Anabaptist Study Circle. If I expected a group of people who would sit in a circle and study and make erudite comments, I was in for a culture shock!

Wapping is in a poor part of the city of London which was particularly hard hit during the Blitz in the Second World War. A huge influx of immigrants from all over the world has had an enormous impact on the face of the community since then, but so has the major redevelopment that took place in this area during the Margaret Thatcher years.

I had been invited for supper at the home of Karen Stallard and her friend Ruth. Karen is a psychiatric nurse and Ruth a teacher, and they are two leaders in Wapping Community Church, a new and very fragile church plant started by the folks at Urban Expression, a church planting organization wanting to do mission amongst the poor of the city. Over supper Karen and Ruth told me a bit about their background and about their vision for the Geoff Ashcroft Community (you can find out more about the Geoff Ashcroft Community here – and please do follow the links, it’s something really exciting and worthwhile).

After supper we went over to another home where a group of about ten people gathered for the Anabaptist study group. They were all younger people, pretty well all of them involved in Urban Expression, and obviously a bunch of enthusiastic mavericks with a strong sense of mission and a willingness to try and to fail if need be. Our study for the evening consisted of playing ‘Dutch Blitz’, a Mennonite card game! It was fast and furious and I was soundly defeated at it! I did get some conversations in, but the evening took a very different shape from what I had expected! Fair enough – as my brother likes to say, Christianity is meant to be a doing religion, not just a talking religion!

I got back to the London Mennonite Centre quite late – around 11.30 – and had some preparations to make for the next day, so it was about 12.15 by the time I got to bed. I was up again at 6.30 to catch a train down to south London, to Battersea, for ‘Workshop’ – a course in Christian discipleship. You can find out about it here, and again, please do follow the link because I don’t have time or space to tell you all about this wonderful year-long course.

The weekend was held in a primary school, with the main sessions taking place in an assembly hall and breakout groups in various other places. About forty people were there; after opening worship we had a two-part session on Old Testament wisdom literature – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. The woman who was teaching the section on Ecclesiastes and Job mentioned her gratitude that such books are allowed to be in the Bible; she had this past month been diagnosed with breast cancer, she said, and it was good to know that doubts and questions are allowed. I really appreciated that. After a coffee break we had a session on healing which was quite different – the teachers are all volunteers and each put their particular stamp on the subjects in question.

I was getting very tired now, but after lunch we had a small group time. Apparently the small groups had chosen ethical topics to debate; in each group one person facilitated the debate and two people had prepared opposing viewpoints on the subjects – in the case of the group I was in, on ‘Euthanasia’. After they had spoken, the other group members got involved and a lively (and very respectful) discussion ensued. I thought this was a great model, but the obvious level of trust in the group helped make for a good atmosphere.

By now I was very tired and decided to skip out on the rest of ‘Workshop’ and take a break for the rest of the weekend. I was a bit disappointed as I had been looking forward to the whole weekend, but my body was telling me otherwise.

Today (Sunday) instead of going back to ‘Workshop’ I went over to St. James’ Anglican Church in Muswell Hill. This is another lively Evangelical church, like St. Mary’s Maidenhead where I went last weekend. My observation is that a lot of Anglicans in England seem far less bothered about ‘Anglican identity’ than we are in Canada! I had walked past St. James’ several times and been attracted by their colourful signs and the fact that they have a coffee shop built on to the side of the church, with a small bookstore.

I went to the 9.30 service there this morning; I arrived at 9.15 to the sounds of the music group and choir singing ‘In Christ Alone’. They practiced a few more songs while I was waiting for the service to start, and then they broke up into groups of three at the front and committed their work of leading worship to the Lord in prayer.

I was warmly welcomed by the greeters, who soon found out that I was visiting from Canada. In fact, I have to say that this was one of the most welcoming churches I have ever been in. The greeters were warm without being overly smothering; the vicar was wandering up and down the aisle chatting with people, and when he saw that I was new he made a point of coming over to chat. There was an older man who seemed to be ‘patrolling’ the aisle smiling at people, shaking their hands and pointing them to seats, and during the greeting time in the service the people around me all greeted me and asked if I was a visitor and all that.

Notice I said ‘seats’. No more pews at St. James’ – at least, not in the main worship area – the side aisles still had a few, but they were not being used. The main part of the nave had been covered with a warm red carpet, and chairs with red cushions took the place of pews. This made for a very warm atmosphere, and I thought how easy it would be to stack the chairs and use this great space for other things midweek! What great stewardship of space (I noticed that even Westminster Abbey has no pews, by the way!).

I took my seat about two thirds of the way back. I was one of the first ones there, and as people arrived they all came and sat in front of me! In most Anglican churches I know the back third would have filled up first, but not here! There was a buzz of conversation as people came in; the congregation was very young with a high percentage of families with children. The atmosphere was mainly informal; some people dressed up for church, but most dressed informally. They have six services a Sunday: 8.00 Communion, 9.30 and 11.00 Morning Worship, 2.30 Spanish Church, 5.00 and 7.00 other strange stuff! I would guess about two hundred people were at the 9.30 service.

The service was led partly by the vicar and partly by the music team. It was not a Eucharist and the liturgical element was kept to a minimum. Here is the outline:

    • Opening song (‘Crown Him with Many Crowns’)\
    • Confession and Promise of Forgiveness
    • Songs (‘His Love Endures Forever’ and ‘Who is There Like You?’)
    • Children left for their groups (not called ‘Sunday School’) – vicar encouraged us to greet each other and have a few minutes’ conversation.
    • Apostles’ Creed
    • Prayers for the Church and the World, led by someone from the congregation, not using a litany but a prepared, ‘conversational style’ prayer.
    • The Lord’s Prayer
    • ‘Church family news’
    • Song (‘There’s No Other Name that is Higher’)
    • Reading: Acts 16:11-34
    • Sermon (the fourth in a series on ‘Great Conversions’).
    • Song (‘In Christ Alone’)
    • Final Prayer

Clergy did not robe or wear clerical collars, and no titles were printed in the bulletin, just the names of their jobs (e.g. ‘Vicar: Alex Ross’). The sermon was preached by their ‘Minister for Mission’, a lovely title I think! The songs were printed in the bulletin and also thrown up on a screen at the front of the church.

After church there was coffee at the back and also out in the parish centre where the bookstore is. There was also prayer in one of the side chapels; I went for prayer for some health issues and was warmly welcomed and prayed for by the people there.

I was impressed and excited by St. James’, Muswell Hill. A lot of people back home would turn their noses up at this and say it wasn’t a proper Anglican service, but the Gospel was preached and people are obviously being led to Christ and mobilized in mission for him. I certainly felt I met God there, and the sermon was very nourishing. I applaud the willingness of these folks to innovate and do something outside the Anglican norm.

Sabbatical 2007, Report #4 (a repost from April 27th 2007)

Note: this is the fifth in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican’, from thirteen years ago. This post was originally posted on April 27th 2007.

Stuart Murray: Post-Christendom, Part 2.

This is the second half of my summary of the argument of Stuart Murray’s fine book Post-Christendom, which I have been reading on my sabbatical. I need to stress that this is just a summary, and that Stuart’s writing is not easy to summarize. I highly recommend that people read the book for themselves!

Stuart’s final chapters suggest some direction for the Christian church in the post-Christendom world. He begins by thinking about mission. ‘What approach to evangelism is appropriate in post-Christendom? How can churches pursue social transformation without exercising control? What type of political engagement is feasible for marginal churches?’ The strategies he suggests include:

  • Frankly confessing our failure to embody the gospel, and inviting others to join imperfect pilgrims, not a perfect community.
  • Renouncing imperialistic language and cultural imposition.
  • Realizing that churchgoing is no longer normal, church buildings and culture are alien to most people, and many who are searching for spiritual reality do not expect to find it in churches.
  • Searching for multiple contact points with the gospel in a culture no longer dominated by guilt—employing the full range of New Testament imagery, learning to relate the Christian story to contemporary angst and yearnings.
  • Starting further back when we tell the story, not assuming that people know the basics.
  • Rediscovering the ‘go’ in the Great Commission.
  • Engaging in conversation rather than confrontation, evangelism through dialogue, listening and speaking, receiving and imparting.
  • Concentrating on low-profile contextual witness, not razzmatazz.
  • Anticipating that the journey toward Christ will take longer—process evangelism courses must assume less and last longer.
  • Speaking consciously from the margins and inviting people into a lifestyle which, properly understood, contravenes dominant social values.
  • Post-Christendom evangelism must be uncoupled from ‘inviting people to come to church’ (this relates to rediscovering the ‘go’ in the Great Commission).

On the issue of evangelism among people of other faiths Stuart has a few thoughts as well; I quote some of them:

  • Assuming that our country is Christian causes immense confusion; members of other faiths who equate ‘Christian’ and ‘western’ dismiss Christianity as corrupt, and see conversion to Christianity as cultural suicide.
  • European colonialism meant Christians encountered other faiths as conquerors and masters, not equals, resulting in arrogant religious superiority.
  • Inter-faith dialogue suffers from assumptions that other religions lack spiritual value, that Christians can learn nothing from dialogue, and that the conversion of either conversation partner is illegitimate.
  • Many Christians seem warier of co-operating with other faith groups than with secular agencies, more worried about spiritual contamination than subversion by secularism.
  • However, arguing that we should not evangelize other faith communities implies that we should evangelize only ‘latent Christians’ and that evangelism is unpleasant—both concepts deeply rooted in Christendom thinking!
  • Evangelism, however, is not the starting point for mission in a plural society—the first priority is to build relationships of friendship and respect. It is important to spend time learning to understand the spiritual experiences of people of other faiths.
  • There is much to learn from the mindset of marginal movements such as the English Baptists, Quakers and Anabaptists—passionate movements with strong convictions, which they eagerly shared with others, but also passionately committed to religious liberty, not because their Christian convictions were unimportant but because they were too important to be imposed.
  • We need to develop a missiology that is passionate about the Christian story, passionate about sharing it with others, passionate about defending their freedom to reject it, passionate about resisting all attempts to impose religious views, and passionate about friendship that is not jeopardized by divergent convictions. The foundation for this missiology is renewed reflection on how God in the person of Jesus operated through invitation rather than imposition.

When it comes to influencing society toward the values of the Kingdom, Stuart suggests some strategies, including the following:

  • Accepting that we cannot be involved in every issue with our limited resources.
  • Doing nothing, rather than acting in ways that contravene our values.
  • Accepting that we can no longer expect to be consulted about every issue on the basis of past status.
  • Rediscovering the prophetic minority stance and a tone of voice that befits marginal communities.
  • Offering a perspective that transcends ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing’.
  • Choosing to believe God’s mission can be effective from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Thus mission—now, what about the shape of the church itself? Stuart acknowledges the yawning gap between church and contemporary culture. He investigates two forms of church – the ‘emerging’ church and the ‘inherited’ church (a term he prefers to ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’.

The ‘emerging church’ is hard to track, classify, or evaluate.

  • Some emerging churches are refocusing their mission – concentrating their energies.
  • Some emerging churches are reconfiguring community and focusing on relationships and groups.
  • Some emerging churches are refreshing worship, exploring treasures old and new.

The most hopeful emerging stories involve the integration of all three of these elements.

How do they look through the lens of post-Christendom?

  • Christendom meant enforced uniformity and contextual insensitivity. Emerging churches are avoiding this; may are configuring mission, community and worship specific to particular contexts.
  • Many are small, because they value human-scale community; they may be better placed to flourish in post-Christendom and nurture disciples.
  • Many share features with the dissident tradition: replacing hierarchy with egalitarian structures, exploring multi-voiced worship, using accessible venues rather than church buildings.
  • It might help them to know more history so they can learn from earlier movements; they especially need to take the demise of Christendom seriously.
  • They need to develop inter-generational strategies for passing on the faith (many are single-generation communities).
  • Are some of them more concerned with style than core values?
  • Some of them are parasitic on inherited churches, primarily recruiting dissatisfied Christians.

What about ‘inherited churches’? They need to eschew nostalgia and welcome the challenges and opportunities of post-Christendom. Some inherited practices that need to be reconsidered include:

  • The clergy/laity distinction, which hinders recognition of the ministry of all God’s people, perpetuates the myth that clergy are the ‘front line’, and leads to performance-oriented front-led services. Instead Ephesians 4:1-16 needs to be central: the church is where God’s people are resourced for mission and ministry, not the place where clergy staff the front line and expect the laity to resource them! An agenda for change might include appointing leaders from their own congregation, regarding bi-vocational team leadership as normal (i.e. teams of part-time leaders, rather than a single full-timer), and replacing the reductionist concept of ‘ministry of word and sacrament’ with ‘equipping God’s people for works of service’.
  • Monologue sermons, which became dominant in Christendom. But the monologue is one of the least effective means of instruction and encourages passivity in hearers. Today we can explore alternatives: open-ended presentations, posing questions rather than dispensing answers, making room for comments, challenges etc., having several speakers debating issues with congregations invited to participate, forming discussion groups during or after sermons etc. We also need to go much further in the direction of multi-voiced worship.
  • Church discipline needs to be recovered, but first congregations need to learn skills in handling conflict. Matthew 18:15-20 is the model, but it is not hierarchical (leaders are not mentioned).
  • ‘Peace church’ – a modest proposal: ‘Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other’.
  • Beyond tithing – ‘if just war thinking is inadequate for challenging western militarism, tithing cannot subvert Western consumerism’. Instead we need to learn to pursue economic justice and participate in Jesus’ mission to bring good news to the poor.

We should beware of complicating this; church is really quite simple! Simple church might mean things like:

  • Recovering friendship as our relational paradigm.
  • Eating together a lot.
  • Lots of laughter.

Re-imagining Church.

  • Imagine a community stirred by poets and storytellers (the emphasis on doctrine and morality rather than narrative in most sermons and hymns offers little help for communities to rediscover and celebrate their stories).
  • Imagine the church as a ‘monastic missionary order’—combining prayer and social action evangelism and contemplation.
  • Imagine churches as safe places to take risks.

Stuart concludes his book by suggesting some resources to help us in post-Christendom – we can find helpful things in the pre-Christendom church, in the anti-Christendom traditions such as Anabaptism, in the extra-Christendom world beyond the west, and even some things from Christendom too.

  • He suggests learning different ways of reading the Bible (from the point of view of the underdog and the marginalized peoples), learning the texts that spoke to people in exile, rediscovering the language about ‘principalities and powers’.
  • To what extent have Christendom power-structures influenced theology? (Creeds, atonement theories, retribution and judgement, triumphalism.
  • Helpful images for post-Christendom include marginality, liminality (a threshold state), exile, pilgrimage.

Terminology we might let go of includes:

  • ‘House of God’, ‘sanctuary’, ‘church’ (for a building).
  • ‘Clergy’ and ‘laity’.
  • Ecclesiastical titles (‘reverend’ etc.)
  • Non-inclusive language.
  • ‘Home mission’, ‘foreign missions’, ‘campaigns’, ‘crusades’, ‘winning converts’, ‘taking cities’.

Above all, in post-Christendom we need to intentionally put Jesus as the centre:

  • paying attention to his life, relationships, radical teaching, and their implications for discipleship.
  • recognizing that we need to ask not only ‘why did Jesus die?’ but also ‘why did they kill him?’
  • living in the gospel narratives
  • reading scripture from a Jesus-centred perspective
  • refusing to allow systems of interpretation to muffle Jesus’ call to discipleship
  • not just worshipping Jesus, but actually following him.
  • allowing ourselves to be challenged by his Sermon on the Mount and his kingdom prayer

Sabbatical 2007, Report #3 (a repost from April 26th 2007)

Note: this is the fourth in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican’, from thirteen years ago. This post was originally posted on April 26th 2007.

Stuart Murray: Post-Christendom (part one of a summary of the book).

Over the past week I have been reading Stuart Murray’s fine book ‘Post-Christendom‘.

Make no mistake: Stuart Murray thinks that Christendom was, on the whole, a bad idea. He doesn’t dispute the fact that it might have had some good side-effects, but in his view this does not change the fact that it required the Church to mutate the gospel and the shape of discipleship into something very different from the original vision of Jesus and the New Testament.

Christendom—if you aren’t familiar with the terminology—was the state of affairs that existed after Christianity became, first a tolerated religion and then the official religion of the Roman empire. Before this, the Christian church was a movement on the edges of society, a group of wild-eyed fanatics who talked about brotherhood and loving your enemies, about selling your possessions and giving to the poor and so on. In order to join them you had to go through a demanding process called the catechumenate which lasted for several years, at the end of which you went through an adult baptism. There was a strong sense of purpose in the movement, and a clear line of demarcation between those who were in it and those who were not.

This changed in the fourth century when Constantine, the Roman Empire, decided to promote Christianity as a bold new religion that could unite his empire. He not only tolerated it – he gave financial inducements for people to join it, lionized its bishops and leaders, and built it some huge churches. He presided over its theological councils, even though he himself had not been baptized and apparently saw no difference between the god of the Christians and the Unconquerable Sun, his own family god. The process of co-option of Christianity as the official religion of the empire continued under Constantine’s successors, so that over an eighty-year period the church went from being a persecuted movement to being itself a persecutor (with the help of the machinery of state). Obviously, when that happens, something radical has changed.

Stuart tells the story of the Christendom shift and the changes it brought to the church. The story includes:

    • The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the city, state, or empire.
    • Movement of the church from the margins to the centre of society.
    • The creation and progressive development of a Christian culture or civilization.
    • The assumption that all citizens (except Jews) were Christians by birth.
    • The definition of ‘orthodoxy’ as the belief all shared, determined by powerful church leaders with state support.
    • Imposition, by legislation and custom, of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire society (although it was normally Old Testament morality that was applied, not the teaching of Jesus).
    • Infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into Christian society.
    • The defence of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality and schism.
    • A hierarchical church system based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, analogous to the state hierarchy and buttressed by state support.
    • A sharp distinction between clergy and laity, and the relegation of the laity to a largely passive role.
    • Sunday as an official holiday.
    • The requirement of oaths of allegiance and oaths in law courts to encourage truth telling.
    • The construction of massive and ornate church buildings and the formation of huge congregations.
    • Increased wealth for the church and obligatory tithes to fund the system.
    • Division of the world into ‘Christendom’ and ‘heathendom’ and wars waged in the name of Christ and the church.
    • Use of political and military force to impose Christianity, regardless of personal conviction.
    • Enemy-loving and peacemaking replaced by the formation of a Christian army and the ‘just war’ theory or ‘holy war’ ideology.
    • Reliance on the Old Testament, rather than the new, to justify these changes.

He makes the further telling point that in order for the church to be brought in from the margins to the centre of society, Jesus had to be banished from the centre to the margins of the church, in the sense that his example and teaching no longer held centre sway—a Master who taught love for enemies, simplicity of life and caring for the poor would have been a little awkward for a rich and powerful empire! So in Christendom the worship of Jesus was emphasized at the expense of actually following his teaching and example. This can be seen most strikingly in the creeds, which date from this period of time. They jump straight from the birth of Jesus to his death and resurrection, but say nothing about his life, his miracles, his relationships, his teachings, or his subversive lifestyle at all.

From time to time dissenting voices emerged, challenging the Christendom system and calling the church back to a model more consistent with Jesus and his way. But the beginnings of the disintegration of Christendom might be traced to the reformation of the 16th century, even though most of its features remained for centuries afterwards. The Protestant Reformers did not oppose the Christendom system, but their activities led to the fragmentation of Christendom into competing, and eventually warring, mini-Christendoms—Lutheran Christendom in Germany, Zwinglian Christendom in Zurich, Calvinist Christendom in Geneva, and Anglican Christendom in England. And in 1525 a little group of Christians gathered in a house in Zurich took the radical step of baptizing each other as adults in obedience to the command of Jesus and in rebellion against the infant baptism system; the Anabaptist movement had begun. Anabaptists were significant because they alone, at the time of the 16th century, questioned the whole structure of Christendom; they had gone back to the New Testament and discovered there that the church was meant to be a voluntary community of people who had freely chosen to follow Jesus, not something you automatically belonged to by virtue of being born in a so-called ‘Christian country’. For this (despite the fact that they were mostly pacifists) they were seen as dangerous subversives and were viciously persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike.

The undermining of Christendom continued quietly in the centuries that followed. Stuart identifies the following as some of the causes of it:

    • Disillusionment with religion resulting from incessant warfare between supposedly Christian nations.
    • The reliance of philosophers and scientists on reason and experimentation rather than revelation.
    • The impact of industrialization and urbanization on traditional beliefs and structures.
    • Postmodernism, pluralism, and fragmentation.
    • The persistence of dissent, and the emergence of the ‘free church’ tradition.
    • The globalization of the church and its mission.

All of these have contributed to the post-Christendom situation we face today—which, in Stuart’s view, is not a disaster, since the Christendom system was not what Jesus had in mind anyway.

However, he points out that there are still many vestiges of Christendom in the popular mindset. He writes in an English context and some of the examples he gives are particular to Britain. However, some of the more general ones include:

    • Many church buildings contain military paraphernalia, and most denominations endorse the ‘just war’ theory.
    • Many denominations and agencies maintain structures that perpetuate outdated ‘sending nations’ and ‘mission fields’ concepts.
    • Infant baptism is still widely practiced, but there are concerns with indiscriminate christening where there is no evidence of Christian commitment.
    • The popularity of tithing in newer churches is encouraging Anglicans and Catholics to return to a Christendom practice.
    • Church discipline is not taught in seminaries, congregations are not equipped to practice it, and attempts to exercise discipline are frequently ineffective and authoritarian.
    • Inherited or chosen architectural styles of church buildings maintain aspects of Christendom church thinking. Many resemble lecture halls or theatres, disabling multi-voiced worship.
    • Special clothes continue to designate a clergy caste with special powers and privileges.
    • Churches enjoy the presumption that their activities are charitable and so receive tax privileges.
    • Holidays are planned around Christian religious festivals.

Other continuing issues include:

    • Overemphasizing internal church issues at the expense of God’s mission and kingdom.
    • Confusion about the relationship between patriotism and ultimate loyalty to God’s kingdom and the transnational Christian community.
    • Predilection for large congregations that support a ‘professional’ standard of ministry.
    • Approaches to evangelism based on the assumption that people will come to us (being a welcoming church), rather than on our responsibility to go to them (being a missionary church).
    • Thinking the Christian story is still known, understood, and widely believed within society.
    • Reluctance to concede that Christendom inoculates people against real Christianity rather than evangelizing them.
    • Assuming that churchgoing is normal and that people feel comfortable inside church buildings.
    • Attitudes to church buildings that assume that they are ‘God’s houses’.
    • Attitudes toward other faith communities that assume that because we are a ‘Christian country’ Christianity should be given special preference.

How have churches responded to the end of Christendom?

    • Denying – some refuse to concede that it has happened and go on as if nothing has changed.
    • Defending – some see the end of Christendom as a disaster and are determined to fight against it tooth and nail.
    • Dissociating – newer churches sometimes suggest that the end of Christendom has nothing to do with them.
    • Demonizing – completely dismissing Christendom as having no good features at all.
    • Disavowing – repenting of the sins of Christendom and facing resolutely forward into the new era.
    • Disentangling ourselves from the machinery of Christendom, deconstructing the old structures that are no longer appropriate, disembarking from the Christendom ship.

The final chapters of Stuart’s book suggest strategies for doing mission and being church in post-Christendom, and suggest some resources to help churches in this new world we find ourselves in. But this article is already too long, so more about that later!

Sabbatical Report #2 (repost from April 23rd 2007)

Note: this is the second in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican‘, from thirteen years ago. This post was originally posted on April 23rd 2007.

My first week of sabbatical has flown by quickly and it seems I haven’t got in anything like as much study as I had hoped. But I’m trying not to get too discouraged about that. I had to get here, get established, get over jet lag, get Nick off to Manchester, get my cell phone set up etc. etc. Not surprising that life was busy.

At present I’m still working on two books: Arnold Snyder’s Anabaptist History and41mkiwzv2al-_sl500_aa300_ Theology in the mornings, and Stuart Murray’s Post-Christendom at some other time during the day. Snyder’s book is a superb historical study of Anabaptism and gives a good summary of the stories and ideas of all the early people in the movement. It’s also good in that it flags worthwhile books for further reading. I’m about half way through it now (it’s about 400 pages), but when I’m done I’ll need to go back and make some notes.

Snyder has been particularly good in identifying the historical and sociological background of early Anabaptism. He notes how in the sixteenth century in Europe there was a huge amount of discontent amongst the peasant classes, and how the established churches were seen as being in league with the ruling classes and landowners. Two common church-related themes emerge at the time: the lower classes wanted the right to appoint their own clergy (and thus have some control over the morality of their pastors, which apparently was very lax), and they wanted the right to keep their tithes in their own communities and use them to help the local poor rather than having to send them off to pay some canon in a distant cathedral.

Some of you probably know that in the 1520s there was a peasant uprising in south Germany and Austria, the ‘Peasants’ War’. At this time not all of the early Anabaptists were pacifists, and several of them supported the peasants and fought in their army. The mainline denominations, however, overwhelmingly supported the landed gentry and aristocracy. Snyder believes that much of the appeal of early Anabaptism lay in the fact that it was seen as a people’s movement. Something for us to learn there, I think.

Stuart Murray’s book is covering a lot of ground I’m familiar with, but he has a good411DZmPyvcL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ way of summing things up and fitting them together into a coherent whole. His theme is ‘Post-Christendom’, and he defines the shift from Christendom to Post-Christendom as follows:

    • From the centre to the margins: in Christendom the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.
    • From majority to minority: in Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Christendom we are a minority.
    • From settlers to sojourners: in Christendom Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aliens, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.
    • From privilege to plurality: in Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.
    • From control to witness: in Christendom churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.
    • From maintenance to mission: in Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.
    • From institution to movement: in Christendom churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom we must again become a Christian movement.

In the first half of the book Stuart is telling the story of Christendom (it has several tie-ins with Snyder’s work, actually). One very telling point he makes is that when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire it changed dramatically, and one of the changes was (as he puts it), that ‘in order for the church to come in from the margins to the centre, it had to banish Jesus from the centre to the margins’. What he means by that is that Jesus said some things that were very uncomfortable for a church in league with an empire—things about loving your enemies, about selling your goods and giving to the poor and so on. This didn’t sit well with a church newly allied to power and prestige. He points out that in the early years of Christianity, ethical instruction of converts was almost always based on the teachings of Jesus, but after the Christendom shift Old Testament norms like the Ten Commandments became more prominent.

Lots to think about, and I’m really looking forward to getting into these books again today.

I had a weekend that was mainly fun, though. On Friday I went out to Maidenhead, west of London, to spend the weekend with my old high school friend Steve Palmer and his family. Steve and I played music together when we were teenagers and have been best friends for thirty years. On Saturday we took his kids to an open day at the Berkshire College of Agriculture (donkeys, parrots, tractor rides, bricklaying, sheepdog shows etc. etc.). On Sunday I went to church with them at St. Mary’s Maidenhead, an evangelical Anglican church that is wonderfully free from tradition (!). Steve drove me back to London Mennonite Centre at lunch time, and in the afternoon I joined in the worship of Wood Green Mennonite Church. More about these two worship experiences in a day or so—they were both very enjoyable in different ways and I want to reflect on them a bit. Afterwards some of the folks from WGMC came back here to the Centre for wine and snacks on the patio. There was another folk-singing guitarist here, and they asked the two of us to play. We ended up trading songs back and forth for a couple of hours while it got dark—very enjoyable.

That’s it from me at the London Mennonite Centre. Talk to you all again soon.

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. 

Sabbatical Report #14: You Get to Meet Some Interesting People…


This past week I have met two very interesting people in the context of my Anabaptist pilgrimage through England.
Professor Chris Rowland has the exalted title of ‘Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture’ at Oxford University. A recent description of Chris’ interests reads as follows:

Professor Rowland, a gifted and engaging teacher, specializes in research on the Interpretation of the New Testament; the apocalyptic tradition in ancient Judaism and Christianity; the reception history of the Apocalypse; the biblical hermeneutics of William Blake; the theology of liberation; the radical tradition in Christianity; methods in grassroots readings of Scripture; group work and biblical study; and the interpretation of the Bible and developments in adult education.

Despite this formidable sounding list, I was interested in meeting Chris because he has participated in Anabaptist Network activities. He has told his own story of his discovery of the Anabaptist tradition here, and was one of the first people I contacted a few years ago when I became interested in Anabaptism. I decided to visit Oxford and emailed Chris (after having no contact for a couple of years) on the spur of the moment about getting together; to my delight he was available for a short meeting in his lair at Queen’s College. I found him to be a wonderfully welcoming person and a very provocative thinker; I was particularly interested in the connections he has made between Anabaptist thinking and radical movements in England in the 17th century, and also with contemporary liberation theology. I tend to practice Anglicanism ‘from the edge’ and I discovered that Chris does too – perhaps a slightly different edge than me, but nonetheless I found our conversation very affirming. Today I bought a book he has edited, a collection of Radical Christian Writings from the earliest times to the present day, and am looking forward to reading it.
I first met Dr. Ruth Gouldbourne at the Anabaptist Network Theology forum


at Launde Abbey a couple of weeks ago, and today I went down to her patch for a cup of coffee and a conversation. Ruth is the senior minister (not sure what your official title is, Ruth!) at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in London. The life of their congregation is well described on their excellent website; suffice it so say that this is a congregation which is serious and intentional about reaching out to the neighbourhood around them and is finding all sorts of creative ways to do it. 

Ruth has been a pastor, a college lecturer in history and doctrine, and also a ‘what?’ (you have to read her CV!), and she has also been involved in the Anabaptist Network for some years (she’s written about that here). Her interests are wide-ranging, from Church History to Gender studies to counseling to… – well, ‘Following Jesus’ sums it all up, I think! Today, after showing me around the church, she took me over to the British Museum coffee shop for a cup of coffee, and we had a delightful conversation about all sorts of subjects, with Anabaptism and its implications for life and ministry as a sort of controlling theme (although control was far from either of our minds!).


Talking with both of these disciples of Jesus brought home to me once again what a privilege it is for me to be having this sabbatical leave. It’s great to build relationships with people whose views are often very different from mine, but who are obviously grappling with the serious issues of following Jesus in the modern world and have found some inspiration for that in Anabaptism.

Sabbatical Report #13: Book Review

Guy F. Hershberger, Ed.: The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision




This is an old book, published in 1957, the year before I was born, and now out of print (my link above leads to some second hand copies on ‘Abebooks’). I read it on the recommendation of Ed Shirk, one of the hosts here at the London Mennonite Centre, and I’m very glad I did. I found much to admire, and also learned a lot about Mennonite history and Mennonite self-understanding.





This is a collection of essays to celebrate the 60th birthday of Harold S. Bender. Bender was a Mennonite historian and scholar who had an enormous influence on Mennonite Christianity in the middle of the 20th century. In 1943 he delivered a presidential address to the American Society of Church History entitled ‘The Anabaptist Vision’. Briefly put, Bender identified three elements as key to the Anabaptist view:



‘First, a new conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship; second, a new conception of the church as a brotherhood; and third, a new ethic of love and non-resistance’.


This crystalising of the key elements of Anabaptism apparently had an enormous impact on Mennonites at the time, galvanizing them into a re-appropriation of their heritage which in a very real sense had been in danger of being lost altogether.





This book of essays (which includes Bender’s original address, ‘The Anabaptist Vision’) was written at an interesting time; fourteen years on, Mennonites were still apparently excited about Bender’s vision and had not yet begun to ask critical questions about it (which came a few years later). So here in this collection we have twenty-four essays from a group of scholars, most of whom I’m unfamiliar with, although one of the pieces is by a very young John Howard Yoder (in my view, by far the best essay in the book), and other writers include Roland Bainton and Ernest Payne. We have historical essays on the rise of Anabaptism, a group of essays on Anabaptist theology (including Yoder’s ‘The Prophetic Dissent of the Anabaptists’ which examines the dialogues between the Anabaptists and the Reformed Christians in Zurich in 1523-5), and then a collection on continuing Anabaptist history.





Allow me to give a lengthy quote from Yoder:



‘If the starting point of the pre-Anabaptist movement in 1523 was a view of Scriptural authority, the end point, which enabled the movement to become a force in history, was a view of the church. Negatively expressed, the product of the development from October 1523 to January 1525 was the Anabaptists’ rejection of the Corpus Christianum. Following the revolutionary changes in the relation of church and world which we associate with the names of Constantine, Theodosius, and Augustine, medieval Christendom had no room for the concept of ‘the world’. The consequences for ethics, for the doctrine of the church, for evangelism, and for eschatology, were revolutionary and yet were hardly noticed. So unconscious and so all-pervading was the acceptance of the identity of church and society that the Reformers, each working closely with the local magistracy and seeking to reform medieval Catholicism with as little commotion as possible, were not even aware of a problem and were able to pass off as political revolutionaries anyone who raised the question…




Only among the Zurich Anabaptists and those who learned from them was a new answer to the problem reached. Led by their simple Biblicism, abetted by the opposition of both civil and ecclesiastical authorities, they learned that the ‘world’ was just as significant a theological quantity in the sixteenth century as it had been in the first, and that the church is not simply an administrative subdivision of a monolithic society, charged with giving that society moral sanction and psychological stability, nor an invisible mystic communion of true believers, but a new kind of disciplined fellowship, taking shape within history by the gathering of confessing believers… Thereby evangelism, which for the ‘Constantinian’ reformers was by definition inconceivable, became a real possibility; alone of all the churches of the Reformation, the Anabaptists considered evangelism as belonging to the essential being of the church. Church discipline; a level of ethical requirements distinct from the average behaviour of the average citizen; economic fellowship within the local congregation, whether through common ownership of goods or through the deacon’s office; baptism upon confession of faith; refusal of the oath and of civil office; all the foci of disagreement with the Reformers fell into place as parts of a consistent whole once one dared, at the price of scandal and persecution, call into question the Constantianian synthesis, and to conceive of the church as being distinct from the world.





This is a truly rich quote from Yoder, and I plan to unpack it in a future post as I think some of the references will be unclear to some of my readers. But I was struck by his identification of evangelism as a key concern of the Anabaptists. History bears him out; the early Anabaptists were deeply committed to evangelism and the (largely lay and illiterate) evangelists traveled up and down western Europe making thousands of converts.




Lawrence Burkholder’s essay in this book, entitled ‘The Anabaptist Vision of Discipleship’, underlines this point; he identifies ‘obedience to the Great Commission’ as the first outstanding feature of the Anabaptist view of discipleship (the others are ‘love and nonresistance’, ‘suffering in the spirit of cross-bearing’, and ‘the separated life of holiness’). He says:



Franklin H. Littell has given us a most illuminating account of the missionary enterprise of the Anabaptists in his volume entitled The Anabaptist View of the Church. He says that “no words of the Master were given more serious attention by his Anabaptist followers than his final command: ‘Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you…’”. The evangelical Taufer became effective evangelists who went into the highways and along the ‘hedges’, preaching. Most significant were their assumptions that a great Christendom culture after a thousand years of Christian teaching, needed to hear the Gospel and that the responsibility of witnessing was not the professional task of a particular class of Christians. According to the Anabaptists, the Great Commission followed baptism and therefore it became the task of every believer. This was a revolutionary idea which if practiced generally would soon change the face of Christendom.




Evangelism belongs to the essential being of the church; evangelism (understood as obedience to the Great Commission) is the responsibility of every Christian, not just a professional class. How startling to read, then, in this book, that before very long the Anabaptists – or, as they had then become, the Mennonites and Hutterites – ceased to practice evangelism at all!





How did this happen? In a nutshell, it was a result of years of persecution. Anabaptists were pacifists in an age when it was perilous to refuse military service. Many times in their long history they had to negotiate safe living space in new territories because the places where they were currently living were becoming very unsympathetic to their pacifism. Many times new rulers were glad to let them move in, because of their reputation as honest hardworking farmers who would go into new territory and open it up for agriculture. But over and over again, the agreements which the Mennonite leaders negotiated with these new rulers included their acceptance of a strict moratorium on attempting to make new converts. Abandoning evangelism was the price they paid for safety and survival. And what a price! Blaurock, Grebel, Sattler and the other martyrs of Zurich would have been flabbergasted to hear that their spiritual descendants would even conceive of such a thing! And yet, who can fail to understand the pressure these people felt to buy safety for their families in this way?





And so a movement which began with a burning desire to change the world, eventually, as a result (if I may reverently and respectfully say so) of ‘having the shit kicked out of it’ for years, came to find a different way of relating to the world – or, to be more accurate, two different ways. Broadly speaking, according to the authors of this book, Mennonites in later years did one of two things.





Some of them withdrew physically from the world, living in isolated communities protected from the world by geography and by their distinct language and culture. In effect (as Yoder has pointed out in another place), a movement which began as a protest against Christendom ended up forming many little Christendoms, in which the supposedly free choice to become a disciple of Jesus (on which Anabaptism had been founded) was replaced by all the pressure a distinct community can bring upon its members (especially its young members) to conform. And (as Rudy Wiebe portrayed it so graphically, a few years after this book was written, in his brilliant novel Peace Shall Destroy Many) keeping one’s distinctiveness from the world (which meant preserving the German language and culture as a hedge to keep out the world) effectively meant that evangelism of non-German-speaking peoples could not take place; after all, where would new converts go to church?





The other solution, which apparently happened in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands and later in Germany, was for Mennonites to conform to society, to gradually dull the edge of simple living, nonviolence, the refusal of the oath etc., and to become simply another pietistic form of Christianity like many others, which gave no challenge to the world around them except by pointing toward a faith in Jesus which had very little bite to it. This solution to the problem has a contemporary ring to it, and I suspect that Mennonites are far from being the only ones who have been tempted by it.





Hence the need to recover a distinctive Anabaptist vision – neither living like the world, nor withdrawing from it, but engaging it as committed followers of Jesus. Undoubtedly Harold Bender’s challenge to the Anabaptist world in 1943 had a hugely positive effect and went along way toward helping them recover their sense of mission and purpose.





However, later generations have noticed a few holes in Bender’s argument. Bender saw the pure Anabaptism as flowing from the Swiss Brethren in the early 1520s; he saw it as having been adopted by Menno Simons in his work of reshaping the Dutch Mennonite communities after the disaster of Münster and hence becoming the defining character of the Anabaptist movement as a whole. This has become known as the theory of ‘Monogenesis’ – in other words, Anabaptism had one pure source: Zurich, 1525.





The problem with this theory is that it leaves out many people who would have been thought of as Anabaptists in the 16th century, for no other reason than that they represent emphases which Mennonites later abandoned. And so Arnold Snyder and other Mennonite historians in the last thirty years have proposed a new theory, polygenesis. As Snyder outlines it in his book Anabaptist History and Theology’, it recognizes at least three emphases in sixteenth century Anabaptism:


  • Literal/biblical, oriented toward discipleship (mainly the Swiss Brethren)
  • Spiritual/mystical, oriented toward the inner work and voice of the Spirit (mainly the south German and Austrian Anabaptists).
  • Apocalyptic, oriented toward speculations about the end of the world (mainly the north German and Dutch until Münster – after that, Menno led them slowly into the more Swiss style).




The problem with Bender’s analysis is that it leaves out or marginalises great Anabaptist thinkers like Balthazar Hubmaier (who was not a pacifist) and Hans Denck (who was a mystic). It is neat and tidy, but real church history is rarely neat and tidy. And the fact is that the later Mennonites, who sometimes lapsed into legalism, could have used a bigger dose of the gentler mysticism of a Denck. Again, it is better and more honest to accept that the Münster people were Anabaptists who went off the rails than to pretend that they were never really Anabaptists at all.





I must stop here, but I must confess that I am thinking about the application of this principle to the UK Anabaptist Network as well. Sometimes I see some romantic idealizing going on. People talk about ‘Anabaptist values’, but it isn’t always easy to see how those values connect with the real Anabaptist groups – Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, Hutterite, Amish – who have lived their brave and flawed church lives in the nearly five hundred years since 1525. A ‘generic’ tradition can be a lot easier to romanticize than a real and imperfect denomination.





So – more to come on the Yoder quote, and more to come on the advantages and disadvantages of ‘generic Anabaptism’!



Sabbatical Report #12: Book Review

John Howard Yoder: The Politics of Jesus

For the last three weeks, in between various conferences, seeing my family off back to Canada, and doing a bit of tourism, I have been pondering John Howard Yoder’s seminal book The Politics of Jesus. I must be the last Anabaptist in England to read this book; Stuart Murray Williams told me that it (along with The More-With-Less Cookbook!) is one of the two books most frequently cited as influential in moving people toward Anabaptism in England, and it was first mentioned to me by my old friend Richard Avery as far back as 1983! Furthermore – even more shameful – it has actually been on my bookshelf for at least a decade! But I’ve finally caught up with the rest of the Anabaptist world (and a good portion of the non-Anabaptist world as well); I’ve read the book twice through, and am now ready to pronounce it brilliant.Not that I caught the significance of it right away. For about the first quarter of the book I found myself thinking, “What’s all the fuss about? Shouldn’t it be a bit more revolutionary than this?” I think this is because Yoder has largely carried his case, at least to a sizeable enough portion of the Christian world that a good number of subsequent authors have simply assumed the truth of what he has to say – in other words, I’ve been reading Yoderian truth for years without actually reading Yoder, and have already been persuaded by it!Yoder has a basic point he wants to make in this book. He is determined to refute the view that the life and teaching of Jesus has no relevance for social ethics, and that Christians looking for ethical guidance on social issues need to look elsewhere. His method is to consider biblical (and especially New Testament) texts, doing careful exegesis in order to investigate whether, in fact, Jesus might have something to say about social and political reality after all. Not surprisingly, his conclusion is that the message of Jesus is in fact all about social and political reality; hence the title of the book.He begins by describing the reasons mainstream Christendom has developed for not using Jesus as the norm for Christian ethics: Jesus thought that the time between his ministry and the end of the world would be brief, so his ethic has no relevance for the continuation of history; he was a simple rural figure and his ethic is difficult to apply to town life; he lived in a world in which he and his followers had no control, so his teaching can’t help us much in our modern democratic political realities; he came to die for us, not teach us proper behaviour, etc. Because it is assumed that we can’t be guided by Jesus’ teaching on social ethics, Christians have turned to common sense and ‘the nature of things’ for guidance instead.Having sketched out this background, Yoder then sets out what he wants to do in the rest of the book:

  1. ‘I will attempt to sketch an understanding of Jesus and his ministry of which it might be said that such a Jesus would be of direct significance for social ethics…
  2. I will secondly state the case for considering Jesus, when thus understood, to be not only relevant but also normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic’.

He then proceeds to take us on a hop, skip and a jump through the Gospel according to Luke, pointing out passages which are relevant to his thesis. He particularly highlights the fact that the ‘Zealot option’ (violent rebellion against the oppressors) must have been a continual temptation to Jesus, and points out moments in the story when Jesus was specifically rejecting it. His conclusion is:

Jesus was not just a moralist whose teachings had some political implications; he was not primarily a teacher of spirituality whose public ministry unfortunately was seen in a political light; he was not just a sacrificial lamb preparing for his immolation, or a God-Man whose divine status calls us to disregard his humanity. Jesus was, in his divinely mandated (i.e. promised, anointed, messianic) prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships…No slicing can avoid his call to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life.


Yoder goes on to examine the idea of the Year of Jubilee, which included (1) leaving the soil fallow, (2) the remission of debts, (3) the liberation of slaves, and (4) the return to each individual of his family’s property. He traces elements of these ideas in the teaching of Jesus – particularly the remission of debt, which is resent in the Lord’s Prayer and in several of the parables.

In his next chapter Yoder looks at the violence of the Old Testament. He points out that the question of whether or not it is legitimate to use violence would not have occurred to the Old Testament authors, so it is not appropriate to use ‘the wars of Yahweh’ as an argument for the legitimacy of war, as this was not the issue being addressed. The real issue, he argues, is the number of times in which Israel is promised that ‘God will fight for you’ – sometimes without their participation at all – and the times in which they are rebuked for trusting in their own military prowess (or that of others) rather than in God’s defence.

And so Yoder’s argument goes on. He leads us through passages in the epistles which show that concern for Jesus’ social ethic continued in the early church. He asserts (overstating his case somewhat, in my opinion) that the concept of ‘following the example of Jesus’ in the New Testament is never applied as a general principle, but only in the context of following his nonviolent acceptance of the cross rather than resistance and retaliation.

In a particularly brilliant chapter he considers the subject of ‘Christ and Power’, examining the language of ‘Principalities and Powers’ in the New Testament and applying it to the powers and structures of society – structures which were created by God for our blessing, but which have rebelled and tried to become autonomous absolute rulers. Jesus’ Cross has ‘made a public example of them’ (i.e unmasked the evil that they do), ‘triumphed over them’, and ‘disarmed’ them of their weapon of illusion, the illusion that they are in control. The work of the Church, Yoder says, is not to attempt a frontal assault on the Powers (Jesus has already done that), but to live in joyful freedom from them, proclaiming that they have been defeated at the Cross.

In an especially controversial chapter entitled ‘Revolutionary Subordination’, Yoder examines the ‘house tables’ of Ephesians, Colossians and elsewhere, which are often asserted to show the essential social conservatism of the time, and shows that they are radically different from similar tables in the writings of the Stoic and others. He points out that if women and slaves were tempted to rebel against their accepted social position, it can only be because the preaching of Paul had taught essential equality. He notes that Paul takes the revolutionary step of addressing both sides of the structure (the Stoics only addressed the men in power, not those under their authority), and that Paul addresses women and slaves as free moral agents making the choice to accept a certain order ‘out of reverence for Christ’. Paul’s directions to those in power (husbands, fathers, masters) also point in the direction of equality, not dominance. In all of this Paul is moving in a completely different direction from the social conservatism of which he is often accused.

In a brilliant chapter on Romans 13 (which has often been used to show that Christians should submit to the State when it calls on them to serve in war), Yoder points out that this chapter is only one of the places in the New Testament in which the subject of the state is considered, and that if we hold it in balance with the others (places in which the state is seen as the province of the sovereignty of the devil, for intance, or as one of the Powers, or even as a Beast) we might get a very different view. He shows how Romans 13 should be interpreted in the context of the whole letter to the Romans, and concludes:

Romans 12-13 and Matthew 5-7 are not in contradiction or in tension. Theyboth instruct Christians to be nonresistant in all their relationships, including the social. They both call the disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in the interplay of egoisms which this world calls vengeance’ and ‘justice’. They both call Christians to respect and be subject to the historical process in which the sword continues to be wielded and to bring about a kind of order under fire, but not to perceive in the wielding of the sword their own reconciling ministry.

Yoder’s chapter on Justification is perhaps the least controversial in the book; the work of many fine scholars since The Politics of Jesus was written (notably N.T. Wright) have underscored the social dimensions of justification, which was not just about the curing of the neurotic consciences of troubled individuals but the restoration of right relationships, the ‘removal of the dividing wall’ between Jews and Gentiles and the making of one new humanity (Ephesians 3).

In his final chapter Yoder examines the liturgical passages embedded in the Book of Revelation and discovers there that the Lamb who freely offers himself in suffering love – who submits to death at the hand of Power and thereby triumphs over it – turns out to have the key to history. ‘Our Lamb has conquered; him let us follow’.

And so Yoder sets out his case for a Christianity which is social relevant, without being comfortably integrated by and into society as a whole. His vision of the Christian community is of a countercultural movement which challenges the Powers, neither by direct revolution nor by collusion in the unjust structures, but by being true to its own identity as the new people of God. He traces this pattern of thought directly back to Jesus, who announced the Kingdom of God in all its revolutionary distinctiveness, and who refused both the path of cooperation and the path of violent revolution. The community that follows this Jesus will be marked by social justice, radical equality (extending to the forgiveness of debt), nonviolence and love for enemies, revolutionary subordination, and a visible unity in which people groups which have traditionally been at each others’ throats are seen to be reconciled through the cross of Christ. This is a high calling, but Yoder has shown that faithfulness to it is essential if (to use the title of one of his other essays), the church is truly to be the church.

Sabbatical Report #11: Disciples Who Pray and Sing

This past weekend I attended a ‘Cross-Currents’ seminar at the London Mennonite Centre. These are seminars the Centre hosts from time to time on various issues; the one I attended was presented by Alan and Eleanor Kreider and was entitled ‘Anabaptist Spirituality: Disciples Who Pray and Sing’. Alan and Ellie’s teaching was rooted in the past, in the prayers and hymns of the 16th century Anabaptists, but also reached into the present with a desire to help this tradition live in the spiritual experience of modern Christian disciples.




Disciples who pray.



Alan and Ellie began by reminding us of what 16th century Anabaptism was: a radical renewal movement which was given its name by its enemies (‘re-baptizers’). The Anabaptists lived at a time of turbulent change, a time when troublemakers got called before the magistrates; much of what we know about the early Anabaptists comes from the court records of their testimony on trial. Many of them were tortured and a good number executed for their beliefs. The authorities saw them as destroying good civil order; the Anabaptists would have said that they were concerned with following Jesus faithfully and building churches committed to peace.





How did they survive? What sort of prayer life sustained them in their suffering? Scholars who write about 16th century Anabaptism don’t tend to address this question, although in recent years C.J. Dyck and C. Arnold Snyder have investigated it.





One of the great Anabaptist books is the Martyrs’ Mirror, a record of Christian martyrdom from New Testament times down to the 16th century Anabaptists. It includes some prayers taken from letters sent by Anabaptists in prison awaiting possible execution. Here are a couple of examples:



Loving God, you have baptized us into one body, and made us to drink the one Spirit. Now grant us pure and faithful hearts that we may serve one another diligently in love and find no cause to separate or divide. Call each of us to esteem others better than ourselves so we may remain together in peace and joy. Grant these mercies to us and all your people. Amen. (Tijs Jeuriaenss, 1569)




O God of heaven, watch over your sheep, who are such a little flock, that we may not depart from you or be led astray. Keep us under your protection and sustain us in your will. Grant that those who teach false doctrine may amend their steps and do your will. Fill us with your divine power, O God, for we have no other Lord in heaven and earth but you. Amen. (Eighteen Martyrs, 1528)





Lord God, I will praise you now and until my end because you have given me faith, by which I have learned to know you. When I felt the heavy load of sin in me, you came to me with the Word of your divine grace. For this I will now praise and magnify your glorious name forever. Strengthen my faith, O Lord. Do not forget me, but be with me always. Protect me and teach me with your Holy Spirit that in all my sufferings I may receive your consolation. Dear Lord, help me to bear the cross to the destined place, and turn yourself to me with all grace, that I may commend my spirit into your hands. I sincerely pray for all my enemies, O Lord, however many there may be. Do not lay their sins to their charge. Lord, I entreat this according to your will. May God finish his holy work and give strength to the end. Amen. (George Blaurock and Hans van der Reve, 1529).




Common themes in these and the other prayers Alan and Ellie showed us include: unity, service, faithfulness, God’s grace, the ministry of all Christians, a desire to obey God, prayer for God’s comfort, a sense of danger, a fear of falling away, and prayer for strength to love one’s enemies.



Where did these prayers come from?





Recent scholarship has rediscovered the ‘Biblical Concordance of the Swiss Brethren’, a topical concordance first published in 1540 and reprinted fourteen times over the next 150 years – the second most printed Anabaptist text. The theological angle taken by the compilers makes a huge diffrence in topical concordances (‘Nave’s’ has three whole columns on ‘Dishonesty’ and only seven lines on ‘Discipleship’!). The topical concordance of the Swiss Brethren is an aid to scripture memorization with a practical slant – its themes form a journey through Christian discipleship. It begins with the Fear of God, them moves through Repentance, Discipleship, Rebirth, Service of God, Faith, Baptism, Spirit, Persecution, Bearing Witness and so on. Later we see themes like Pride, Treasure, No one can serve two Masters, Do Not Depend on the Great Crowd, Brotherly Rebuke, and so on. Some verses are printed in full, for others references are simply given. The idea was to aid a largely illiterate people in memorizing the key biblical texts for Christian discipleship.





These texts informed the prayer lives of the Anabaptists; many of the verses keep showing up in the written prayers found in Martyrs’ Mirror and other places. Arnold Snyder calls their spirituality ‘A piety of the remembered word’. These texts also show up again and again in the court testimonies of Anabaptists who were on trial for their beliefs. This topical concordance is not a leisurely document for people who want to study erudite theology; it is a Christian survival guide for a persecuted people, and it helped them become a Bible people and a praying people.





Disciples who sing.



After coffee Alan and Ellie introduced us to the ‘Ausbund’, the oldest hymnal in continual use in any Christian tradition, a sixteenth century book still used today by the Amish.





In the 1530s sixty people were brought into a crowded prison in Passau, Moravia. They were held for years, and some of them died there. Among them were some excellent hymnists, and they wiled away their time composing hymns together. This group produced the original fifty-one hymns of the ‘Ausbund’, and the themes reveal the tone of Anabaptism at the time. One dominant theme is ‘confidence’ – ‘God will not abandon us’. Twenty years later eighty additional hymns were added.





Here is a sample hymn (translated from German into English):



I cry to you from deepest need


O God, hear my call



Send your Holy Spirit to us



To comfort our deepest despair



As you have done to now, O Christ



We rely on your command



but now they want to kill us.





The flesh is weak, as you know



It fears the smallest pain



So fill us with your Spirit



We pray from our hearts



So that we may remain until the end



And go bravely into suffering



And not fear the pain.





The spirit is surely willing



to undergo suffering



Hear us, O Lord,



Through Jesus Christ your beloved Son!



We pray also for our enemies



Who know not what they do



and think not of your wrath.





We ask you, Father and Lord



As your loving children



Kindle the light through Jesus Christ



Even more in your little flock



That would be our hearts’ desire



That for which we hunger and thirst



And would bring us greatest joy.





You have received us in grace



And made us your servants



This we have all done willingly



And fulfilled with your help



Keep us pure in your word



We want to be obedient to you



Give us aid and comfort





You, Lord God, are our protection



We lift ourselves up to you



So it is but a small pain



If our lives be taken from us



You have prepared for us in eternity



So if here we suffer insult and blows



It will not be for nothing.





Body, soul, life, and limbs



We have received from you



These we offer up to you



To praise and glorify your name



It is nothing but dust and ashes



We commend to you our spirit, O God,



Take it into your hands. Amen.



(Seven Prisoners in Gmund).




Common themes in the hymns include: grace, discomfort, desperation, prayer that God will keep them faithful, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the church as a ‘little flock’. Context is obviously vitally important; these are the hymns of a persecuted people who feel themselves to be in a precarious position in the world. Their desire is to be faithful to God, and the hymns they wrote have great value to us today. If a Christian community sings only triumphant hymns, how will that help the members when they fall into trouble? And also these hymns link us to Christians who suffer today around the world.



Bringing the tradition alive today.



In the afternoon Alan and Ellie reflected on the fact that Christians of all traditions seem to be praying and reading the Bible far less than our forebears did. There is less scripture memorization and Christians feel less confident in praying.





This led them to tell the story of the Anabaptist Daily Office which has been under development for some years. I will not repeat the story as there is a wealth of information about it at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary website here.





This was another great day with Alan and Ellie. for myself, it led me to consider a number of questions:


    • Why don’t I memorise scriptures? I did at one time, but haven’t for many years. The plethora of different translations is obviously a problem here, but they way in which the texts from the topical concordance shaped the prayer life of the early Anabaptists is a real challenge to me.
    • How important is context in the writing of hymns and songs? Today many contemporary worship songs have little sense of context or story at all. If we really wrote hymns and songs that come out of our present experience and are informed by the biblical story, what would they look like?
    • How can we help people who feel little confidence in Bible reading and prayer? In Anglicanism we have along tradition of the daily office, but it is not very accessible to most church people. How can we provide resource for people to help them pray with confidence?