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!

Two Sunday Worship Experiences (reposted from April 26th 2007, when I was on my Sabbatical leave in the UK)

This is a repost from thirteen years ago, April 26th 2007, when I was on my sabbatical leave in the UK, connecting with the Anabaptist Network. I wrote this post while I was staying at the London Mennonite Centre).

I said that I would write a little bit about my two worship experiences this past Sunday. They were different from each other, different from my usual Sunday fare, and both very enjoyable in their own individual way.

Sunday morning I went with my friends the Palmers to St. Mary’s Maidenhead. This is an Anglican church that stands very solidly in the evangelical stream of Anglicanism. It’s also a church that is growing. Looking around on Sunday morning, I saw lots of young families, and when the children and young people went out for Sunday School at least a third of the congregation had disappeared. Since I last worshipped there in January of 2005 they have moved to two worship services on Sunday, with the coffee hour in between, so things weren’t quite as congested as last time!

St. Mary’s has Communion once a month and this was Communion Sunday, so it was interesting to see how they do it. Here are the features I noticed:

    • They followed the basic outline of the Eucharist service—greeting and opening prayer, scripture, sermon, prayers of intercession, Eucharistic prayer, communion, prayers after communion, dismissal—but in a very stripped down way that was very accessible for people not brought up in the Anglican tradition. The atmosphere was informal and participatory.
    • No robes, and no titles for the people up front either. I gather that the worship leader for the first part of the service was either a lay reader or a churchwarden. One of the clergy preached and, later, presided at the Lord’s Table, but he was not distinguished from other people up front by dress or title.
    • The music was almost all contemporary, but not ‘Vineyard-style’, and there was no rock band to lead it, but quite a good choir with a keyboard player and some wind instruments up front.
    • There was one scripture reading only (and no psalm), and it was not from the lectionary but from a sermon series on John 14-17. The sermon was quite long even by my standards! There were Bibles in the pews (NIV) and lots of people were following along in the passage as the preacher preached the sermon.
    • The Prayers of the People (as we would call it) did not use a litany form, but the prayer leader prayed quite simply for several subjects with ‘In Jesus’ name Amen’ at the end of each section.
    • The Eucharistic Prayer was the shortest one in the English ‘Common Worship’ book, and it sounded very much like the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. It ended immediately after the words of Jesus ‘Do this in remembrance of me. Amen’.
    • Children do not receive communion here, so the children did not come back in for communion as they do at St. Margaret’s. The children seemed to really enjoy their Sunday School (not called that, by the way) which was held in a different building.

Even though this is a program-size church there was a high sense of fellowship in the congregation; people greeted each other and talked before the service and afterwards as well. I heard people talking about their faith during coffee hour too! I’ve only been there once before, but one person remembered me and remembered what we had talked about last time I was there. That was impressive.

I liked St. Mary’s a lot, even though some aspects of evangelical Christianity don’t particularly appeal to me any more. I liked the informality, the sense of the priesthood of all believers, the simplicity and lack of ritual in the service, and obvious focus on Christ and on personal faith in him.

In the afternoon, back in London, I went to Wood Green Mennonite Church. This congregation meets in the hall of a local Baptist church at 3.00 in the afternoon. It’s a small church—between twenty and thirty people—and the chairs are set in a circle with an open end where a simple lectern is placed for the leader. Here are some things I noticed:

    • Wood Green does not have a full time pastor although one of their elders is paid to do some part time work for the congregation. She was preaching this past Sunday, but not leading the worship.
    • As in many churches in the Mennonite family, leading the service was not restricted to the ‘pastor’. Another member of the congregation was leading the service. She used a liturgical form which I was familiar with, a sort of Anabaptist ‘daily office’. The form didn’t quite seem to fit for a Sunday, though; it didn’t seem to grow naturally out of the small size of the congregation, and I discovered afterwards that it was not their usual fare.
    • The sermon was part of a series on Mark (it seems that five or six members of this congregation share the responsibility for preaching). This week’s passage was mainly Mark 7:1-23 and the sermon was quite participatory—e.g. at one point people were asked which of the people or groups in the story they identified with and were invited to come up and stick a star on a flip chart beside the name of their person or group. After everyone who wanted to place a star had done so, the people were then invited to share why they placed their star where they did, and a number of people shared quite freely.
    • The ‘Prayers of the people’ part of the service, while it used a litany form, was quite open and in each section people were invited to add their own prayers—and they did.
    • There was no communion. I discovered afterwards that communion is not celebrated on Sundays; the congregation shares communion once a month on a Thursday evening; they do it as part of a fellowship meal, and their tradition includes foot washing as well, whenever communion is shared.

After the service tea was served and people stayed for a long time for fellowship. In fact, after we walked back to the London Mennonite Centre (about a fifty-minute walk), some of the congregation showed up there as well. Wine and food was brought out, conversation followed, another guitar player and I were invited to play some of our songs, and we ended up playing music for a couple of hours!

Again, I liked Wood Green a lot. I liked the way the service took place ‘in the round’ with a lot of participation from everyone. I liked the interactive form of the sermon, and I especially liked the obvious sense of family in the congregation.

So – I had an interesting Sunday with a lot to think about at the end of the day.

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.

Thirteen Years Ago Today…

Thirteen 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.


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 #8: Book Review

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

Stuart Murray: Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition

My book this past week has been Stuart Murray’s excellent Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition. I suspect it is the most important book I have read so far on my sabbatical leave; I think that everything else in the Anabaptist tradition flows logically out of their approach to biblical interpretation. Stuart does not claim that the sixteenth-century Anabaptists had a completely developed and logically consistent approach to biblical interpretation; this would have been an unrealistic expectation of a largely uneducated and vigorously persecuted movement. However, he identifies a surprisingly coherent approach across the various sixteenth century Anabaptist streams, while acknowledging differences of emphasis and admitting shortcomings.

He points out six general principles:

1. Scripture is self-interpreting.
Statements from Anabaptists show their confidence about the clarity of Scripture and its sufficiency without external additions. They strongly affirmed the right of private interpretation of Scripture, insisted that Scripture was clear enough to be understood and obeyed, and rejected the imposition of an interpretive grid on Scripture to force passages into consistency with preconceived theological systems. Statements from Anabaptists on trial show that their leaders’ attitudes had enfranchised the membership and produced tremendous faith and confidence in the ability of the ordinary Christian to understand and apply the Scriptures to their lives.

This principle has to be understood in the light of the historical situation of the Anabaptists. They were concerned that the 16th century Reformers such as Calvin and Luther were paying lip service to the plain sense of Scripture and the right of private interpretation but actually hedging these around with many qualifications. They suspected that priests and scholars were using their learning to find sophisticated reasons why simple obedience to Scripture was impossible and unnecessary.

Criticisms of this principle include the fact that Anabaptists failed to appreciate textual difficulties that cannot be resolved without good scholarship. What many readers assume is the plain meaning of the text may actually bear little resemblance to the original intent of the author when understood in a different cultural setting. Also, the disagreements and divisions about biblical interpretation within the Anabaptist movement would seem to indicate that the plain meaning of the text is not as plain as they assumed! However, for thousands of Christians, during the formative years of the Anabaptist movement, this approach was genuinely liberating. Whatever its shortcomings, it enfranchised people in ways the Reformation promised but often failed to deliver.

2. Christocentrism
Confidence that Scripture was clear and that all Christians could understand it applied pre-eminently to the passages containing the words and actions of Jesus. The belief that Jesus clarified what was previously obscure appears frequently in Anabaptist writings; it meant that Jesus’ words took precedence over all other words of Scripture.

Christocentrism meant that the Bible was not ‘flat’: some passages had greater authority for doctrine and practice than others. The New Testament took precedence over the Old, and Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching were the pinnacle of God’s revelation and primary in all questions of interpretation. Christocentrism meant that the whole Bible pointed to Jesus. It meant that his teaching was authoritative for ethics as well as doctrine; it meant that he was the authorised interpreter of the Old Testament, and that a living experience of him was a prerequisite for biblical interpretation. The Anabaptists focussed on Jesus himself rather than doctrines about him, and saw him not only as Saviour but also as Example to imitate and Teacher to obey.

3. The Two Testaments
Within Christendom many issues were decided on the basis of Old Testament texts. In contrast, Anabaptists emphasized the discontinuity between the Testaments and saw the New Testament as primary; the Old had validity only where Christ had not suspended it and only where it agreed with the New. This view led the Anabaptists to oppose practices they felt were grounded only in Old Testament texts (e.g. war as a legitimate option for Christians, the swearing of oaths, persecution, infant baptism).

Stuart points out that neither Reformers nor Anabaptists handled the Old Testament well. The Reformers insisted on the unity of Scripture, but in practice tended to justify practices from Old Testament texts in ways that marginalized the teaching of Jesus. Anabaptists challenged this, but in overreaction some tended to jettison the Old Testament altogether.

4. Spirit and Word.
Stuart sees the early sixteenth-century Anabaptists as a proto-charismatic movement and cites passages where a living experience of the Holy Spirit appears prominently in their writings. He points out that their expectation was mainly that the Spirit would transform them so that they could live obedient lives, although ecstatic experiences of the Spirit were not absent either.

The relationship between Spirit and Word was a major issue at the Reformation, and on this subject the Anabaptist movement did not speak with one voice. Some (the Swiss Brethren and the Hutterites) tended to emphasise the literal word of Scripture and of Christ, while others (the South German Anabaptists) emphasized following the inner guidance of the Spirit. Excesses in the latter movement led to an eventual reaction in a more literalistic direction. However, the Anabaptists’ Christocentric approach meant that they were never fundamentalists in the modern sense.

Reliance on the Spirit was expected to check naïve and legalistic interpretation of Scripture. Openness to the Spirit was preferred to reliance on education and scholarship. Approaches that polarized Spirit and reason were normally unwelcome. The Spirit’s work included conviction and persuasion so that the interpreters acted on what they had learned, and also included openness to correction and fresh insights. It should also be noted that the Anabaptist emphasis on the gathered congregation as the primary interpretive authority often helped to check individualistic interpretations of Scripture.

5. Congregational Hermeneutics
The Anabaptists took a communal approach to biblical interpretation and resisted tendencies to restrict the teaching office to recognized leaders. They rejected both the Catholic emphasis on the authority of ecclesiastical traditions and the Reformers’ practice of replacing priestly tyranny with the tyranny of the preacher. Their view of the congregation as the interpretive community presupposed a congregation of believers, which was not the experience of the Christendom churches with their view of the Church as a mixed community of believers and unbelievers.

The Swiss Brethren explored congregational hermeneutics extensively, allowing multiple participation in services, discussion of Scripture texts, and communal judgement. Some Dutch and German groups also developed this approach. Congregational hermeneutics does not require that every contribution carry equal weight, but it does require that every contribution be weighed.

In practice, this approach tended to die out in later years and was replaced by reliance on church leaders and received understandings of Scripture. Criticisms of this approach point out that if every congregation is an autonomous interpreter of Scripture there is no objective authority which can prevent division. Mistakes, disagreements, and poor interpretations would also suggest that Anabaptists underestimated the difficulties involved. Another limitation was the virtual exclusion of Christian wisdom from prior centuries; the focus was on present consensus, and little attention was paid to the consensus of the past.

There were obvious weaknesses in the Anabaptist congregational approach, but it also had significant strengths, especially in its conviction that every member could contribute to the interpretive task, its openness to correction, and its willingness to consider fresh interpretations rather than squeezing texts into conformity with set doctrinal positions.

6. Hermeneutics of Obedience
Anabaptists often complained that biblical interpretation was divorced from application. They saw the Scripture as plain enough to call for radical obedience, and the congregation as the interpretive community best placed to apply it to daily life.

Anabaptists saw obedience as a crucial prerequisite to biblical interpretation; ethical qualifications took precedence over intellectual abilities or official appointments. Only those actively committed to discipleship could be trusted to interpret the Scriptures. Obedience to one’s present understanding of Scripture, and openness to new understandings were essential for true interpretation. Interpreters must also be free from the influence of secular power and vested interests, as these would limit their ability to interpret in ways that challenged the status quo.

Reformers and Anabaptists disagreed about what norms to apply in their ethical application of Scripture. For the Reformers, social stability was crucial. For Anabaptists, obedience to Christ’s specific teachings and imitation of his lifestyle outweighed this, as they committed themselves to establishing in their churches a new social order rather than preserving the existing one.

In the last chapter of the book Stuart proposes that Anabaptism be seen as a conversation partner with contemporary Christian traditions and the way they interpret the Bible. He gives two examples of how this might work, discussing the similarities and differences between the Anabaptist approach and that of Liberation Theology on the one hand, and the charismatic movement on the other. In each case he points out things that the traditions have in common and things they could learn from each other.

I would be delighted to have Stuart outline a similar dialogue with the Anglican tradition. I think some of the characteristics of Anabaptist biblical interpretation which he outlines are very congenial to our approach. Liturgically we have always emphasized the Incarnation and the gospels, although some of our traditions have perhaps been more Pauline in the way Stuart identifies with the Reformed approach. We also believe strongly that the Bible is the Church’s book and needs to be read and interpreted in the community of the Church.

Other characteristics of the Anabaptist approach would be more of a challenge to us. We have often been wary of the right of ‘private interpretation’, observing how this often leads to multiple divisions over little points of disagreement. We have a strong sense of the authority of tradition (meaning the living faith of the dead, not the dead faith of the living!) and tend to defer to past voices in our biblical interpretations, believing that the Spirit has guided the Church as Jesus promised. And ‘Congregational Hermeneutics’ has been almost unknown to us.

However, a conversation with Anabaptism might help us to identify some of our weaknesses here. We believe that the Bible is the Church’s book and that the Church has authority to interpret it – but, in practice, does this actually mean ‘the priests and scholars of the Church’ rather than ‘the whole Church’? Anabaptism would remind us – helpfully and awkwardly – that in the New Testament ‘the Church’ means the whole people of God, and that in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul expected every member to bring a prophecy or an interpretation or a psalm etc. Does the way in which the Bible is taught in the Anglican tradition actually encourage our members to read it for themselves? Or do we communicate the message that it’s really only a book for scholars?

Stuart himself suggests that the ‘congregational hermeneutic’ approach could easily be extended in two ways to compensate for its innate weaknesses. The first way would be to include scholars in the conversation – not as authoritative voices above the rest, but as partners in the conversation, offering their insights alongside those of the other members. The second way would be to include past generations as conversation partners as well. In this way the voice of tradition could be included in the work of biblical interpretation.

This has been a fascinating book for me, and one that I would recommend without hesitation to others interested in exploring Anabaptist approaches to biblical interpretation.

Sabbatical Report #7: Book Review

Note: This is part of a series of reposts from my sabbatical leave from mid-April to mid-July 2007. This piece was originally posted on May 8th 2007.

Donald Durnbaugh: The Believers’ Church

My book for the past week has been Donald Durnbaugh’s The Believers’ Church: The History and Character of Radical Protestantism. This book was written in the late 1960’s and so reflects the conditions and viewpoints of an earlier era. Also, some of the summaries toward the end of the book seem to me to give a rather rosy view, as Durnbaugh lists the positive achievements of various ‘believers’ churches’ but is perhaps a little less forthcoming about their weaknesses. Nonetheless, the book has been an interesting and enjoyable read and gives a good overview of the ‘radical protestant’ tradition.

The book falls roughly into two halves. In the first part, Durnbaugh traces the history of believers’ churches from medieval times to the present, beginning with the Waldenses and the Unitas Fratrum and then taking two representative movements in each century up to the twentieth. In the second half he explores certain common characteristics of the various groups he has described.

What does ‘The Believers’ Church’ mean? The author is using this title to refer to denominations and movements which historically have been composed of Christians who have voluntarily chosen to come together on the basis of their common faith in Christ, in distinction from churches in which everyone is considered to be a member of a geographical parish simply by virtue of being born within its boundaries. Although Martin Luther did not begin a ‘Believers’ Church’ by this definition, he nonetheless wrote a good definition of it in 1526, which Durnbaugh quotes. Luther, he says, wrote that what was truly necessary was an ‘evangelical order’, held privately for those who ‘want to be Christians in earnest and who process the gospel by hand and mouth’.

They should sign their names and meet in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and do other Christian works. According to this order, those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, corrected, cast out, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ, Matthew 18. Here one could also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given and distributed to the poor, according to St. Paul’s example, 2 Corinthians 9. Here would be no need of much and elaborate singing. Here one could set out a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and centre everything on the Word, prayer, and love.

Durnbaugh draws out the following elements of Luther’s definition:

  1. The church is a voluntary community of those freely confessing Jesus Christ as Lord (for this reason infant baptism as a rite of entrance, or membership by virtue of citizenship in a state or territory, are both rejected).
  2. The believers freely covenant with God and each other to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus Christ – therefore a mixed assembly of believers and unbelievers (as was often the reality in the past in the state church parish system) is rejected.
  3. They perform Christian works – as regenerate Christians they know they are expected to maintain a higher level of life.
  4. They accept that being a disciple means being under a discipline, and that according to Matthew 18:15-20 this includes faithful admonition of one another, not just easy tolerance.
  5. They practice mutual aid, ‘benevolent gifts willingly given and distributed to the poor’.
  6. There is neither complete formalism nor complete spontaneity; however, forms of worship evolve from within the group and can be changed if need be.
  7. The Word given in the Scriptures and apprehended through the Holy Spirit provides the sole authority. Tradition must bow if the clear statement of the Word as understood in the covenant community so demands.

Not every element of this definition is found in every ‘Believers’ Church’ surveyed in the book (Methodists, for instance, continued the tradition of infant baptism), but on the whole they are an accurate representation of the movement. Durnbaugh summarises as follows:

‘The Believers’ Church, therefore, is the covenanted and disciplined community of those walking in the way of Jesus Christ. Where two or three such are gathered, willing also to be scattered in the work of their Lord, there is the believing people’.

Having defined the ‘Believers’ Church’ movement, Durnbaugh then goes on to trace it through history, beginning in the middle ages. He examines the following movements:

The Waldenses were a movement begun in Lyon in the 12th century under the leadership of Peter Waldo (1140-1218?). Arrested by the text ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me’ (Mt. 19:21), Waldo set himself to practice this way of life. His innovation was that he applied these counsels of poverty and discipleship not just to monastics but to all true Christians. His followers went out two by two to preach, and this aroused the opposition of the local archbishop, as they were ‘unauthorized laymen’. In 1184 the Waldenses were officially condemned as heretics and the persecution began; nonetheless, the movement spread through France and Italy. They translated the scriptures into the vernacular and memorized them, especially the gospels and the Sermon on the Mount. They lived exemplary lives, practiced nonresistance and took no oaths; some accepted infant baptism, some did not.

The Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren) were a Czech group inspired by the teachings of a yeoman with no formal education, Peter Chelcicky (1390?-1460?). He taught the law of love (which has become the basis of all Christian life since its explanation and example by Jesus Christ), nonresistant pacifism, dissolution of class distinctions, the authority of the New Testament, and a radical separation of church and state. In 1457/58, in an isolated village in Bohemia, a group was organised with Peter’s writings as their guide. They soon took the name ‘Unity of the Brethren’. In 1467, in response to persecution, they set up their own church structures; church membership was divided into ‘the beginners’, ‘the proficients’, and ‘the perfect’, and they followed a strict discipline according to Matthew 18:15-20. They were viciously persecuted through the years. In 1722 a small group crossed the German border to seek refuge and religious liberty on the estate of Count Nicholas Von Zinzendorf. From the community of settlers there emerged in 1729 the Renewed Moravian Church.

The Anabaptists. This group began in Zurich in the early 1520s. They felt that the mainline Reformation was not radical enough and wanted a church patterned on the New Testament and free from the control of the city council. The breaking point was their adoption of believers’ baptism in 1525. Most of the early leaders (Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, and later Michael Sattler and Balthazar Hubmaier) died young, mostly through persecution. In 1527 they produced a statement of faith called ‘The Schleitheim Articles’, in which they described their belief in believers’ baptism, the Ban (i.e. church discipline according to Matthew 18:15-20), the Lord’s Supper as a memorial to be celebrated by believers, separation from the world, the work of the pastor, the sword as being ‘outside the perfection of Christ’, and the non-use of oaths. Related movements spread through south Germany, Austria, northern Germany and the Netherlands. The early Anabaptists were mainly illiterate and were enthusiastic evangelists. An early disaster for the movement was the seizure of the city of Munster by radical (non-pacifist) Anabaptists in 1534; after the city was retaken and the Anabaptists slaughtered, a Dutch priest named Menno Simons emerged as the major leader of the north German and Dutch movement and laid the foundations for the continuing Mennonite tradition, emphasizing pacifism, active discipleship after the teaching and example of Jesus, and church discipline.

The Hutterites emerged from the Anabaptist tradition in Nikolsburg in Moravia. Under the leadership of Jacob Wiedemann, they were expelled from Nikolsburg, and formed a community of disciples in which all goods were held in common; this was their distinctive characteristic within the wider Anabaptist movement. They settled in Austerlitz in 1529 where they founded the first Bruderhof. They took their name from Jacob Hutter (d. 1536), a strong early leader who helped to define the traditions of the movement. Like other Anabaptists they were persecuted, but from 1565 until the end of the century they experienced a ‘golden period’ during which at least a hundred Bruderhofs were founded. They were great evangelists and sent their missionaries all across Europe. Their definitive statement of faith was written by Peter Riedemann in 1540. Successive persecutions drove them in turn to Slovakia, Transylvania, Romania, Russia, and finally North America.

The English Baptists emerged within the Puritan movement in the early seventeenth century. Thomas Helwys (d. 1614) was the leader of the first English Baptist congregation, established circa 1611-1612; he had learned his convictions from a group in the Netherlands which may have been influenced by some local Mennonites. However, the group that developed in England believed Christians could serve as magistrates and take oaths, which the Anabaptists would not allow. By 1644 they numbered 47 congregations and became known as the General Baptists because of their Arminian theology. Another group, the Particular Baptists (who were Calvinists) arose in 1638-1640 and later became predominant. The Baptists were not pacifists and indeed many served in the Roundhead army during the civil war. Their most famous seventeenth century figure was John Bunyan (1628-1688), the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. A later leader was the shoemaker William Carey (1761-1834), who helped found the Baptist Missionary Society and went himself as a missionary to India. Baptists have spread around the world and are now the largest non-Roman Catholic religious body in existence.

The Quakers, or ‘Society of Friends’, began around 1652, and their early leader was George Fox (1624-1691). They rejected creeds, ceremonies and cultic practices and sought an experiential contact with God in simplicity and silence. The tireless efforts of Quaker evangelists spread the movement rapidly in Great Britain, Europe, Asia Minor, North America and the West Indies throughout the seventeenth century. As usual for dissident groups they were persecuted; before 1689 about 15,000 had been jailed and 450 died either in prison or as a result of their imprisonment. The Quakers were pacifists, and their recognition of ‘that of God in each person’ led them to early convictions about the evil of slavery.

The Church of the Brethren grew out of German Pietism in the early eighteenth century (Pietism was a reaction against sterile Protestant scholasticism; it was experiential, emotional, individual, biblically-centred and ethically-minded. Instead of inquiring about the relationship of the individual to the institutional church and its clergy, Pietism asked about the personal relationship with Christ, about conversion). In 1708 a group of eight German Pietists led by a miller named Alexander Mack (1679-1735) established a covenant of discipleship together and sealed it with believers’ baptism. Their group grew and called themselves ‘Brethren’, though they were known by their peers as ‘New Baptists’. Their meetings were simple, consisting of singing, reading the Bible and discussing it, and praying together. The movement spread, but early persecution led to forced relocations. Between 1719 and 1735 the majority of the Brethren migrated to Pennsylvania. Today the Church of the Brethren is found mainly in North America and is recognized as an expression of the Anabaptist movement.

The Methodists grew out of the labours of John Wesley (1703-1791). A strict high church Anglican, he had a crisis of faith as a result of a failed missionary experience in the American colonies, but at a Moravian meeting in 1738 came to an experiential understanding of justification by faith and found the peace he was looking for. He and his brother Charles preached as they had opportunity in London, but George Whitfield invited him to preach in the fields with him, and so began his life’s work. The response to his preaching was often dramatic and emotional, but Wesley formed his converts into classes and introduced them to a disciplined system of Christian growth. The lack of ordained clergy for the movement led him to employ lay-preachers, a controversial step. His insistence on converted, committed, regenerated Christians tightly organized into voluntary societies was in direct opposition to the prevailing church culture, and his ordination of Thomas Coke to ordain others in North America was seen as a direct challenge to the Anglican system. The movement grew rapidly in North America, spread by the labours of circuit-riding preachers; their doctrines of free grace, Christian perfection and active piety seemed to resonate well with ordinary people.

The Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) are a coming together of several small groups, which had in common a desire to restore what they saw as ‘primitive New Testament Christianity’, including separation of church and state, a plurality of elders rather than a single paid pastor, and a weekly observance of communion. Believers’ baptism was also adopted very early. In 1832 two of the groups (‘Disciples’ and ‘Christians’) united; their church grew rapidly in the nineteenth century and they were often in the forefront of bringing the gospel to newly-settled areas.

The Plymouth Brethren were a British group with similar convictions to the American Disciples, including especially the weekly breaking of bread and the ministry of all believers. Two early groups joined together in 1829; any member could speak in their meetings, which were held Quaker style except for the hymns that were sung. John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) became the outstanding theologian of the movement, which spread rapidly throughout the nineteenth century; George Muller of Bristol was another well-know member. The Brethren practiced church discipline and abstained from political involvement. Their best-known theological idea was Darby’s ‘Dispensationalist’ system, which was popularized by the Schofield Reference Bible.

The Confessing Church was a protest movement against the way the majority of German Christians co-operated with Hitler in the 1930s. In late 1933 a group of pastors led by Martin Niemoller formed the Pastors’ Emergency League and drafted a pledge which, within four months, had been signed by almost half the pastors in Germany. However, pressure from the Nazis prompted many to back down. In May 1934 a synod meeting in Barmen produced a confession of faith (largely drafted by Karl Barth). The Confessing Church saw itself as the one true Christian Church in Germany in distinction from those who had surrendered control to Hitler. A well-known early leader was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From the very beginning they were persecuted; Karl Barth was expelled from his chair of theology at Bonn and went to Switzerland, and Niemoller was arrested, imprisoned in 1938 and held throughout the war. After the war Niemoller became an early leader in the World Council of Churches and a convert to pacifism.

New forms of church in the 20th century include the Church of the Saviour, founded by Baptist former military chaplain Gordon Cosby in Alexandria, Virginia in 1946, a community which requires a very high level of commitment from its members. Another example is East Harlem Protestant Parish, initiated by Don Benedict to do mission work among the poor in the inner city after World War Two.

Having described these movements, in the last section of the book Durnbaugh focuses in on some of the characteristics they have in common. He singles out five subjects for special comment:

Discipleship and Apostolicity. Mennonite scholar Harold Bender saw the idea that discipleship is the essence of Christianity as the first principle of the Anabaptist movement, and this same orientation is demonstrably evident among other expressions of the Believers’ Church movement, as also is their conviction that this quality was lacking within Christendom where lip-service to the faith rather than life-service to Jesus Christ seemed common. Most of the Radical Reformers felt that this ‘Fall of the Church’ had occurred in the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (John Wesley expresses this view very strongly). Apostolicity, to these radicals, meant simply living in the manner and virtue of the first followers of Jesus Christ, and to do this they tried to pattern themselves on the way of life of the New Testament Christians. This often included church discipline after the pattern of Matthew 18:15-20 as a means of restoration of wayward members.

Mission and Evangelism. Strangely, most mainline Protestants in the early years did not evangelise; they saw the Great Commission as having already been accomplished in the establishment of Christendom. It was the Believers’ Church groups which showed the way; the Waldenses, the Unitas Fratrum, and the Anabaptists were all great evangelists, and one writer points out that ‘the astonishing thing about Anabaptism is not so much the activity of the ordained leaders as the missionary commitment of the ordinary members’ (although sustained persecution later prompted them to be much less vigorous in this). Quakers, Pietists, Moravian Brethren, Baptists and Methodists have all been enthusiastic missionaries and evangelists.

Church and State. Believers’ churches advocated a clean separation of church and state, in contrast to the Constantinian situation which was accepted by the mainline Reformation tradition. Peter Chelcicky was one of the first to make this point, and the first Anabaptists followed the same line when they would not accept the authority of the Zurich City Council over the church. For many members of Believers’ churches (but not all) this separation of church and state has included a refusal to participate in military service, a view which they see as an integral part of following the teaching and example of Jesus. Quakers and Anabaptists are best known for this view today. The issue of how Christians ought to be involved in the affairs of state is a live one in many Believers’ Church traditions.

Mutual Aid and Service. It has been the tradition in many Believers’ Church traditions that a member will not be left to their own devices; if help is needed, it will be given by the other members. For example, in 1557 candidates for baptism at a Swiss Anabaptist congregation were asked whether, if necessity required it, they would devote all their possessions to the service of the brotherhood and would not fail any member in need if they were able to render aid. In the Anabaptist tradition the Hutterites have of course taken this as their guiding principle with their practice of complete community of goods. Members of Believers’ Church traditions have also been active in reaching out beyond the community. The early Quakers were amongst the first advocates of the abolition of slavery and were also active in prison welfare and in the care of the mentally ill. The early Methodists were active in care for the poor. The Friends Service Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee are in the forefront of this work today.

Sectarian and Ecumenical. The history of Believers’ churches is checkered with divisions (although they are not alone in this in the Christian world). Ecumenism sees this as a scandal robbing the church’s testimony of its credibility. Others take the view that the presence of many Christian bodies is a witness to the vitality of the Christian faith and a way to reach more people; new groups tend to emerge from a fresh surge of conviction and devotion, rather as monastic orders did in the Catholic tradition. Many Believers’ churches have been ‘leavers’ churches’, to use George Williams’ phrase – groups wanting to be separate from not only the world but also mainline church groups they saw as contaminated by it. But many of these groups have willingly worked together, although not all have joined recognized ecumenical institutions. A difference in emphasis, however, has been that whereas many in the ecumenical movement have concentrated on unity in church order (such as Anglicans with their concern for proper forms of ordination in the apostolic succession) or a unity of doctrine (such as Lutherans and many Reformed Christians), Believers’ Church traditions have tended to focus on unity in service together.

Durnbaugh’s book is a helpful introduction to the Believers’ Church tradition, although I would maintain that it is in dire need of being updated in the light of developments over the past forty years. The book left me with several impressions.

I was impressed by the stories of the Christian groups he describes, especially in their early stages. Many of their early members were gripped by a passion for the gospel and for Christian discipleship, and a desire to create forms of church which clearly exhibited New Testament Christian convictions, unencumbered by the chains of the state-church connection or by centuries of traditions which had long since passed their ‘best-before’ dates. Because of my own convictions I was most impressed by the stories of the Waldenses and the Unitas Fratrum, by the Anabaptists and the early Pietists and Methodists.

I must confess to being skeptical about the connections Durnbaugh draws between some of these groups. United they may have been in their desire for separation of church and state and the establishment of New Testament church order, but the convictions which guided the Plymouth Brethren, for instance, are very different from those which led to the Anabaptist movement. I would argue that the Plymouth Brethren are far more doctrinally-motivated than the Anabaptists with their emphasis on following Jesus as he is seen in the gospels, and that the English Baptists with their easy acceptance of military service (and their descendants, the American Baptist tradition with its loyalty to American militarism) are different again.

I am also doubtful about Durnbaugh’s easy acceptance of the multiplication of Christian bodies which the Believers’ Church movement has promoted. Most of these groups have had as their aim the restoration of a New Testament form of church life. Whilst one ought not to idealise the New Testament situation (divisions are clearly reflected in Acts and in Paul’s letters, for instance), nonetheless the visible unity of the Body of Christ is a major concern in the early church. How to combine this emphasis on visible unity on the one hand, with the Believers’ Church desire for the freedom to structure their worship, ministry, and church discipline in ways outside the accepted norms of mainline Christianity on the other, is an issue not only for the Believers’ Church tradition, but also for those of us today who are attracted by its vitality and yet choose to remain within mainline denominations.