A Great Read on the Aircraft


Billy Bragg: The Progressive Patriot


I picked this book up in ‘Borders’ at Heathrow Airport this morning and read it on the flight back to Edmonton, finishing it about half an hour before we landed. It was a great read.

Billy Bragg is a year older than me. He was born and brought up in Barking, which used to be an Essex town but now is part of the greater London area. I spent my teenage years in southeast Essex. I first caught a whiff of the magic of folk music when my friend Steve Palmer lent me his copy of ‘Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits’, and the first songs I worked hard at learning to play were the songs on the album. Surprise, surprise, Billy Bragg also fell under the spell of ‘The Boxer’, ‘Scarborough Fair’, ‘Kathy’s Song’ and all the rest. For Billy, the folk music trail took him through Bob Dylan and back to the deep wells of English traditional music as performed by masters like the Watersons and Martin Carthy. It’s taken me a bit longer, but I’ve finally followed the trail back there as well.

For obvious music reasons, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. but nonetheless, it’s not primarily a book about music; it’s about being English without being bigoted and narrow and right-wing. Billy traces the progressive tradition in English political life back to Magna Carta, through the civil war and the Diggers and the Levellers, the glorious revolution with the Bill of Rights, the Chartists and the early days of the trade union movement. The genius of English politics, he says, is that we’ve never been comfortable giving our rulers absolute power over us. Dissent and resistance to oppression has been part of the English tradition for centuries!

Billy’s political vision lays a lot of emphasis on human rights, and in the past I’ve been one who has been wary of this approach, as I think it too easily becomes individualistic. But Billy is not individualistic; he’s about fairness, and everyone getting a chance in life, and the fact that its better if we work together as a collective to make sure everyone gets cared for, rather than leaving it to the cut-throat world of the faceless markets (and the venture capitalists who benefit from them) (yes, if you hadn’t guessed it already, the man’s a committed socialist – and no fan of New Labour either).

Billy celebrates the fact that, while the English class system has not disappeared, it has become irrelevant to the question of whether or not people get a chance to succeed in life. And his great passion is to look forward to the day when the same can be said in England about race (one of the most fascinating sections of the first half of the book is his historical survey of all the different strands which actually make up ‘Englishness’ – multiculturalism is by no means a new thing!).

I loved this book. I’ve enjoyed Billy Bragg’s music for a long time, and I’ve always resonated with the message he tries to communicate through his songs, but now I’ve gained a fresh appreciation for the passion that drives him and the wells from which he has drunk for inspiration. And I hear he’s playing at Greenbelt this year! Too bad they don’t do a Canadian edition…

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ Part Six

I now want to tell the story of the first recorded contact between the Anglican tradition and the Anabaptist movement, and I need to say at the beginning that my account will essentially be a summary of what Alan Kreider has written in his essay ‘When Anabaptists were last in the British Isles’ in the book Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland.

In April 1575 a small group of refugees from Flanders gathered on Easter morning in a private home to hear the Word of God and to pray. The group comprised fifteen women, ten men, and a young lad. But some of their neighbours had gotten suspicious about them; at nine o’clock there was a knock on the door, and there stood the constable and some beadles, who arrested the group and took them to the Mersey prison.


A few days later they were visited by Edwin Sandys, bishop of London, by two aldermen and four preachers, who confronted them with four articles that they must sign or be burnt at the stake. The articles were:

  1. That Christ had assumed his flesh and blood from the substance of the flesh and blood of Mary.
  2. That infants ought to be baptized.
  3. That a Christian might administer the office of a magistrate, and
  4. That a Christian might swear an oath.

They replied cautiously at the time, and over the next few weeks increasing pressure was brought to bear on them. They were kept in solitary confinement and were visited by church officials who continued to press them to sign the articles. Five of the men eventually recanted, but the rest held firm.

Five weeks after their arrest a Commission was appointed to examine them, including two bishops, two deans and several civic officials. When the prisoners still refused to recount they were separated; the women and the lad were sent to Newgate, the prison for those confined for capital crimes, where the pressure on them continued. Eventually this group was carted to a ship and deported to Holland; the young lad was tied to the front of the cart and whipped along the way.

Meanwhile attempts were made to forestall the execution of the male prisoners; overtures were made by the Dutch and French congregations in London and by John Foxe, the famous martyrologist, who disagreed with the Anabaptists but felt that it was wrong to persecute them. On June 2nd Bishop Sandys called them before his Episcopal court and threatened them with burning. When they refused to sign the four articles, he proceeded to expel them from his church. Hendrick Terwoort, one of the prisoners, said, ‘How can you expel us from your church, where we have never yet been one of you?’ Sandys replied that ‘in England there is no one who is not a member of God’s church’. He then condemned them all to death and handed them over to the secular arm.

They were taken to Newgate and put in a deep dungeon, where they were placed in cages so that they could not even converse with their neighbours. And in the end it was Queen Elizabeth who pressed the issue of their execution; she ordered Lord Chancellor Bacon to prepare the writ ‘for the execution of justice… and to give example to others lest they should attempt the like hereafter’.

One of the prisoners died of the privations of prison life, but of July 22nd 1575 the oldest two, Jan Pieterss and Hendrick Terwoort, were burned at Smithfield in the slowest way possible, without strangulation or gunpowder. Hendrick Terwoort was 35 and had been married for six months. Jan Pieterss was 50 years old; his first wife had been burned at the stake in Ghent, and together he and she left nine children to the care of his second wife, whose first husband had also previously been burned in Ghent for his Anabaptist faith. The other two prisoners were eventually released; as Alan Kreider says, evidently Elizabeth and her councilors felt that the two executions had made their point.

We know about these events because the Anabaptists left letters and accounts, and other people saved copies of their letters to the Queen and to John Foxe. All of these and other documents were passed down to Dutch Mennonites and were eventually included in the Mennonite equivalent of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the massive‘Martyrs’ Mirror’ compiled by the Dutch Mennonite preacher Thielemann van Braght in the 17th century.

What were the points of disagreement between these simple Flanders refugees and the established Church of England? And why was the Anglican establishment so afraid of them? Stay tuned…

Sabbatical Report #23: Time to Mosey On Home

It’s hard to believe that it will be thirteen weeks on Monday since I got on a plane in Edmonton and flew over to Heathrow to begin my sabbatical leave. On Monday I’ll be getting on another one at Heathrow and flying home.

The sabbatical has been wonderful, in all sorts of ways:

  • The incredible hospitality of the folks at the London Mennonite Centre, who welcomed me into their community and went out of their way to make my stay comfortable and my reading useful.
  • The opportunity to spend extended periods of time with family and friends, especially with my Mum and Dad, my brother and his family, my aunts and uncles and my cousin Angela, Jan and Mark and Adam and Komi, Steve and Alicia and Matilda and Will, Ken and Kath and the old crowd down in Southminster. Especially, the privilege of participating in my Mum and Dad’s 50th wedding anniversary on May 19th, and of having Marci and three of our four children here for it – the first time Marci had been in England with me since 1989.
  • The hospitality of the folks from the Anabaptist Network, at conferences and seminars and study group meetings and individual conversations.
  • The incredible experience of six days down in Southminster, my old home town, and still the spot I love more than any other in England.
  • A chance to meet blogging friends like Sam, Paul, Peter, Graham, and Richard.
  • Reading, reading, and more reading.
  • John Howard Yoder; need I say more?
  • Time to be a tourist in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Stamford, Peterborough, etc. etc.

I could go on. but it’s time to go now; it’s six and a half weeks since I said goodbye to Marci and the kids at King’s Cross Station, and that’s long enough. Time to go home, have some family time, and then get down to work putting this stuff into practice.

Not that this blog will finish. It won’t be called my ‘sabbatical blog’ any more, but I’ll be continuing my exploration of the dialogue between my Anglican and Anabaptist sides, sharing more book reviews and so on. Especially I’ll continue the series I just started, ‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’

Tomorrow I leave Oakham at 2.03 p.m., travelling to Maidenhead by way of Birmingham and Reading. Then on Monday I fly out of Heathrow at 12.05 p.m. and get into Edmonton at about 2.30 p.m. local time.

I’ll talk to you all at the other end!

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ – Part Five

There is not time or space for me to recount in any detail the long story of the Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish from the 16th century to the present day. For those who are interested in pursuing it, I highly recommend Cornelius J. Dyck’s highly readable book An Introduction to Mennonite History. All I can do in the context of this article is to sum up some trends, and I will do so using the following words: Migration, Isolation, Fragmentation, Assimilation, and Engagement.

First, migration. To read the continuing history of the descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists is to read a story of migrations. How does it happen that in Canada today you can still meet older people who live in an Anglophone society, but who describe themselves as Russian Mennonites, even though the ancestral language they speak is not Russian but Low German? The answer to that question is in the one word: migration.

Simply put, the Anabaptists were hard pressed to find a society that would allow them to practice the way of life they had chosen for themselves. The freedom to opt out of the Christendom system, and especially to opt out of military service, was a rare thing in 16th century Europe, and continued to be a rarity in the centuries to come. Most of the early Anabaptist leaders died young. I have heard it said that throughout the Reformation period in Europe and England approximately ten thousand people were executed for their religious beliefs. Even in the places where their movement was the strongest, the Anabaptists never made up more than ten percent of the population, but they make up more than fifty percent of the martyrs! Persecuted by Catholic and Protestant alike, they eventually migrated to places where they could find sympathetic princes or governments who would let them live in peace. In the early years Strasbourg was one such place, and the territory of lords of Lichtenstein was another. In the 17th century many Mennonites moved to Poland, where their skill as engineers who knew how to drain waterlogged land made them very useful in the draining of the Vistula delta. In the 19th century large numbers of Mennonites moved to Russia, where they were able to negotiate an exemption from military service and the freedom to educate their own children as they chose. They lived there for a century, preserving their distinction from the society around them by means of their ancestral language, low German. But in the 20th century with the communist takeover in Russia, persecution began again, and many fled for refuge to Canada, the United States, and South America.

In many cases the negotiations for safe places to live involved the Mennonites in some compromises. The most telling one, in light of early Anabaptist history, was the willingness not to try to convert others to their beliefs. And so the greatest evangelists in Europe gradually became ‘the quiet in the land’, content to live by themselves and bring up their children in their ancestral beliefs. This leads to the second word,isolation.

Separation from the world had been part of the Anabaptist theological understanding from the beginning of the movement. They understood that their primary loyalty was not to an earthly ruler or to a nation state, but to Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom. They understood that being followers of Jesus meant that they were committed to a different way of life.

As Mennonite history progressed, however, this separation from the world began to take on a geographical and cultural dimension which has become so strong that in the twentieth century there has even been a serious discussion in Mennonite circles about whether the term ‘Mennonite’ is primarily a religious or cultural/ethnic term. In order to preserve their distinctive way of life Mennonites grouped themselves in their own villages and settlements (in the case of the Hutterites, in their own colonies, where they had all things in common); they ran their own schools, married only amongst themselves, spoke Low German in ordinary life and High German in worship. They did not attempt to influence the political or social life of the world around them, and of course took no part in its wars. They tended to look for isolated places to live – the Russian steppes, or the Canadian prairies – where they could exist as ‘the quiet in the land’. And because they were frugal and hard working, their farms often prospered and became the envy of the people around them.

Something rather interesting was happening here. Anabaptism had begun as a protest movement against the idea of Christendom – the idea that church and society were one, and that every member of a given society was also a Christian and a church member. Early Anabaptists protested that the decision to become a Christian should be a free adult decision, made with no compulsion from the society around. However, as John Howard Yoder has pointed out, over time the Mennonite farming communities became little Christendoms of their own, with community decisions made at church meetings, with social institutions such as schooling under effective church control, and so on. And once again, as in the days of the Christian empire, the heathen were seen as living ‘out there’ on the edges of the new Constantinian communities.

A third characteristic of Mennonite history is fragmentation. To an Anglican, brought up with a story of a church which values visible unity and has a long history of hanging together – sometimes very uncomfortably – despite disagreements, the proliferation of Mennonite denominations can be bewildering. The Mennonite Church, the General Conference Mennonite Church, the North West Conference, the Evangelical Mennonite Church, the Mennonite Brethren – and so it goes on; there are literally hundreds of Mennonite denominations around the world today. How did this happen? My observation as an outsider would be that two things were involved: perfectionism and renewal.

First, perfectionism. One of the strengths of Anabaptism has been its high ideals for individual and church life, but paradoxically, this has also been one of its weaknesses. Anabaptism has not dealt well with imperfection and failure.

In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus gives instructions to his followers that if they see someone in sin, they are to go and talk to them about it; if this fails they are to go again with one or two witnesses, and if the sinner still does not listen, they are to tell it to the church. If the sinner refuses to listen to the church, then they should be treated ‘as a Gentile or a tax collector’. The purpose of this process is reconciliation and restoration of relationships, and in the early years of the Anabaptist movement this was so. However, this process very quickly came to be described as ‘the ban’, with the emphasis on the last stage, the exclusion or ‘banning’ of the unrepentant sinner. And within the lifetime of the first and second generations of Anabaptists, the ban was being used by leaders such as Menno Simons and David Joris against other leaders with whose views they disagreed. This continued throughout Mennonite history: over and over again, different groups excommunicated each other while seeing themselves as the true heirs of the authentic Anabaptist tradition.

But the other factor in the fragmentation of Anabaptism has been renewal. As in the history of monasticism, when Christian institutions become lukewarm and comfortable, God often seems to raise up new movements to fan the flame of the Spirit into life again. This has happened in Mennonite history, and often the new movements became new Mennonite denominations. In some cases in the 18th and 19th century the new movements attempted to import elements of other traditions into Anabaptism: for instance, the Mennonite Brethren began as a revivalistic movement which brought elements of evangelical pietism into the Anabaptist tradition. Of course, traditional Anabaptists often looked askance at this, and the new groups themselves responded by looking down on what they saw as the compromised and worldly churches they had left.

Migration, isolation, fragmentation – a fourth word is assimilation. Isolation was not the whole story amongst Mennonites. In some societies they were welcomed, and they prospered as integrated members of the community. One example of this would be the Netherlands in the 17th century where Mennonites lived in relative freedom and were respected members of their communities. As I said in my review of the bookThe Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, these Mennonites gradually opted to conform to the society around them, to dull the edge of simple living, nonviolence, and the refusal of the oath, and to become simply another pietistic form of Christianity like many others, giving no challenge to the structures of the world around them except by pointing toward a faith in Jesus which had very little bite to it. This story has a contemporary ring to it, and I suspect that Mennonites are far from being the only ones who have been tempted by it.

In recent years this has definitely been the temptation of Mennonites in North America as the isolation of the past has ended and as young people have moved to cities where they live at close quarters with everyone else. It has recently been observed in Canadian Mennonite magazine that the incidence of SUVs in the parking lots of Mennonite churches does not seem to be appreciably lower than in other churches. And it is a well known fact that during the Second World War many young Mennonite men – on both Allied and German sides – chose to ignore the convictions of their ancestors and enlist in the armed forces to fight for their country.

And this leads me to the fifth word: engagement. It is undeniable that in the past fifty years a huge change has taken place in the Mennonite world; the quiet in the land have begun to get noisy! A tradition which for centuries had lived in isolation has begun to think seriously and creatively about engaging with the world around it. Undoubtedly, this has partly to do with the fact that many Mennonites no longer live in isolated farm communities where they only rub shoulders with their own kind. But it has also to do with the subject of Harold Bender’s essay, with the recovery of the Anabaptist vision and the sense of having something worthwhile to say and show to the world.

Partly this engagement has taken the form of service and social action. And so the middle of the twentieth century saw the formation of the Mennonite Central Committee, which has evolved into a huge international organization engaging in relief and development work; it is also one of the bodies in which most Mennonite denominations are involved. Increasingly, at least in North America, Mennonites are turning away from their earlier refusal to be involved in civil government; they are engaging in political action, and some of them are running for elected office.

Another part of this engagement has been at the level of ideas and books, and in particular the influence of two American Mennonites, John Howard Yoder and Ronald J. Sider, must be acknowledged. John Howard Yoder, who died in 1997, was a Mennonite theologian who taught for many years at the University of Notre Dame; his 1972 book The Politics of Jesus (see my review here) had a huge influence, far beyond the Anabaptist tradition, and served as the first introduction to Anabaptist ideas for many people in other Christian traditions. His influence over non-Mennonite scholars and writers such as Stanley Hauerwas, Michael Cartwright, Richard Hays and James McClendon has been enormous. On a more popular level, Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger first came out in the 1970s and was highly influential in pointing many Christians to their responsibility to care for the poor. In the early 1980s Sider gave a highly influential speech to an international Mennonite gathering, calling for Anabaptists to be prepared to lay down their lives for peace just as soldiers were willing to lay down their lives in war. Out of that speech came the beginnings of the Christian Peacemaker Teams movement.

Migration, Isolation, Fragmentation, Assimilation, and Engagement; I hope that Mennonites would recognize their story in the five words I have used here, and that they will forgive me for some of the unavoidable generalizations I have made! But having (I hope) described the Anabaptist tradition in some detail, in the next section I want to begin to address the title of this series: What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism? And I want to begin to address this question by going back to the 16th century and telling the story of the first contact between the Anglican tradition and the Anabaptist movement…

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ – Part Four

Harold Bender described Anabaptism in terms of three defining characteristics. His ‘Anabaptist Vision’ was simple and compelling, but perhaps a little too neat and tidy. I’m going to resist the temptation to describe a few things that all Anabaptists agreed on (which could then be used as a way to rule on the issue of who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’). Rather, I’ll describe some things that most Anabaptists in the 16th century had in common.

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

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

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

A different sort of church. Anabaptists formed churches made up of committed disciples and denied that all citizens should automatically be regarded as church members (as Catholics and Protestants assumed). They insisted on differentiating believers from unbelievers, so that church membership could be voluntary and meaningful, and they resisted state control in their churches. They rejected infant baptism as unbiblical, forcibly imposed on children, and a hindrance to developing believers’ churches. They challenged the way clergy dominated the life of traditional churches and also the lack of church discipline (as outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20). Their gatherings were informal and unstructured, concentrating on Bible study and singing. Prayer was commonly offered in silence. Some of the early communities (especially those which encouraged a more charismatic expression of prophecy, such as the Melchiorites) encouraged women to participate much more actively than was normal in church and society in their day (although this does not appear to have been anything like as common as some members of the Anabaptist Network would like to think!!!). One of their early documents, ‘A Congregational Order’ (1527), says, “when the brothers and sisters are together, they shall take up something to read together. The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it…when a brother sees his brother erring, he shall warn him according to the command of Christ, and shall admonish him in a Christian and brotherly way.”

‘A spirituality of the remembered word’. This is Arnold Snyder’s phrase, which he uses to describe the way in which illiterate Anabaptist disciples memorized key passages of scripture and used them both in their prayer lives and in defence of their beliefs when they were on trial. The Swiss Brethren produced a topical concordance in which key verses dealing with the central subjects of Anabaptist faith and practice were listed and sometimes given in full. Evidence is strong that this concordance was in common popular use; transcripts of trials of Anabaptists show them quoting the same verses over and over again when they are questioned on such subjects as baptism, private property, and the mass, and letters from Anabaptists in prison contain prayers which show evidence of having been inspired by the same passages of scripture.

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

Ethics. Anabaptists departed from the accepted norms of their society and lived in anticipation of the Kingdom of God. Here are some of the points of disagreement between them and the Christendom society in which they lived.

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


For the most part (with honourable exceptions such as Balthasar Hubmaier, and dishonourable exceptions such as Jan Mathijs and his followers) they rejected the use of violence, refusing to defend themselves by force. Conrad Grebel (1498-1526) described his congregation: “Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them.” They urged love for enemies and respect for human life. Anabaptists accepted that governments would use force but regarded this as inappropriate for Christians. Felix Mantz (c1498-1527) concluded: “no Christian could be a magistrate, nor could he use the sword to punish or kill anyone.” They aimed to build an alternative community, changing society from the bottom up.

Many refused to swear oaths (again, Hubmaier is an exception here). Oaths were very important in sixteenth-century Europe; they were used both to enforce truth-telling in court and as pledges of loyalty to the state. Anabaptists often rejected these, citing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and arguing that they should always be truthful, not just under oath. Nor would they swear loyalty to any secular authority, as they saw this as contradicting their primary loyalty to Jesus Christ.

Finally, Anabaptists saw suffering as a normal part of the Christian life. They were not surprised by persecution. They knew they would be seen as revolutionaries, despite their commitment to non-violence; as heretics, despite their commitment to the Bible; and as disturbers of the status quo. They regarded suffering for obedience to Christ as unavoidable and biblical: suffering was a mark of the true church, as Jesus had taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

What happened to the Anabaptists after the early days of their movement? Were they able to retain their high ideals as their communities matured and developed? Stay tuned…

(Note: this section is adapted from an article on the Anabaptist Network website).

‘What does Anabaptism have to do with Anglicanism?’ – Part Three

So why were the Anabaptists persecuted? What harm did they do to anyone, these little groups of disciples who chose to withdraw from the state churches, accept believers’ baptism, and practice the teaching of Jesus in a literal way? Why, particularly, would anyone consider pacifists to be a threat worth persecuting?

There are many possible answers to this question, and I will briefly outline three. They were persecuted because they were seen as a part of a widespread movement of social unrest, because they threatened the established order of things, and because they rediscovered the biblical concept of ‘the world’ as distinct from ‘the church’.

The early years of the 16th century were a time of widespread unrest in Europe, culminating in the Peasants’ War of 1525, which was basically a struggle between the social classes, with the serfs and peasants on the one hand and the landowners and the aristocracy on the other. The church was involved in this struggle; it was one of the major landowners of Europe, and much of its leadership at the higher levels was drawn from the aristocracy. The common people saw the church as being part of the problem of injustice and oppression, and Martin Luther’s response to the Peasants’ War, in which he encouraged the princes to kill the rebels, showed that in this respect the magisterial Reformation was entirely traditional. To use modern typology, if faced with a choice between a hermeneutics of order and a hermeneutics of justice, Catholic and Protestant were alike in opting for order.

On the other hand, the Anabaptists came largely from the lower classes of society; many of them were illiterate working people. One of the earliest demands of the little Anabaptist congregations in Switzerland was for a suspension of the system of compulsory tithes, which often did not benefit the local congregations but were used to provide a fat living for ecclesiastical functionaries far away. This was one of the major grievances of the peasants, and there is no doubt that many of them were attracted to Anabaptism because of its opposition to this practice. Anabaptism was seen as an anticlerical movement, protesting against the obvious abuses in the medieval church and pressing for a reformation in line with the highest ideals of the New Testament. This did not endear the Anabaptists to those who were in power, whether the princes of North Germany or the city councilors of Zurich.

The second two answers are connected to each other. The Anabaptists were persecutedbecause they threatened the established order of things and because they had rediscovered the biblical concept of ‘the world’ as distinct from ‘the church’.

For over a thousand years in Europe Christianity had been characterized by the Constantinian order of things, in which state and church were seen as one and the same. This enormous change from Christianity’s earliest years as a marginalized movement had received its greatest boost in the fourth century when Constantine, the Roman Emperor, 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. This process of the 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 Murray Williams, in his book Post-Christendom (see my reviews here, here andhere), outlines some of the changes which the Christendom era brought. They include the movement of the church from the margins to the centre of society; the assumption that all citizens (except Jews) were Christians by birth; infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into Christian society (it became illegal not to have your children baptized as this would threaten the unity of the Christian state); the imposition, by legislation and custom, of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire society (although in fact it was normally Old Testament morality that was applied and not the teaching of Jesus), and the defence of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality, and schism. A hierarchical church system was created, based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, roughly analogous to the state hierarchy and buttressed by state support. A sharp distinction was drawn between clergy and laity, with the laity relegated to a largely passive role. Massive and ornate church buildings were constructed to accommodate huge congregations of largely nominal Christians; the church became increasingly wealthy and obligatory tithes were imposed to support the system. The world was divided between ‘Christendom’ and ‘heathendom’, and wars were waged against heathendom in the name of Christ and the church. The use of political and military force to impose Christianity, regardless of personal conviction, was increasingly seen as legitimate as enemy-loving and peacemaking were replaced by the formation of a Christian army and the ‘just war’ or ‘holy war’ theory. And over and over again, apologists appealed to the Old Testament, rather than the New, to justify these changes.

Stuart Murray Williams 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 was 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!

Having considered the magnitude of these changes we are now in a better position to see why the Anabaptists were seen as such a threat. The absolute unity of church and state was considered as axiomatic in Europe in the 16th century; to question that unity was to tear the whole fabric of society and bring down the good order which alone guaranteed peace and stability. And this is what the Anabaptists were doing. They correctly identified the major theological flaw in the Christendom system, from which most of its other errors flowed: the abandonment of the biblical concept of the world as distinct from the church. In Christendom it was assumed that the world had been absorbed into the church (although it seems far more likely that in fact the church had been absorbed and domesticated by the world). The New Testament teaching about the world as a system of rebellion against God, a system whose natural inclination was to hate God and God’s people and to persecute them as it had persecuted Jesus, had been forgotten. The 16th century world had assumed that it was Christian, but the Anabaptists had the gall to question this and to see it as in fact non-Christian, as the world from which Christians needed to come out and be separate, regaining again their distinctiveness as the gathered community of followers of Jesus.

How did this distinctiveness work itself out in the little Anabaptist congregations? Are we now in a better position, without the oversimplification of Harold Bender’s ‘Anabaptist Vision’, to explore some of the central ideas and practices that energized the Anabaptist movement? Stay tuned…

Prayer Partners

Since about the second week in May, whenever I have been in Oakham I have atended daily Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer at the parish church, All Saints’, at 8.00 a.m. and 5.00 p.m. The crowd has varied, but the vast majority of times in the mornings these two guys – Vyv Wainwright and Jay Ridley – have been my prayer partners

I haven’t been one to make much of public daily prayer in the Anglican tradition, but these past two months have converted me. When I get back to work, I’m going to commit myself to being there at the church, morning and evening. One day, I might be able to do for someone else’s prayer life what these two brothers in Christ and their Daily Office have done for me. And that will be a privilege.

Thanks, Vyv and Jay. I’ll be praying for you – daily…