This article appears in the book Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland, edited by Alan Kreider and Stuart Murray (Pandora Press, 2001). ISBN: 0968554369. However several key pargaraphs were cut out by the publishers without my agreement. They have been restored here in bold.
When I heard the news of the first official talks between Mennonite and Roman Catholic theologians in autumn 1998, something important stirred within me. Although my own spiritual formation has taken place principally within Anglicanism, I have also been shaped powerfully by the impulses of Anabaptism and Catholicism – though in ways conforming neither to Rome nor to Lancaster County, nor (for that matter) to Canterbury.
No, for me a church which is truly the Body of Christ and which conveys really Good News to the world has to be characterised by something more Spirit-driven than just the recovered traditions of the past or organised church life, important though those are. Instead it requires a fresh synthesis of radical catholicity and radical reformation. I shall try to explain why.
My upbringing was determinedly evangelical, tempered with kindly humanitarianism. In my late teens I found myself catapulted into political campaigning by a passionate sense of the injustices of the world. Yet this stance was frequently at odds with the conservatism of my church and went unnourished by its largely individualistic theological ethos. My decision to study at the London Bible College in the late 1970s was an attempt to bridge these gaps. It didn’t work. The more I immersed myself in evangelicalism, the less adequate its assumptions, theories and practices seemed for the world I inhabited. But the one person who impressed me was Alan Kreider, then teaching church history.
This was only the beginning of my encounter with Anabaptism. Early attempts to tackle political concerns through faith (a small network called Christians for Justice in Development, launched in 1980) brought me further contact with Alan and others at the London Mennonite Centre. It was a fruitful though not always easy relationship. My growing understanding of justice and peace as central features of the Gospel was nurtured by Mennonite spirituality. But my inner city experience made me uneasy with the world-rejecting elements of Mennonite ecclesiology.
Meanwhile, the world moved on. Thatcherism aided the crisis of the left – where my practical commitments lay. The mid-’80s shock waves destabilised not just my over-optimistic socialist outlook but my cosy Christian orthodoxy too. It was not so much a loss of faith as the beginning of its reconstruction. My Anabaptist instincts made me ask much harder questions about the significance of the church as alternative community. The difficulty was in finding actual expressions of church that cared for counter-cultural values, especially economic ones.
At the same time, in a theological leap that eventually led to five years education and training work in Southwark Diocese in the early ’90s, the ideas of thinkers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Paul Tillich, John Robinson, Alan Ecclestone, Sallie MacFague and David Jenkins helped me to begin negotiating the exciting but enervating waters of an increasingly plural, complex and ambiguous world. Not before time.
Through the catholic influences on many of my mentors I began slowly to understand that one could be held by ‘transcendence-in-the-midst’ even while failing to grasp it intellectually. Here was the dim dawning of a sacramental sensibility overtaking enthusiasm and rationalism. Overt Anabaptist influences on my faith journey were now few. But at the end of my time in Southwark, I met, and later married, Carla Roth. (She had also been taught by Alan Kreider, but at Goshen College, Indiana). From a large Mennonite family, Carla’s journey had led her to the Episcopal Church. We had developed similar influenced-influenced catholic leanings, and were now fellow dissidents within Anglicanism.
Meanwhile, I discovered books by Daniel Leichty and Gordon Kaufman. Their rejection of illusions about a self-interpreting Bible and many historic dogmas put them ‘beyond the pale’ for most fellow Mennonites. But the issues they raised (the humanness of all interpretation, the failure of traditional apologetics, and the need for a re-stating of our God-language) were unavoidable.
I became convinced that a Christianity which can evoke radical biblical faith without absolutising its own sources or traditions is both vital and possible. But my experience of British Anabaptism is that it is too cocooned to perceive the need for such risky theological creativity. Being tiny and foot-loose it has not yet had to face the full force of fragmentation that has eroded established Christian denominations. It is able, rightly, to critique their Christendom assumptions – but perhaps too easily. Yet if it continues to reject the adaptations to late capitalist culture which have helped other evangelical groups to grow, Anabaptism will also need to evolve.
So what are the sources of renewal? One of mine is the robust peace church tradition. Anabaptism understands that violence is the very fabric of evil and the cross of Christ is its polar opposite – the absorption of death, rooted in an unshakeable faith in the ultimate triumph (resurrection) of a love that has the divine capacity to endure suffering for the sake of right. A church that truly lives this faith will inevitably be counter-cultural and minority-oriented, living in tension with the state, as Anabaptists have long understood – and as we Anglicans must learn. And it will be rooted in orthopraxis – the restless, neighbour-loving search for Christ-like shalom, rather than for the rationalist certainties of enforced orthodoxy.
But there is a problem. For my experience is that Anabaptism can, at the same time, be world-denying (non-resistant, quietest, self-centring), theologically ineffectual (naively biblicist, unable to embrace plurality, locked in pre-critical thought categories) and exclusive (seeing salvation as the extrication of Christians alone from a doomed world). The universal evangel made visible for us in Christ can be trapped in a narrow ideology. This is my temptation, too.
By contrast, the radical Catholicism I have shared in Latin American base communities and elsewhere is about universality and inclusivity. This, rather than being a bounded sect, is the basis of its holy distinctiveness. It has a Eucharistic understanding (receiving life as a gift offered, blessed, broken and re-made by God), and proposes Christ as the mystery of the world. It seeks salvation (divine freedom) for all, and is ecumenically oriented towards blessing, not damning, ‘the other’. But just as Anabaptism may turn church counter-culture into ‘church as polis’ (another form of domination), so Catholicism with a large ‘C’ easily converts Christianity into the be-all and end-all, losing a Kingdom-focus by making church the goal of the world, rather than its servant. In this sense, both Anabaptism and Catholicism seem to me to be threatened by being too ‘high church’. As a parallel to some Anabaptist pietism, my catholic Eucharistic tradition can also shrink into mere routine. It can colonise the world instead of freeing it, and its theology can become magisterial legitimation rather than the revisionary, contextual, renewable and provisional source of communal discovery and correction it could be. This is why I believe it needs renewing through the spirit of radical reformation.
So I find myself thoroughly in debt to Anabaptism. Yet I am seeking to apply its gifts through a socialistic, ecumenical Anglican Catholicism that, in its theological approach, universalist intentions and liturgical symbolism is deeply problematic for some particularist, anti-ritualist Anabaptists! It remains my vision that radical reformation and radical catholicity belong together. But this is only possible in the spirit of Jesus’ terrifying warning to us all about new wineskins for new wine.