From Mennonite to Anabaptist: Mennonite Witness in England since 1974

Alan Kreider

In 1953 Mennonite mission agencies began to send missionaries to England.  Over fifty years later there are only two Mennonite churches in England – one older, the Wood Green Mennonite Church in North London, and one younger, the Portuguese-speaking Mennonite congregation of Brazilian immigrants in Eastbourne.  Both are small; the new community’s existence is precarious.[1]  In contrast, in the past twenty years there has been a flowering of Anabaptist influence in England.  In December 2009 the Anabaptist Network had 13 regional study groups and 16 resource houses, and in the previous month the England-based Anabaptist Network Website received 5,009 visits, in which the visitors consulted 11,671 pages of the site.[2]  In England Anabaptism is now a recognized part of the discussion on Christian discipleship, mission, congregational life and theology/ethics.  What has happened?  How did the development take place – from Mennonite to Anabaptist?

What I give here is an interim report.  The story is interesting and significant.  Someone with access to archives and the opportunity to interview participants should tell it properly.  But my account is that of a participant.  I have based it on my own personal memories, jogged by reading through my date books which also provide some precision.  I address this subject because it represents my life work; because I find it fascinating missiologically; and because it elicits in me both gratitude and questions.  I also offer it as an expression of esteem to Walter Sawatsky.  While working at Keston College in London in the 1970s Walter was an occasional but much appreciated participant in an early part of the story; he also has been an astute observer of the Mennonite/Anabaptist movement in England who has thought deeply about the use of the terms Anabaptist and Mennonite.[3]  I shall begin my report in July of 1974 when my wife Eleanor and I came to England to become directors of the London Mennonite Centre; and I shall conclude with some tentative observations about developments since 2000, when we left the UK to return to our native Indiana.

Background

First, a bit of background.  When Eleanor and I arrived at the London Mennonite Centre in 1974, we had already lived there as student residents from 1966-1968.  These were formative years in our development.  In 1953 the Centre had opened in a large house in leafy Highgate in North London as a hostel for international students.  By the time we arrived it had developed a unique ethos.  We lived with students of many countries, colors, faiths and cuisines; the smells that wafted up and down the staircases were unpredictable and often mouth-watering.  The resident wardens, Quintus and Miriam Leatherman, were American Mennonites who had taken early retirement from school teaching and nursing.  Under their gentle watchfulness and sensitive hospitality, Christians were formed and non-Christians were attracted.

We knew that these were years of preparation for us; I was doing research on the English Reformation with plans to teach history in an American college.  But these years prepared us more fundamentally than we anticipated.  They gave us a vision for a community in which there would be loving diversity, in which conversation about faith could happen naturally between neighbors.  The Center’s community spoke to a longing we sensed for an intensely embodied form of Christian common life. 

The Mennonite Fellowship which met in the Centre on Sundays was not a formally constituted, covenanted church; but it provided a focus of worship for the residents and for the outsiders who came.  The Centre was Mennonite in title and identity, and its staff were committed Mennonite Christians.  Now and then a few British people hunted out the Mennonites to ask questions, such as “My niece has married a Mennonite from Saskatchewan.  Who on earth are these people?”  To inquirers the Mennonites appeared to be a tiny Evangelical denomination, largely made up of North Americans.  Some visitors knew of Mennonites who wore picturesque plain clothing; others had learned to respect Mennonites whom they met globally in mission and development work.  But in the UK Christian world Mennonites were not only marginal; they were negligible.

Eleanor and I began our assignment at the Centre in 1974, having lived the previous two years in the cathedral city of St Albans, twenty miles north of London.  After teaching history and music from 1968 to 1972 at Goshen College in Indiana, in St Albans I did historical research and Eleanor took lessons in pipe organ performance.  During our St Albans years several Christian organizations invited me to speak, especially about Christian attitudes to the buzz issue of the day, revolution.[4]  Many of the people who heard me were interested; they were not always convinced by my approach, but they conveyed the sense that I had something distinctive to say.  To these people, a perspective on revolution that was Christocentric, communitarian, and peacemaking seemed fresh.  While going for a walk after a speech, I suddenly thought: “I’m the first Mennonite to have the chance to speak publicly in England since 1575.” 

Eleanor and I worshipped with English Christians and learned from them.   From Anglicans especially – Evangelical, charismatic and liturgical – we learned about serious Bible study in small groups gathered around commentaries; we encountered expectant prayer and free praise; and we were immersed in liturgical worship, in which we discovered the strength of the Psalms and patterned prayers.  We received these as gifts, recognizing that they had changed us.  We also made friendship with English people who were explicitly non-Christian or who were Christians who never attended church.  We came to value these people, too, and to understand their reactions to Christianity – at times their offence at the churches, and at times their uncomprehending mystification that anyone should be interested in worshipping and following Jesus.

Mennonites seek allies

This was the setting into which the Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM) of Elkhart, Indiana, in 1974 assigned us to go to London.  We were a part of a unusual mission strategy in which MBM sent promising young north American Mennonites to a number of European cities to do advanced degrees, learn to know the cultures, and “see what would happen.”  In London we were grateful to work in the London Mennonite Centre.  We continued its program of student housing, but insisted that English students, at least a few of them Christian, be among the residents. 

One of these, Stephen Longley, after living in the Centre for a year, proposed: “Let’s covenant as a church, explicitly a Mennonite church.  There needs to be a church in England that takes the second half of Jesus’ Great Commission seriously – ‘teaching them to obey everything that I have taught you.’”  So, in 1976, four hundred one years after the Protestant authorities under Queen Elizabeth I had extirpated an Anabaptist cell, a new church was covenanted under Queen Elizabeth II – the London Mennonite Fellowship.  We wanted it to embody distinctive values, Mennonite values:  Christocentric discipleship, interdependent communal life, an ethic and lifestyle of peacemaking.

It was a struggle to live these values.  We were initially a small community, and pretty isolated, so we needed to find friends and allies.  We found these in three groups. 

The first of these were the “Radical Discipleship” people – committed Evangelicals who had read Ron Sider and were just discovering John Howard Yoder.  The radical disciples wanted to live the gospel fully, intentionally.  Jim Punton, a Church of Scotland Bible teacher who worked for the youth division of the Scripture Union, came among us as a Bible teacher, inspiring us with a vision of God’s Kingdom and its shalom (peace).  Conflicts between personalities and visions were inevitable, and we did not always handle them well.

The second group – the intentional community people – came to aid us in our disarray.  These people, the product of the charismatic movement of the 60s and 70s, also had discovered Yoder.  I found the question of one of their leaders, Lady Faith Lees, to be humbling: “What is the Holy Spirit saying to the churches through you Mennonites?”  So they came to us not only as a resource in dealing with our communal conflict and personal burnout, and not only as a haven in which healing could take place.  To our surprise, they also came listening and inviting us to be teachers in their community.  Friendships developed with the ecumenical Post Green Community in Dorset, and then also with other communities and churches associated with it.  We found ourselves included in the “Community of Communities” – an improbable grouping of Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics.  With one Anglican parish in the “community,” St Michael-le-Belfrey in York, we organized worship services as a peace witness outside nuclear bases.  We were moved by the way that people in this group, which in the1980s renamed itself the “Circle of Fellowships”, accepted us Mennonites and cooked from The More with Less Cookbook.

The third group with which we developed relationships were the peace movement people.  Initial attempts to develop relationships with the Fellowship of Reconciliation did not mature, but friendships with the activists, many of them Catholic, of the Christian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) did develop.  We participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations, and my date books are full of references to “Kent prayer” – meetings in the home of Monsignor Bruce Kent, the Catholic priest who headed the CND.  We also found a group of disparate Evangelicals – soldiers, pacifists and people searching for a Christian position on war and peace.  With them, collaborating with Plymouth Brethren civil servant Neil Summerton under the aegis of the Shaftesbury Project, we developed friendships and productively studied “War, Violence and the State” for half a decade before the study group was superceded by the more activist Evangelical Peacemakers.  Mennonites had published books about war at a time when many other Christians were ignoring the subject; so I began to receive invitations to debate war and nuclear weapons in many parts of the country.  The Mennonites in England by now had become controversial.  The disciples of Francis Shaeffer at one point proposed that the Evangelical Alliance exclude us because of our manifest error!

It is intriguing to note that the groups that we Mennonites instinctively turned to represented the three areas – discipleship, community, and peace – that Bender had pointed to in his classic The Anabaptist Vision.[5]

Invitations to share an integrative vision

At the same time, other people started to turn to us.  They were drawn by the books in our small library and the nascent Metanoia Book Service, sponsored by the London Mennonite Centre.  They also were attracted by the Centre itself, which was a safe place to share experiences and explore ideas. The Centre staff were unapologetic in identifying themselves to visitors as Mennonites, and we welcomed people into an explicitly Mennonite setting. 

By the mid-1980s, Eleanor and I, along with colleagues Wally Fahrer and Chris Marshall, were increasingly accepting invitations to speak to a variety of groups.  Our hosts introduced us as Mennonites.  But my records indicate that they rarely asked us to speak about the Mennonites.  In 1978, a group of students in Oxford invited me to speak about “Ethics and Obedience:  An Anabaptist/Mennonite Perspective.”  But that was unusual.  In contrast, we received many invitations to speak about “Radical Discipleship”; also frequently to help people think about the unthinkable – nuclear war – and less often to think realistically about life in Christian community.  What surprises me now is that, as early as the 1975 meeting of the neo-Puritan Westminster Conference, I was invited to talk about Anabaptism.[6]  The interest was primarily historical; but I saw it as an opportunity to connect the sixteenth-century past with the challenges of the present.  From 1981 onwards I based my presentations especially on the stories and letters in seventeenth-century martyrology The Martyrs Mirror, which made it easier for me to make connections.[7]

In the 1980s, the staff of the London Mennonite Centre didn’t see it as our primary task to talk about the Anabaptists or Mennonites, and we didn’t do so unless asked.  As we saw it, our primary concern was to give people new ways of thinking biblically.  We concentrated on the great themes.  From the outset we talked about the Jesus’ call to follow him, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Body of Christ.  From an early date, shalom was an important topic.  In the mid- 1980s holiness became a focus of my teaching, in response to an invitation from the Baptist Mainstream Group,[8] and the Kingdom of God was always central.  Our concern was for a holistic discipleship.  As Mennonites we felt that conventional bifurcations were inappropriate – between justification and justice, or between prayer and peacemaking.  A slogan that Eleanor and I began to use in 1984 in a conference in Leeds organized by Ali Phelps and Pippa Julings was “It All Fits Together!”  One person noted appreciatively that Mennonites “don’t have the typical conservative evangelical hang-ups about evangelism versus social responsibility.”[9]

We were naïve.  We seem to have believed in the perspicuity of scripture; if only people would be “serious” in their reading of the Bible surely we would all agree.  The eminent Evangelical Anglican John Stott had the same confidence; if only Christians who are committed to biblical authority could submit to the text, surely we could come to agreement as nuclear pacifists![10]  In 1985 this led to a process of “Evangelical debate” on hermeneutics between John Stott, Jerram Barrs of the L’Abri Fellowship, and me, presided over by Andrew Kirk.[11]  In this debate I stated, with too great caution, that “the self-awareness of the interpreter” is necessary to explain different readings of the biblical text.  I did not say that it was inevitable that John Stott, a Queen’s Honorary Chaplain, and I, a leader of a tiny Mennonite church, were almost predestined to come to different understandings of the Bible’s teaching on Christian participation in warfare.  I learned much from these exchanges; today I would be more self-aware and less cautious!

The London Mennonite Fellowship in the early 1980s

The early 1980s were heady days for the London Mennonites.  After we stopped receiving students as residents in 1980, the Centre staff put its emphasis on building up the church (the London Mennonite Fellowship) and developing the Centre’s resources and teaching capacities.  The Fellowship had a core of members who in 1980 displaced the students and lived together in Christian community.  The Fellowship began to attract people, and by 1982 its Sunday services were packing the Centre’s largest room, which held precisely 51 people.  The overflow sat in the hall and up the stairs!  What was it that attracted people?  It was the worship, expectant and intense; the soups, simple but delicious, which always followed the service; and the conversations – what a relief to integrate worship with vulnerable relationships and community life. 

Indeed, integration was the point.  Chris Marshall is an eminent New Zealand New Testament scholar who in 1982 came to London to do a Ph.D. and found the Mennonite Fellowship.  In 2001 he recalled the church he had joined nineteen years earlier:

The one thing that stands out was [the Fellowship’s] holistic, integrative approach to Christian life.  Here was a church that attempted to hold together many of the concerns we had come to believe were integral to Christian faith but that Christians so often set against each other:  joyful worship with sensitivity to the world’s pain; thoughtful biblical teaching with openness to the Spirit; evangelistic concern with social commitment; scholarship with spirituality; ethical seriousness with humility and gentleness; Christian community with an acceptance of people’s individuality; enjoyment of cultural activities with nonconformity to the world . . . The London Mennonite community, at this early and vibrant stage of its development, aspired to a natural and attractive integration of them.[12]

The Fellowship’s attractive life led to problems of overcrowding; and the church, in one of its many business meetings, made the crucial decision not to divide but to stay together, which meant moving the Fellowship out of the Centre.  After some years of wandering from an Anglican church hall to a Quaker meeting house, in 1987 the London Mennonite Fellowship relocated in unleafy Wood Green, three miles northeast of the Centre, renaming itself the Wood Green Mennonite Church.  The name indicated the assumption that this would be the first of a number of Mennonite congregations in London and throughout the UK.  The forming of the “U.K. Conference of Mennonites,” which met several times in late 1987 and early 1988, indicates that a Mennonite denomination was in our minds.  But the reality was against this.   Attendance at the Wood Green congregation was not increasing; its members were committed to each other, and didn’t want to split off to form new Mennonite house churches; and groups in other places were not asking to join a Mennonite conference.

London Mennonite Centre’s Teaching

Further, the London Mennonite Centre staff was giving its attention to new things.  In 1986 the Centre began its own teaching program – Cross-Currents.  In the coming years, the staff, working together with church members, presented courses which attempted to present an alternative, integrative vision of Christian discipleship.  The first course, drawing on the doctoral work of Chris Marshall, who co-founded the Cross-Currents program with Eleanor and me, was entitled “Faith and False Faith in an Age of Crisis.”  Subsequent courses addressed areas that we were thinking about:  holiness, worship, women and men, principalities and powers, the early church. The Cross-Currents courses, like the Mennonite Fellowship a few years earlier, drew many participants and generated expectancy.  Often there was a palpable sense of God’s presence.  The course participants were people from many Christian backgrounds who were attracted both by the ideas and the ethos of the courses; among them were people who had given up on the church. 

We didn’t say that our courses represented a Mennonite approach, but because they came from the London Mennonite Centre we thought that we didn’t need to.  That some of us were working hard on the Cross-Currents courses does not mean that we were not also pouring ourselves into the life of the Wood Green Mennonite Church.  But could we give our best to both?  Some people expressed their worry that there was an implicit tension between the Centre and congregation, but Eleanor and I believed that there was a synergy between the two that would enable both to flourish.

In the mid-1980s, something new was happening.  Young leaders in other denominations began to come to the Centre to check our resources, to build relationships, and to invite us into new groups for study and action.  Two of these visitors – Peter Price and Graham Cray – have become Church of England bishops; Chris Rowland, also an Anglican, became Professor of New Testament Exegesis at Oxford.  The group of Baptists coming was larger than the Anglicans:  Nigel Wright and Anne-Wilkinson Hayes were visitors who came for meals and conversations who would become influential Baptist leaders.  And the charismatic “new churches” were represented by Stuart Murray, who came for the first time for lunch on November 19, 1986,[13] by Noel Moules, teacher of the discipleship and leadership training program Workshop, and by Roger Forster, the leader of the Ichthus Christian Fellowship.  These people were aware that in the UK church attendance was falling and that patterns of life that assumed Christian dominance – Christendom – were no longer working.   They were as serious about being radical Christians as we were.  They wanted, like bees, to gather the pollen from our Mennonite flower before taking off again!  Most of them were deeply committed to their own denominations, clearly never to become Mennonites.

The Radical Reformation Study Group

But might they become Anabaptists?  Many of our visitors – especially the nonconformists (non-Anglicans) – were attracted to the sixteenth-century Anabaptists.   Our visitors didn’t want to become Mennonites; ethnically we seemed too homogeneous and stylistically we seemed too cautious.  September 18, 1987, was a critical moment.  The Baptist theologian Nigel Wright, recently appointed to teach at Spurgeon’s College, London, came and discussed the possibility of a study group made up of young theologically-alert leaders – Baptist, Mennonite, and New Church.  Using the nomenclature of George H. Williams and John H. Yoder, it would explore not Anabaptism but the “Radical Reformation.”  Soon Stuart Murray, a church planter in Tower Hamlets in East London, emerged as the second key leader.  The first meeting of the “Radical Reformation Study Group” was on December 4, 1987, and the group met regularly for almost four years.  Its membership was small – never more than ten – but committed.  We discussed issues and read papers about, for example, church and state, monasticism, and the oath.  Judith Gardiner helpfully guided our thinking on infant baptism, and David Nussbaum presented an unforgettable “Anabaptist perspective on Augustine.”  We ate meals, became friends, and had fun.  For a while we thought that the papers that we presented to each other might become a book.  That never materialized.  But the discussions generated intellectual capital that enabled group members later to write a number of books.

The Birth of the Anabaptist Network

In 1991 change was in the air.  Eleanor and I were about to leave the London Mennonite Centre, where the group had generally met, for a new assignment in the Northern Baptist College in Manchester.  And Stuart Murray, who had visionary, strategic gifts, was imagining a future.  Stuart sensed that we should open the small Radical Reformation huddle so that many could take part in the discussions and so that many lives and congregations could be impacted.  To the Radical Reformation Group, in the spring of 1991 Stuart proposed some “what ifs”.  What if we wrote to a hundred potential participants asking if they wanted to be part of a network?  What if we wrote our papers not for our “Rad Ref” group but for a new journal that the network would publish?  What if there were study groups scattered around the country?  What if the network held national conferences? Some of us sensed that these things would be difficult, if not impossible.  But should we test Stuart’s vision?

Of course!  But what should we call the new network?  There was a growing sense that we should replace “Radical Reformation” with “Anabaptist.” Stuart Murray reminisces:

My recollection is that we rejected ‘Radical Reformation’ as too academic and too historically oriented – our desire was for a network that engaged with contemporary concerns drawing on a historic tradition rather than a historical study organization.  I think we opted for ‘Anabaptist’ because the term was becoming familiar, because it conveyed a sense of shared values and not a denominational tag, and because we were attracted to embracing an intended insult.[14]

As a result of this conversation, the Radical Reformation group decided to embrace the term Anabaptist.  The shift between terms was slightly untidy.  On June 15, 1991, Nigel Wright and I were presenters at a Cross-Currents conference at the London Mennonite Centre entitled, “Introduction to Anabaptism.”  Four months later, on October 11-12, 1991, Stuart Murray and the Centre’s new director J. Nelson Kraybill, led a Cross-Currents course entitled “The Radical Reformation.”  And my records indicate that in 1991-1992 the early network study groups that I participated in Sheffield and Leeds were called “Radical Reformation Study Groups.”  But after 1992 the term Radical Reformation receded.  In the next two decades, as the Radical Reformation phenomenon spread throughout the UK and abroad, it spread as “Anabaptism.”

The spread was striking.  The London Mennonite Centre continued to be integrally involved in facilitating and resourcing the growth of Anabaptism, but the term Mennonite was rarely used beyond the church and centre in London.  Instead, the vision that Stuart had for an Anabaptist networkwas realized beyond the imaginations of those of us who first considered it.  Stuart wrote an initial letter to 80 people and by the end of the year 250 people had responded.  Tending the Anabaptist Network has required work:  Stuart’s organizational savvy has been centrally important, and the Steering Group which brings together leaders – women and men – to keep the movement on track has been indispensable.  As I write this, in December of 2009, the Anabaptist Network involves:

  • a mailing list, currently with about a thousand names on it
  • a fluctuating number of regional study groups (currently thirteen), which wax and wane, depending on local interest
  • sixteen resource houses, private homes which each have a small library of basic literature on Anabaptist history and contemporary theology and mission in the Anabaptist tradition
  • periodic national conferences
  • the Anabaptist Theological Forum
  • a series of “After Christendom” books, published by Paternoster Press, which includes volumes having to do with the church, politics, youth work, worship and mission, and reading the bible – all following in the wake of Stuart’s programmatic Post-Christendom.[15]
  • an Anabaptist Network website (www.anabaptistnetwork.org), which opens the window to an astonishing richness of resources:  testimonies from eight Christian leaders, describing how the Anabaptist tradition has enriched them as committed members of their own eight traditions; scores  of articles on a wide range of topics; four study courses; and four training courses – “Creating a Church on the Margins”; “Introducing the Anabaptist tradition”; “Interactive Church”; and “Urban Church Planting.” The Anabaptist Network’s website provides extensive material for pastors, researchers, individual inquirers, discussion groups and congregations.  It also informs people of meetings that might interest members of the network.  For example, it informs me that, on the day on which I am writing this, a seminar is being held at Woodbrooke, the Quaker college in Selly Oak, Birmingham, UK, entitled “Bringing the Peace Church into the Mainstream:  An Introduction to John Howard Yoder.”
  • An Anabaptist network of organizations, among which are London Mennonite Centre with its conflict and mediation program Bridge Builders, Ekklesia (a Christian political think tank), SPEAK (an Evangelical radical discipleship group), the church planting initiative Urban Expression, and the discipleship training program Workshop.[16]
  • An Anabaptist network of communities, which in 2010 is beginning to bring together congregations and a variety of emerging churches, domestic churches and communities.  The Wood Green Mennonite Church is a part of this network.
  • An informal friendship between Anabaptist Networks which are emerging in many countries – in Australia/New Zealand, Korea, South Africa, and as of December 2009 in Scandinavia.[17]

The Anabaptist Network grows

From the Network’s launch in 1991 to the end of 2009 its growth has been striking, and has required careful tending and creative energy.  Between 1992 and 2004 thirty-seven issues of the three-times yearly journal Anabaptism Today were published.  In these issues, editors Stuart Murray (and, for four years, Nelson Kraybill) provided space for Network members to clarify their thinking and to popularize unconventional approaches to Christian living that have integrity in a post-Christendom world.  The local study groups also helped in this process.  Some of them were more academic in approach; some were more existential.  The study group that we met with frequently in greater Birmingham in the late 1990s had the feel of a house church. Derrick and Margaret Faux, in whose home we met, gave their largest room – their bedroom – to the group; at every meeting the group “broke bread” in worship as well as discussed issues and arranged for ways to support each other. 

Study groups discussed early Anabaptist documents such as the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 as well as the works of contemporary Anabaptist writers such as John Howard Yoder and Donald Kraybill.  Dramas, prepared by Stuart Murray and Eleanor and myself, helped make stories of sixteenth-century Anabaptists come to life.  Karen Stallard drew an eight cartoon sequence to tell the story of Dirk Willems to communicate to children in East London; groups discussed what she had done, and newly entered into the story of Dirk.[18]  Indeed, according to the sixty testimonies in the book Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland, the story of Dirk has spoken more potently to contemporary Anabaptist sympathizers than any other.  Jan Luyken’s etching has helped in the process.  There is nothing like an icon to make a powerful story lodge in what the biblical writers called one’s “heart”.  Over all of this activity, the Steering Group presided faithfully, eating together and discerning and hoping as new things became feasible.

Five reasons not to embrace the term “Anabaptist”

But should this emerging reality be called Anabaptist?  By the summer of 1991, when we decided to use this term, I had learned reasons to be hesitant about using the “A-word.”  Since then I have discovered more.  Let me list five arguments that I have most often encountered to dismiss the Anabaptists, which indicate the risky course of a group that chooses to embrace the intended insult.

  • “The Anabaptists are heretics.”  I learned this first when doing my doctoral research on the English Reformation.  Confessional documents in many Reformation traditions denounced the Anabaptists:  half of the Forty-Two Articles of 1552 were at least by implication anti-Anabaptist, and the 38th of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 condemned the Anabaptists explicitly.[19]  The Anabaptists, like the Nestorians and other groups adjudged to be heretical, did not need to be argued with.  They could simply be classified.  One could say, “That’s an Anabaptist argument,” and assume that one had refuted it by categorizing it.  It is Anabaptist, ergo it is to be dismissed – or to be crushed.  Occasionally I have discerned contemporary echoes of this persecutorial reflex.  After an afternoon doing research in a diocesan archive, I conversed with the archivist who, upon learning I was a Mennonite said, “Heavens, had I known you were an Anabaptist I would have burned you.”  Then we each went home for tea.
  • “The Anabaptists are light-weight.”  The sixteenth-century Anabaptists as a group were marginal people, with only one Ph.D. in their number – and he, Balthasar Hubmaier, was burned for heresy within three years of his conversion to Anabaptism.  Under constant pressure from the authorities and often without access to libraries, they were unable to write academic theology.  When critics asked me, “And what did the Anabaptist commentaries say about this issue?”  I answered that the Anabaptists didn’t write commentaries.  This to the critics was evidence of their superficiality.  On one occasion, a conversation partner informed me, “Calvin was a better theologian than Menno.”  This is obvious, I mused; but does “better” mean wiser, or more helpful in a post-Christendom world in which Christians are involved less in ruling than in mission?   I have reflected that part of the irrational offence that some English academics took at John Howard Yoder is the actuarial injustice that someone so clearly a heavyweight theologian could have emerged from a faith community that is statistically negligible.
  • “The Anabaptists are against culture.”  Despite the careful work that scholars have recently done to query them,[20] H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture categories of 1951 are resilient.  In the minds of some, the Christendom assumption that one must affirm the thought and practices of a dominant culture in order not to be “counter-cultural” still functions to diminish the Anabaptists.
  • “The Anabaptists are socially irresponsible.”  A movement that did not produce rulers cannot be interesting.  In 1973 G.R. Elton, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, penned a phrase that says this sharply:  the Anabaptists “appeal to the young, the powerless, the intellectually unenterprising.”   Elton was no doubt writing a throw-away line.  Had he thought more deeply about it, he might have reflected that he was saying that the Anabaptists don’t appeal to people like himself![21]   Elton does not ask whether the Anabaptists might have appealed to the young Jesus of Nazareth or the aged John of Patmos or the intellectual Justin Martyr of Rome.
  • “The Anabaptists are sectarian.”  Their very name is aggressive.  Ana-baptist denotes re-baptist.  To be sure, Anabaptist was a term confected as an insult long ago by the leaders of the Christendom traditions.  But in the world of ecumenical relationships, it appears threatening when the Anabaptist Network willfully rehabilitates a title that implies a desire to rebaptize other Christians.  If Christians today want to affirm continuity with the sixteenth-century radicals, why not choose a label that is more ecumenically acceptable – such as Mennonite?  And does the label “Anabaptist” not also make baptism the Network’s central issue?  Sixteenth-century Anbaptists would have denied that they were rebaptizing; and contemporary Anabaptists rarely view baptism as the heart of their message.[22]  By choosing “Anabaptism” as their label the Network’s leaders have signaled their conviction that Christendom is dying; so they have appropriated, a trifle cockily, a term that the Christendom churches have used as an ultimate put-down.

Mennonite missionaries as Anabaptist catalysts

By mid 1990s it was clear that the Network was growing and that, despite the arguments that I have rehearsed, its title would be Anabaptist.  Mennonite mission workers in England adapted to this.  There would, we hoped, continue to be a few Mennonite congregations in England.  But we were adjusting to the probability that, in the providence of God, there would not be a Mennonite denomination in England. 

In a report given to MBM workers on July 6, 1994, Nelson Kraybill, Eleanor and I discussed our work.  We stated that although we were hopeful for the future of the Wood Green Mennonite Church and committed to supporting it, we had come to see ourselves as Anabaptist catalysts, not as Mennonite denomination-builders.[23]  Catalysts – we would attempt to see what we believed God was doing, and would encourage it and accompany it.  In England we would be counterparts to the Mennonite missionaries in West Africa who were working with the African Independent Churches.[24]  In the words of mission historian Mark Noll, we were “Agents from outside [the] culture [who] may play important roles in assisting, or hindering, Christian maturation . . .”[25]  The catalytic approach does not swell global denominational statistics; it may promote the Kingdom of God. 

This approach, which did not seek Mennonite advancement, may have freed leaders of other denominations – particularly Baptist and Pentecostal – to identify with the Anabaptist Network.  Baptist leaders have found that the sixteenth-century Anabaptists give contemporary Baptists ways to reconnect with radical dimensions of their history.[26]  Four principals of Baptist theological colleges have been active participants in the Anabaptist Network; one of them, Keith Jones, now Rector of the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, wrote A Believing Church which appropriates Anabaptist insights for the renewal of the Baptists of Europe.[27]  A recent study by another of the principals, Nigel Wright, who has retained sympathetic interest in the Network, notes wryly that for some Baptists “Celtic Christianity and Anabaptism now risk being thought of as the only ‘politically correct’ Christian movements in the history of the church.”[28]  In other denominations and among non-denominational Christians interest in the Anabaptists is also present,[29] but more scattered than it is among Baptists.

The Seven Core Convictions

The leaders of the Network have seen to it that the Anabaptist resurgence grows out of thinking that is solid and practical, addressing the realities of life in post-Christendom.  I have earlier pointed to the After Christendom books as indicators of this thinking.  Another indicator is the seven “Anabaptist Core Convictions” which the product of intensive discussion in the Network’s Steering Group and in local study groups, and were first published in a first draft in 2002.  Since then the Convictions have been slightly revised.  I provide here the current version which dates from 2006.[30]

  1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.
  1. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.
  1. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
  1. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.
  1. Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship. As we eat together, sharing bread and wine, we sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.
  1. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.
  1. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society, and between nations.

These convictions, which are subject to ongoing revision, “are an attempt by Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland today to learn from the Anabaptist tradition and apply its insights to contemporary issues.”[31] Like the seven Schleitheim Articles of 1527, the seven Core Convictions are not a creed; they do not deal comprehensively with theological questions, but present a theological rationale for the way that faithful Christians live.  They further do not represent the thinking or approach of every member of the Network; one is not required to “sign them” to belong to the Network.  The Network’s membership of “hyphenated-Anabaptists” in the Anabaptist Network entails Anabaptist-Baptists mingling with Anabaptist-Anglicans and Anabaptist-Pentecostals.  In this astonishing example of grass-roots ecumenism, unanimity is impossible.  Nevertheless the Core Convictions represent the views that many of the members affirm; and they give a glimpse of the existential theologizing of a living Anabaptist movement.

The Core Convictions are an impressive resource for Christians in the U.K. today, but also for Christians in many cultures.  They are in the tradition of H.S. Bender’s three-fold “Anabaptist Vision”:  they emphasize Jesus-centered discipleship, the church as community, and the way of peace.  But they bring a distinctive UK flavoring to these Benderian points.  According to conviction 1, Christians must worship Jesus as well as follow him.  The worshipping community, conviction 5 asserts, must be “multi-voiced.”  The way of peace, according to conviction 7, must involve the search for nonviolent alternatives and peacemaking between churches and within churches. 

The Convictions also add emphases that are not present in Bender’s vision or the Schleitheim articles.  Unlike Bender but like the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, they place a strong emphasis upon mission; they address the issue of economic injustice, and recognize that wealth affects the disciples’ spirituality as well as their relationships; they are explicit about a Jesus-centered, congregational way of reading the Bible; they offer a vision of voluntary, convivial church in which there is mutual accountability.  Most important, they affirm – in a way that Bender could not in 1944 – that the post-Christendom world that the sixteenth-century Anabaptists foresaw and helped to bring about has come, and that the approaches indicated by the Core Convictions are necessary for “mission in a post-Christendom culture.”  These emphases are controversial, and designed to provoke discussion.  They are important to the Christians who wrote them and affirm them, and are exportable – they are contributions to Christians in other traditions and other parts of the world, not least to the worldwide Anabaptist movement.

The impact of UK Anabaptism

The Convictions are only valuable if they are lived.  Since 2000 I have observed the Christian scene in the UK from afar, but I can offer my impression that the Anabaptist movement, living by these core convictions, is making an impact.  The think tank Ekklesia, which is linked to the Anabaptist Network, continues its constructive and controversial work; its web site which combines reportage and comment has at times been the most widely-visited religious web site in the UK.[32]  The discipleship and leadership training program Workshop continues to equip radical disciples in various parts of the country.[33]  The London Mennonite Centre’s Bridge Builders program has trained hundreds of clergy in conflict transformation and has mediated in congregational disputes.[34]  Urban Expression, a church-planting initiative which is giving birth to churches that live by Anabaptist values, has expanded rapidly; it now has teams at work in six cities in the UK and three in the Netherlands.[35] 

Stuart Murray, the Anabaptist Network’s leading thinker, combines an unusual combination of gifts; he is a visionary, a theologian, an organizer, an inspirer.  Groups in the UK and Europe from the Church of England through the Pentecostals call upon him as a resource person and consultant in mission.  His The Naked Anabaptist (2010) is a lucid, accessible introduction to Anabaptism which has a chapter on history but concentrates on making Anabaptist Core Convictions relevant to Christians today.  In the past decade Stuart has repeatedly traveled North America to equip Mennonites with a vision for mission and to reinspire them with enthusiasm for their own origins.  “We in England are excited by the Anabaptists,” Stuart says to North American Mennonites.  “Why aren’t you?”

The Anabaptists in the UK are buoyant but humble.  They know that Anabaptism is not the whole answer.  Their hyphenated existence, as Anabaptists-[           ], indicates as much.  So also does their recognition that they need to listen to other strong Christian traditions, each of which has essential insights into the will and worship of God, and engage with them in confident, candid dialogue.  The UK Anabaptists know that they need the almost five-hundred year history of the historic Mennonites; the embodied Christianity of staff members at the London Mennonite Centre and the global Mennonite family are resources that many UK Anabaptists relate to gratefully.  Perhaps the Mennonites, with both strengths and weaknesses, can also serve as an antidote to restorationist fantasies that tempt neo- Anabaptists to project their own unfulfilled ideals upon their sixteenth-century predecessors.

At their best, the Anabaptists of the UK are valuable participants in God’s mission in post-Christendom England.  Their significance is hard to calculate, but their critique of Christendom habits of thought and action may be an essential contribution to the church’s mission.  American Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann recently read the contribution of UK Anabaptist exegete Lloyd Pietersen to the Network’s “After Christendom” series – Reading the Bible After Christendom.  In an enthusiastic foreword, Brueggemann states:[36]

Given the highly visible and unmistakable failure of the Constantinian system, [Pietersen’s] fresh reading may be just what is required, not simply to revive the church but to mediate the moral energy needed for a new society.  Much of this has long been known among faithful Mennonites, the circle from which this book arises.

Pietersen is not now and never has been a Mennonite; he is a leader in a small Anabaptist “Peace Church” in Bristol, UK.  But Brueggemann is right in seeing the corrosive and constructive power of Pietersen’s Anabaptist insights; also in sensing that Mennonites have had something to do with shaping Pietersen’s perspective. 

Pietersen’s book stands as a symbol of the Mennonite-to-Anabaptist movement that I have been describing.  It offers us an Anabaptist approach to the Christian faith and life that is integrative and radical.  Pietersen and the English Anabaptists are still marginal, but they are no longer negligible.  And they know that the margins are where God habitually works.


[1] The historic Anabaptist tradition in the UK is also represented by two Bruderhofs, a large one at Darvell, East Sussex, and a newer, smaller community at Nonington near Canterbury in Kent.  These are now a part of the Church Communities International network.

[2] www.anabaptistnetwork.com.  Email from Anabaptist Network website manager Chris Moore, December 17, 2009.  The precise period of the sample is November 16 to December 16, 2009.  Of the 5,009 visitors, 1,271 were from the UK – a lot of contacts.  But in addition, 2,324 were from the US, 571 from Canada, 162 from the Netherlands, 76 from Sweden, 56 from Australia, and so on in descending numbers among a total of 77 countries, including 6 from Turkey.  The global reach of the Network’s website is remarkable.

[3] Walter Sawatsky, “20th-Century Anabaptist-Mennonites Re-shaped by Context – First, Second and Third Worlds,” in Walter Sawatsky, ed., Prophetic and Renewal Movements:  The Prague Consultations.  Studies from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches 47.  Geneva: World Alliance of Reformed Churches, 2009, 177-179.

[4] In 1969 I had been asked by English Evangelicals to address the issue of revolution, which led to “To Make a Revolution,” Christian Graduate, 23 (1969), 2-9; this, reprinted in expanded form as “The Way of Christ” in Brian Griffiths, ed., Is Revolution Change?  (London, Inter-Varsity Press, 1972), 46-69, gave me initial credibility in English Evangelical circles.

[5] Harold S. Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision,” Church History 13 (1944), 3-24, and often reprinted.

[6] Alan Kreider, “The Anabaptists.” In The Christian and the State in Revolutionary Times. Huntingdon: The Westminster Conference, 1975, 28-44.

[7]  Alan Kreider, “‘The Servant is Not Greater than His Master’: The Anabaptists and the Suffering Church,” Baptist Quarterly, 29 (1982), 241-266, the annual lecture of the Baptist Historical Society, London, April 26, 1981; reprinted in Mennonite Quarterly Review, 58 (1984), 5-29.

[8] A speech on “social holiness,” given at the Mainstream Conference at Swanwick, Derbyshire on March 17, 1984, became the germ of Journey Towards Holiness:  A Way of Living for God’s People.  Basingstoke, Hants:  Marshall Pickering, 1986; Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1987.

[9] Ian Milligan, “The Demonizing of the Name ‘Anabaptist’ Must Be Stopped,” in Alan Kreider and Stuart Murray, eds., Coming Home:  Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland.  Kitchener, ON:  Pandora Press, 2000, 98.

[10] Nuclear pacifist Christians maintain that, if all conditions are met, Christians may participate in just wars, but may not use nuclear weapons whose effects are indiscriminate and disproportionate.

[11] Andrew Kirk, ed., Handling Problems of Peace and War.  Basingstoke, Hants:  Marshall Pickering, 1988.  Richard Bauckham and Gordon McConville were the expert monitors of the process and assessors of the positions advanced by the participants – the just war/nuclear pacifism (John Stott); the justifiable war (Jerram Barrs); and pacifist Christianity (me).

[12] Christopher Marshall, “Following Christ Down Under:  A New Zealand Perspective on Anabaptism,” in John D. Roth, ed., Engaging Anabaptism:  Conversations with a Radical Tradition.  Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 2001, 43.

[13] Since 1992 Stuart Murray has been a Baptist; since his marriage in 2000 to Sian Williams, as a speaker he has been known as Stuart Murray Williams.  Stuart Murray remains his literary name.

[14] Email from Stuart Murray Williams to Alan Kreider, December 5, 2009.

[15] Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom  (2004); idem, Church After Christendom (2005); Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley, Faith and Politics after Christendom (2007); Nigel Pimlott and Jo Pimlott, Youth Work After Christendom (2008); Alan Kreider and Eleanor Kreider, Worship and Mission After Christendom (2009); Lloyd Pietersen, Reading the Bible After Christendom (2010).  All are published by Paternoster Press in Milton Keynes, U.K.

[16] The Anabaptist Network of Organizations replaces “Root and Branch” (www.rootandbranch.org.uk), a wider network which functioned from 2003 to 2009. 

[17] Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand (www.anabaptist.asn.au); Korea Anabaptist Center (www.kac.or.kr); Anabaptist Network in South Africa (www.anisa.org.za).  The Anabaptist Network in Sweden was formed on December 4, 2009, but does not yet have a website.

[18] For Karen Stallard’s cartoon sequence, see www.anabaptistnetwork.com/node/295.

[19] Charles Hardwick, A History of the Articles of Religion.  Cambridge:  John Deighton, 1859, 98-106, cited in A.G. Dickens, The English Reformation.  London:  Batsford, 1964, 252.  Dickens concludes his paragraph with the comment, “At least we are no longer terrified by Anabaptism!”

[20] Glen H. Stassen, D.M. Yeager, and John Howard Yoder. Authentic Transformation:  A New Vision of Christ and Culture. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996; Craig A. Carter, Rethinking Christ and Culture:  a Post-Christendom Perspective. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006; most recently, the work of the Spanish Jesuit Danielo Izuzquiza, Rooted in Jesus Christ:  Toward a Radical Ecclesiology.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2009, 73-77.

[21] G.R. Elton, in The English Historical Review, 88 (1973), 856.

[22] See Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist.  Milton Keynes, UK:  Paternoster Press, forthcoming in 2010, chap 1, section “But aren’t Anabaptists hung up on the issue of baptism?

[23] Report to Overseas Seminar, MBM, Laurelville, PA; notes in possession of Alan Kreider.

[24] For pioneering statements of this approach, see Edwin and Irene Weaver, The Uyo Story.  Elkhart, IN:  Mennonite Board of Missions, 1970, 47-57; also their From Kuku Hill:  Among Indigenous Churches in West Africa.  Missionary Studies 3.  Elkhart, IN:  Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1975.

[25] Mark A. Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity.  Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Academic, 2009, 197.

[26] Ian Randall, “‘Ideas Have Wings’:  Ernest Payne and Anabaptism,” Anabaptism Today 16 (1997), 11-17.

[27] Keith G. Jones, A Believing Church.  Didcot:  Baptist Union of Great Britain, 1998.  On the cover is Jan Luyken’s iconic etching of Dirk Willems.

[28] Nigel G. Wright, “Spirituality as Discipleship:  the Anabaptist Heritage,” in Paul S. Fiddes, ed., Under the Rule of Christ:  Dimensions of Anabaptist Spirituality.  Regent’s Study Guides.  Macon, GA:  Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2008, 81.

[29] E.g., Rev Chris Burch, Canon-Precentor of Coventry Cathedral, “Anabaptist Insights in the Heart of the Establishment,” Anabaptism Today 33 (2001), 14-20.

[30] Anabaptism Today, 30 (Summer 2002), 33.  These were “unpacked” conviction by conviction in subsequent issues of Anabaptism Today, and in 2006 were reissued in revised form on the Anabaptist Network’s website.

[31] Murray, Naked Anabaptist, chapter 2.

[32] office@ekklesia.co.uk.  The English-based think tank is different from “The Ekklesia Project,” a network of radically orthodox Christians in the U.S., many of whom are influenced by the Anabaptists, which since 1998 has held annual meetings and published significant writings (web.me.com/zkincaid/EkklesiaProject/contactus.html).  

[33] www.workshop.org.uk.

[34] www.menno.org.uk/bridgebuilders.

[35] www.urbanexpression.org.uk.

[36] Lloyd Pietersen, Reading the Bible After Christendom.  Milton Keynes:  Paternoster Press, 2010, forthcoming.