U.K. reveals Anabaptism without baggage

Sep 12, 2016 by and

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What does “Anabaptist” look like when you strip off the Mennonite clothing?

That’s the question Joe Miller, lead pastor of Mellinger Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., set out to answer.

Church leader Alexandra Ellish baptizes 11-year-old Caleb in a birthing pool in July at Church 1v23 in London. Ellish is a Baptist minister with connections to the Anabaptist Network in the U.K. The network is made up of people from several Christian traditions who are bringing Anabaptist teaching to their churches. — Joe Miller

Church leader Alexandra Ellish baptizes 11-year-old Caleb in a birthing pool in July at Church 1v23 in London. Ellish is a Baptist minister with connections to the Anabaptist Network in the U.K. The network is made up of people from several Christian traditions who are bringing Anabaptist teaching to their churches. — Joe Miller

After hearing about the Anabaptist Network in the United Kingdom, he wanted to see its congregational life in person.

“I thought it would be interesting for me — pastoring a congregation that’s 300 years old, with a lot of people whose families have been in the congregation for all 300 years — for me to interact with an Anabaptist congregation in the U.K. that had a lot of people new to the Anabaptist tradition,” Miller said.

He spent part of his sabbatical in July visiting two Baptist congregations in London with leaders who are part of the Anabaptist Network, a group of people interested in sharing the Anabaptist tradition with their congregations.

The network was formed in 1992 out of a study group that met during the 1980s to discuss Anabaptism. Its goal is “to offer resources and perspectives from the Anabaptist tradition for reflection on Christian discipleship in a post-Christendom culture, where churches are now on the margins rather than at the center of society,” according to anabaptistnetwork.com.

Rather than forming a new denomination, the members have remained part of various Christian traditions.

“The attempts to start a Mennonite church, or a distinctly Anabaptist church, haven’t worked,” said Simon Woodman, co-minister at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in London, a congregation of about 80 people. “I think what works is the networking of likeminded people across denominational boundaries. There’s all these sort of ‘closet Anabaptists’ out there preaching these values, and their congregations don’t know where they’re getting it from. But their churches are becoming more and more Anabaptist as time goes by.”

Woodman is on the steering committee of the Anabaptist Network, and Bloomsbury hosts network meetings. The congregation is affiliated with the Baptist Union of Great Britain.

“What Joe was discovering when he was here was that most people wouldn’t explicitly own the name Anabaptist, but when you dig beneath the surface, you find the Anabaptist traditions and theologies have found their way very deep into this church,” Woodman said. “We don’t preach about Anabaptist history every week, but we do preach peace every week.”

Post-Christian culture

Woodman became interested in Anabaptism while studying for ministry. He was invited to the study group that later birthed the network.

“It was articulating things I thought were important, particularly around peace and justice and radical discipleship,” he said.

Ruth Gouldbourne, who is now co-minister at Bloomsbury with Woodman, hosted the original group in her home.

She appreciates Anabaptism for giving her “the sense of never being settled . . . the sense of ‘what does it mean to be on the edge?’ and the challenge of people asking questions,” she said. “I want to settle down and be comfortable, but the stories don’t let me do that.”

Woodman and Gouldbourne are particularly interested in what Anabaptism has to say about community, given that Bloomsbury’s location in central London prevents its members from sharing daily life with each other.

“Very few people live anywhere near where we are. . . . It’s too expensive to live here; millionaires live here on weekends,” Woodman said. “The Sunday morning congregation has to travel.”

The post-Christian culture is evident.

“A lot of people think they know what Christianity is, but they don’t,” Woodman said. “They think [atheist writer] Richard Dawkins disproved God, and it’s a done deal.”

But in some ways, this makes the opportunity even better for sharing the gospel.

“You’ve got people in the U.K. hearing the gospel for the first time in their adult life,” Woodman said. “People are culturally ignorant of Christianity now . . . which, from my point of view, is great, because it means I can explain it to them properly.”

Taking off the clothing

For Miller, meeting with the U.K. congregations was a chance to see Anabaptism outside Mennonite culture. He and others at Mellinger, which belongs to Lancaster Mennonite Conference, have been asking questions about culture for a few years.

“How do we get clear about what is culturally Mennonite? . . . What is particularly cultural that maybe we need to recognize so we’re not just a Pennsylvania Dutch society, but we’re the church of Jesus Christ?” he said.

Miller wants Mellinger to move toward more cultural inclusivity.

“I have nothing against Pennsylvania Dutch culture,” he said. “I recognize that is the culture of the vast majority of people in our congregation. I want to be very clear that’s different from our theology. I don’t want Pennsylvania Dutch culture to be a stumbling block to people coming in. . . . I went to the U.K. to see what a ‘naked Anabaptist’ looks like, because they don’t have all that cultural clothing.”

At the same time, he doesn’t want Mennonites to replace their culture with contemporary American evangelicalism in an effort to be inclusive.

“As we slowly, in a sense, walk away from ‘Mennonite’ — whatever that meant — with a high cultural context, I want us to move into a recommitment to Anabaptism and not into mainline North American fundamentalism, grabbing for power and privilege and a combination of church and state,” Miller said. “It seems too many have gone evangelical, nondenominational, and I don’t want to do that. I want to double down on being Anabaptist.”

As American culture becomes increasingly polarized between religious traditions and secularism, Miller wants to emphasize the aspects of Anabaptism that appeal to church leaders in the U.K.

“What we really have to offer is a way of discipleship and a way of reading Scripture and following Jesus that’s unique,” he said. “We want to say, ‘the old thing was not working, and it was not very missional,’ but let’s not stop being Anabaptist.”

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