The Naked Anabaptist
Perhaps surprisingly, despite the fact that I earn my living at a Mennonite church, very little of my formal education was devoted to learning about Anabaptist history and theology. I took one year of Bible College at a Mennonite school when I was 19, but that was about it. I studied philosophy at university and deliberately chose to pursue graduate studies at an inter/trans-denominational institution. I received bits and pieces of the Anabaptist story along the way in my studies, I read the occasional book by a Mennonite author, and I almost always worshiped in Anabaptist churches so it wasn’t like I was clueless. But I’ve never exactly swam in the deep end of the Anabaptist pool.
Over the last few weeks I have been preparing to teach baptism and membership classes at the church. One day, an advance copy of Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist found its way onto my desk courtesy of a co-worker. Given the fact that I would shortly be introducing people to the Anabaptist story and perspective, I figured I would give it a read. Maybe it would give me a few good insights to use during my courses. At the very least, it had a catchy title that was worth exploring a bit!
Well, it turns out that the book was a bit of a revelation, at least for me! Stuart Murray is a Briton writing to a British/Irish audience about this peculiar thing called Anabaptism, yet he explained my own tradition to me in a way that both made more sense to me and made it more compelling than any single comparable work I have ever encountered. Perhaps this is just further evidence of the meager nature of my exposure to Anabaptist writing and that I need to read more widely!
Nonetheless, it was a delightful (if bizarre) experience to have the tradition in which I was born and raised explained so richly and compellingly by someone from a context with a miniscule Anabaptist presence (there are apparently only two Mennonite churches in all of England!). I found myself nodding and mm-hmming throughout. Frequently, I would have the experience of saying something like, “so that’s why I think about x, or y that way.” At the risk of overstatement, in this one little book Murray achieved the twin feats of explaining a lot of my own thinking and experience with unusual clarity and reinforcing my pride and connection to my own tradition. Well done, Stuart!
So as I thought about how best to further digest and process The Naked Anabaptist I decided that blogging my way through the book (what else?) might be a good start (see here and here for others who are blogging about this book). As Murray points out to his fellow Brits, Anabaptism is widely misunderstood. Some assume that Anabaptists all ride horses and buggies or all live in communes or are a bunch of separatist peaceniks with no interest in the broader culture. Others see in the Anabaptist movement a proto-emergent church of some kind and consider us to be all that is admirable and pure about Christianity (see here and here, for example)! Anabaptists, evidently, are a pretty diverse bunch and difficult to pin down!
As a way through the mire of confusion and misunderstanding, Murray offers what he (and others) see as seven core convictions that spell out what it means to be an Anabaptist. Over the next few weeks I will be devoting one post to each of these seven. But before I get to the first one, I think it is worth highlighting the four disclaimers that Murray makes prior to laying them out:
1. These convictions are an attempt by Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland today to learn from the Anabaptist tradition and apply its insights to contemporary issues. They are not an updated version of historic Anabaptist statements, and they deal with some issues that previous generations did not explore.
2. The Anabaptist Network is a diffuse and diverse community, with no membership criteria. We do not ask those who join to subscribe to the core convictions. Those who join presumably endorse at least some of them but they are not an ideological filter. The core convictions express the priorities, concerns and commitments of those who founded the Network and those who have helped shape it over recent years.
3. These are convictions, not a creed. Anabaptists have generally been wary of fixed statements of faith, which imply there is no need to listen to others or continue to wrestle with Scripture. Creeds are concerned only with beliefs, but Anabaptists are equally interested in behaviour. And creeds have often been used to silence, exclude and persecute dissenters, rather than inviting ongoing conversation. But Anabaptists have produced confessions—statements that are not intended to be comprehensive but set out distinctive convictions and practices. These are always provisional, open to review in light of fresh insights.
4. The commitments spelled out in these core convictions are aspirations rather than achievements.
In the days ahead I will look individually at each of the seven core convictions Murray has identified. But here, at the outset, I have to express my admiration even for these disclaimers. There is a humility, an openness to learning from others, a commitment to discipleship, and an honesty about them that is truly admirable (and necessary), in my view.
Does the spirit of these disclaimers represent all Anabaptists of all time? Of course not. Anabaptists are certainly not (and have never been!) perfect (even if we are currently somewhat fashionable in some circles). Indeed, I find myself wishing that some of our own denominational debates about matters of theology and practice exhibited even half of the charity and openness that Murray is advocating here. We ought to be better. And Murray reminds us that Anabaptists have the resources within our own tradition to call us back to where we ought to be.
Up next, the first of Stuart Murray’s seven core convictions of Anabaptism.