By Stuart Murray Williams. The image shows one of the council meetings in Switzerland, in 1525, which catalyzed the Anabaptist Movement.
I recently asked Ruth Whiter if she could include in a WEBA mailing some information about the Centre for Anabaptist Studies at Bristol Baptist College. She kindly agreed to do so but also invited me to write a short article. She had noticed a sentence in the publicity about the Centre that had intrigued her: ‘Christians from many traditions are learning from the Anabaptists as we engage with the emerging realities of post-Christendom.’ She wanted to ask why!
Post-Christendom is only one of several ways of interpreting the complex and changing culture in western societies, but it resonates with the experience of Christians in many traditions today. We are in a transitional period and grappling with multiple changes in church and society as the long era of Christendom comes to an end and it is far from clear what will emerge over the coming years. There are fresh opportunities ahead but we are also facing significant challenges. Some Christians and churches are excited and enjoying the freedom to explore and experiment; others are fearful and locked into survival mode.
Where can we look?
Where can we look for insights and resources? We might look to the burgeoning churches in other parts of the world for inspiration and encouragement, but attempts to copy what they do or import their programmes are unwise. We might look to churches in our own culture that are growing and appear successful, but often there are contextual factors involved that cannot simply be duplicated elsewhere. Some are looking to the Celtic and monastic traditions for personal and communal practices, rhythms of life and a holistic spirituality. Others, perhaps surprisingly, are looking to the Anabaptist tradition.
Why the Anabaptists?
Why the Anabaptists? For centuries this 16th-century renewal movement was maligned or ignored, but Christians from many traditions and in many nations are now drawing on its insights and resources.
- Anabaptism appeared at a time of social, political, economic and spiritual crisis in Europe, not entirely unlike our context.
- Anabaptists regarded Europe as a mission field and rejected the Christendom system as illegitimate, planting churches of committed disciples who were engaged in mission in their communities.
- Anabaptists have centuries of experience of being a minority community on the margins, which is where we all now find ourselves in post-Christendom.
- Anabaptists took seriously Jesus’ teaching on peace and sharing resources – protection and provision remain crucial issues in our troubled times of austerity and violence – and offered counter-cultural approaches to discipleship in these areas.
- Above all, Anabaptists were Jesus-centred, insisting that his life mattered as well as his death and resurrection. This is significant in our context, in which Jesus still fascinates people, even if they are turned off by institutional religion.
Baptists and Anabaptists have much in common. Some historians regard them as first cousins in the family of Christian traditions. Many Baptists are finding in the earlier and more radical Anabaptist tradition resources to inspire the pioneering of new initiatives and the renewal of existing churches. The Anabaptist emphases on discipleship, hospitality, community, sharing resources and peace activism are helping many of us to ‘engage with the emerging realities of post-Christendom.’
The Centre for Anabaptist Studies, based at Bristol Baptist College, welcomes enquiries from anyone interested in learning more. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit www.anabaptistnetwork.com for a wide range of resources on the Anabaptist tradition.
Stuart Murray Williams
Director: centre for Anabaptist Studies