The Naked Anabaptist
by Stuart Murray
Though a Quaker, and a member of the Friends Church by conviction, I often visit the churches of other denominations and find myself quite at home in them, even though I am, strictly speaking, a guest. Many years ago there was a much greater sense of denominational identity and dispute over the finer points of doctrine. These things are still to be found, but I sense they are a lot weaker than they were. On reflection, I think that what gives me an ecumenical rather than a denominational sense is that my primary interest and concern is with the Church, the whole body of Christians, and not just one part of it.
That causes a problem, though, because in spite of my sentiments, Christians do not speak with one voice and have differing views about what discipleship requires. Happily, Friends have settled testimonies and clear precedents, and I am quite content with them. I would not have become a Friend otherwise. But they are not self-sufficient, they have historical precedents and when you look at them closely, they actually bind Friends into a longer and wider tradition than the English Revolution of the mid-17th Century. This also means that one can find much of value from the experience of other Christians, and benefit from it.
For many years I have been convinced that the general shape of the Friends Church could properly be described as Anabaptist. We began as a protest against the demands of state-sanctioned religion, and demanded freedom of conscience. Consequently we rejected all war as incompatible with the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. We rejected ostentation, privilege, and worldly wealth as inconsistent with Christian simplicity. We took pastoral care and teaching away from a priestly caste and confined it only to members of our own community whom we trusted. We eschewed the literal understanding of the Bible and tried instead to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. We were so suspicious of idolatry that we even gave up practicing the symbolic actions others called “sacraments.”
These things are often seen as the “distinctives,” the things that mark us off from others. Properly understood though, they represent what we think the gospel requires of all, and indicate what the values of the whole Church—the Christian community—ought to be. Most of these things, in one form or another, are exemplified also in Anabaptism, the faith of the radical wing of the Reformation. It explains why Friends and Mennonites, together with the Brethren, are known as the “peace churches” and find that they have many basic attitudes in common.
It is therefore very encouraging indeed to read such a forthright statement of these values by Stuart Murray and look at the context in which he places them.
The author begins by charting what he sees as a growing interest in Anabaptism, as folk from many different traditions encounter Anabaptist ideas and realize that they are what they believed all along. He writes of conferences, publications, and the foundation of the Anabaptist Network in 1991 to serve people in churches and denominations who wanted to know more about this tradition. In the United States people are familiar with the Mennonites and others, but in Britain there has been no continuing organic presence, though there is plenty of history waiting to be discovered, and practical application of Anabaptist ideas.
What piqued my interest was that there are many contemporary Christians (not about to leave their home churches) who are looking for something different, radical, challenging, and that will provide insights and inspiration. They seek a framework, maybe slightly different from the tradition they also value, that answers some awkward questions about the contemporary church and provides a new narrative. Stuart Murray calls such folks neo- and hyphenated- Anabaptists. It struck me that as a Friend, I found no difficulty in slipping into either of these categories, and that my surmise that Quakerism was in essence the English end of the Anabaptist movement might be somewhere near the truth.
One always has to place calls for renewal is some sort of context or narrative which explains how and why the need for renewal has come about. The Naked Anabaptist does this by trying to find the living ideas that lie behind the particular expression of the faith in Mennonite, Hutterite, and Amish culture. The original concepts and practices tend to take on a life of their own and lose something of their initial inspiration—hence the play on words that forms the title. The heart of the book lies in the main chapter headings: “Following Jesus,” “After Christendom,” “Community and Discipleship,” and “Justice and Peace.”
These are important themes, and I guess the key to them lies in the “After Christendom” theme. Friends and continental Anabaptists were always critics of the world’s values, and insisted (as one can read at the entrance to the Menno-Hof at Shipshewana) that virtue does not require the cloister.
Quakerism also began in the conviction that the outward culture of Christianity historically perverted its inward reality. George Fox proclaimed that his mission was to “…bring people off from Jewish ceremonies and from heathenish fables, and from men’s inventions and windy doctrines…and from all their vain traditions, which they had gotten up since the apostles’ days which the Lord’s power was against.” Some of us look at contemporary Christian culture and conclude that in many places, not much has changed since those times. But there is an alternative vision, and it is to be found among the radicals of the Reformation, who will still give us much to ponder.
This is a challenging book, which Friends will read with great interest.