Menno Simons and the influence of biography on theology


I had a chance to give a lecture on the Anabaptists to a church history class last week, with the focus on Menno Simons (1496-1561) and his theology. I noticed my current interest in biography affecting the way I read Menno. Where once I would have only taken notice of the final form of his doctrines, this time I was drawn to the developments in his thinking, and the interactions between what we know of his life and what he was writing.

Menno rebuilt Dutch Anabaptism after the Munster tragedy, in which Anabaptists had seized the city and held a brief, bloody and immoral apocalyptic reign. He ministered to a scattered and persecuted people for decades.

Yet he didn’t leap into this role. He spent ten years as a Catholic priest with an uneasy conscience, reading his Bible and developing in conviction. I think of him in that long liminal period, where he was probably trying to tell himself that he could remain in the Catholic church, hoping that he would not be called to something more drastic. His theology began very individualistically, focused on the individual believer, and it was only over time that he was to develop a radical ecclesiology. As Munster raged, he wrote a tract against the Munsterites, but it was never published, only found nearly a century later when his daughter died – its authenticity questioned. I could not find much information on the execution of his brother in relation to Munster, but again – biography must have shaped his theology so strongly.

Reading some of his writings, I had a stronger sense of a man at a particular time and place, in hiding, and his preoccupations shaped so strongly by that historical situation. I was warned against the “biographical fallacy” studying literature at uni, and was steered away from biographical readings, yet what choice do we have, if we want to attempt to understand any writing in sympathy with how it was written? It can be overdone, of course, but its surely helpful.

None of this is startling; my main point is the simple one that looking at Menno with biographical eyes gave me a new appreciation.


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On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #3: Priests and Professionalisation

I spent a few years in the house church movement, and within it there is great emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Anabaptism emphasises this too; In Body Politics, Yoder writes of the idea of the religious specialist as something God is at work reversing, most profoundly in the experience of the giftedness of all believers in the early church. For a time, I was whole-hearted in embracing this thinking – to the point where the house church I was in had no formal leaders, and everything was decided on consensus. These days I’m ambivalent.

I don’t see leadership as a dirty word any longer. There clearly are designated leaders in the New Testament. Yet I remain critical of the way leadership happens in churches today; I think we’ve been too quick to embrace secular models of leadership and the pastor as CEO. I don’t believe megachurches are a good model of church, and if your church is not a megachurch you probably don’t need a CEO-style leader.

The idea of a priest in the Anglican church takes things in a different direction again. The robes and the special functions only priests can perform set them apart from the congregation. Yet perhaps no more than the professionalisation of large non-conformist churches has set their ministers apart. A layperson in a large Baptist church has little more hope of giving the sermon or officiating at the Lord’s Supper as a layperson in an Anglican church.

I see the importance of the long training and ordination process priests go through in the Anglican church, and I think there’s a lot to be said for it. (Baptists have a similar accreditation process.) The apostles’ three years of discipleship and formation with Jesus was far less structured, but today, if there isn’t a formal process, it’s unlikely to be done well.  So the house church movement’s desire to return to more ‘biblical’ models of formation (such as Timothy-Paul type apprenticeships) is unlikely to happen in reality – many house churches are led by people who have not gone through any process at all.

I think I’m happily agnostic on the question of priests and professionalisation at the moment. I accept how things are done at the church I attend, and I see the good side of it, while being aware it’s in tension with my beliefs of the past.


Filed under Anabaptism, Anglicanism, church (ecclesiology), house church, leadership

On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #2: The Joy of Being Religious

Religion is a terrible thing, was the message I got as a child. Religion is what Pharisees – and Catholics – do. Our church is not religious – we all have a relationship with God. Being religious means trying to please God with rituals. Wearing special robes. Reciting prayers out of a book. That’s why I faithfully told other kids at school that I wasn’t religious, just born-again.

These days, I embrace the word ‘religious’, mainly in reaction to how demonised the poor word is. I don’t have a developed theology about this, but attending an Anglican church, I am experiencing the joy of being more religious. Let me explain.

Free church (Pentecostal, Baptist, Church of Christ) worship services are so often deliberately “unreligious”, especially to the extent they have been influenced by the church growth movement. In wanting to be accessible to the non-Christian, in wanting to minimise the cultural barriers, worship leaders banter about football and families. God-talk is casual, prayer is spontaneous (yet usually very familiar), God is translated into everyday language. There is a determination to make a relationship with God seem a normal part of a middle-class existence. There are good reasons for all these things, but it is a mode of worship I have never been at ease with.

For me, what is lost in “unreligious worship” is the mystery of God, the strangeness and ancientness of the Bible and a sense of connection with the two thousand years of the church. Church-growth influenced worship mirrors the complacency of our culture in its embeddedness in a perpetual present, without a sense of history, without an awareness of the wisdom of the ages – without, I suppose, a consciousness of tradition.

Thus, for me, worshipping in an Anglican church this year has restored some missing things. The prayerbook service is theologically deep and draws so deliberately from the riches of two thousand years. I am taken through repentance and forgiveness, thanksgiving and intercession. The language, while not arcane, is more exalted than everyday language. It conveys some of the mystery of faith.

Sometimes the many rituals go from seeming strange to seeming momentarily silly or tedious. But overall, the ritual and structure have been good for me, good for giving me space to encounter God in a new way. This is what I mean by the joy of being religious.

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Filed under Anabaptism, Anglicanism, church growth, my spiritual journey, worship

On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #1: Homecoming?

Grandad, the Reverend, in Israel

On Good Friday of this year, I began attending a local Anglican church. It was not a theological decision, but a practical one. We’d moved house and needed to find a church we could both attend; this was the one which was mutually agreeable.

I’ve changed churches a number of times over the years, yet for both theological and personal reasons it has felt significant to find myself at an Anglican church.

In a sense, it feels like a homecoming. My grandfather (pictured), Rev. Ron Hobby, was an Anglican minister in WA for sixty years. My parents’ move to a Baptist church in the late 1970s was controversial. I grew up Baptist, yet with Anglicanism as a kind of mother country. Can I have been in exile from a church I never belonged to?

I lived with my grandfather when I moved to Perth to study as an eighteen year old at the end of last century. His was a moderate evangelical Anglicanism – ecumenical (except when family members wanted to become Baptist), yet staunchly orthodox without being Reformed. Perhaps the Anglicanism of C.S. Lewis and Lesslie Newbigin. I visited the cathedral with him several times, and there was some possibility at that point of me becoming Anglican – I was keen to experience a form of worship different from conservative Baptist, and I knew that I was definitely not drawn to the smooth showmanship of megachurches. But what I embraced instead was a radical restorationism, which led me into the house-church movement and Anabaptism. Fourteen years later, I still identify with the latter (no need to retitle the blog just yet) but not the former.

I loved Grandad deeply, and wanted his respect; yet we were both such principled, idealistic people that our conversations would sometimes become clashes, and we both took theological and political disagreement personally. By the time he died in 2006, my vehemence against the established church was such that attending an Anglican church was an unforeseeable possibility. I like to imagine how he would react to the news that I am, now, somewhat Anglican. I think with a great deal of joy, and a note of triumphalism and pride.

These days, I would be less determined to set him straight on exactly where I stand theologically. I would not feel the need to qualify my news with a loud insistence that I remain Anabaptist in outlook.

What does it mean, for a believer who holds Anabaptist convictions and works for Baptists to attend an Anglican church? I’m still working that out. I intend to do some of my thinking out loud, on this blog. I want to explore the beauty and spiritual renewal I feel in this new church – my appreciation of the church year, of liturgy – and the theological problems it presents for me.


Filed under Anglicanism, my spiritual journey

Vose Seminary at Fifty: From “Preach the Word” to “Come Grow”


I’ve co-edited a book, and it’s launching on Tuesday:

Vose Seminary began as the Baptist Theological College of Western Australia in 1963. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary, this book brings together a collaborative history of the seminary with essays examining shifts in the church and theology over those fifty years. The contributions from twenty-five Vose staff, students and graduates demonstrate the generous evangelicalism which marks the seminary.

The book is an account of where Vose Seminary has been over the last fifty years and an attempt to define the task which lies ahead for theological educators in equipping the church for the future.

The story of our seminary is an important one for the church in Perth. The different contributors reveal some interesting things, such as the story of Ruth Snell, an early student who went on to become the first woman to be a Baptist senior pastor in Australia. Reading Karen Siggins’ essay on women at Vose Seminary, I was struck by how far we have come, and yet how much further we have to go.

I wrote a history of the library for the book, and it was a project I found particularly interesting. Unearthing the traces of the past revealed a lot of gaps and misunderstandings in the oral traditions I had heard. The research process was a treasure hunt, the thrill at finding a mention of the library in a newsletter from decades ago, or of Lynn, one of the previous librarians, uncovering important documents. I don’t know how interesting the history of a library can be for those who aren’t involved in it, but I tried to make it so.  I begin the essay with this:

More than any other part of Vose Seminary, the library bears traces of its past—an accumulation of books, journals, shelving and paraphernalia from throughout its history. Since I began as seminary librarian in 2008, just as BTCWA was about to become Vose Seminary, I have been intrigued by these pieces of the past woven into the library.

Many books bear the names of previous owners; there are hundreds from some donors—Noel Vose, Geoffrey Wild, A.C. Maynard, Ruth Atkins. A separate collection of history books bears the name of Professor Herbert Hallam, a medieval historian at the University of Western Australia; they were donated in 1994 after his death. Many others bear the stamps of defunct libraries, such as the Perth Diocesan Library. A number of books still have the borrower cards which became obsolete with automation. There are always familiar names written on these cards; it is a particular kind of pleasure to know a friend or mentor read the same copy of a book a decade or two ago.

You can buy the book from Mosaic Resources (the publisher) – Or you can come to the launch and buy a copy there! It’s happening on Tuesday 27 August at 5pm at Vose Seminary Library, 20 Hayman Rd, Bentley. RSVP:

Here’s a full listing of the contents, because you won’t find it anywhere else on the web.



A Note on Style and Sources


A Kingdom of Mustard Seeds
Noel Vose

Ministerial Training (1895—1962)
Richard Moore

BTCWA Under Dr Noel Vose, Founding Principal: As Sole Full-time Faculty (1963—1978)
Richard Moore

Reflections: Fred Stone

Reflections: Arthur Payne

Reflections: Ashley Crane

BTCWA Under Dr Noel Vose, Founding Principal: The Faculty of Three Era (1979—1990)
Richard Moore

Reflections: Roland Maxwell

Reflections: Ann Mallaby

Reflections: Neil Mactaggart

Supervised Field Education: Bob Clark

Fellow-Workers Program: Jennifer Turner

BTCWA Under the Second Principal, Dr John Olley (1991—2003)
Richard Moore

Reflections: Mark Wilson

Reflections: Lynn White

Reflections: Alex Okhrimouk

A “Principal for Change”: From BTCWA to Vose Seminary Under Dr Brian Harris (2004—)
Richard Moore

Reflections: Evelyn Ashley

Reflections: Carolyn Tan

Fifty Years of Students: The Changing Demography of the Vose Student Body
Aaron Chidgzey

The Experience of Women in Theological Education: From the Fringes Towards the Centre
Karen Siggins

A History of Vose Library
Nathan Hobby


Biblical Studies—Whence and Where? Reflections on Fifty Years
David Cohen and John Olley

Baptists and the Bible in the Twenty-first Century
Michael O’Neil

Whither Preaching?
Brian Harris

Developments in Pastoral Care in the Last Fifty Years
Fred Stone

Who Stole My Pastorate?
Steve Ingram

Theology of Everyday Life
Jennifer Turner

Learning from the Emerging Threads of Mission 1963–2013
Neil Anderson

Faithful Thinking: The Task Ahead for Christian Higher Education
Brian Harris

Appendix A: Commencement and Conferral Speakers
Prepared by L-J du Heaume

Appendix B: Senior Students
Prepared by L-J du Heaume

Appendix C: Books Written or Edited by Vose Faculty and Tutors


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Justin Welby biography

Archbishop Justin Welby: The Road to Canterbury / Andrew Atherstone (DLT, 2013)

A group of us at church are meeting to discuss this short biography of the recently installed Archbishop of Canterbury. Welby comes across as a leader with the ability to turn things around, and reconcile people in the most difficult circumstances – from African conflicts to diocesan spats about the sale of paintings. Welby wrote in 2012, “Division, dislike and even hatred are the quickest ways to kill churches. The first to leave is the Spirit of God. Reconciliation and modeling difference without enmity to a world in desperate need of it is both healing spirituality and effective testimony to Christ.”

Ten – or even five – years ago, I would have been antithetical to reading this book, because I was anti-hierarchical and anti-leadership, and because the Anglican Church is, in origin at least, so thoroughly Constantinian. And because I didn’t read biographies. Against my house church days, I’ve come to cautiously accept the value of good leadership in churches – I should blog on this one day. I now attend an Anglican church – again, worthy of a post to explain myself. And my main area of literary interest is currently biography. (Would my old self like this 2013 self? Not sure; he might be very disappointed.)

It is a decent biography for a quickly written one. Yet it feels too banal at times; perhaps this is because Atherstone is writing about the living. Or perhaps it is because Welby’s life has been quite ordinary between the exciting parts. But I think it’s also because it relies heavily on sermons and weekly columns written by Welby, and so despite not being authorised, it comes across very much as a sanitised, public biography. Am I saying Atherstone should have tried to dig up more dirt and highlight antagonism? Well, probably not, but these are some of our expectations of biography. Perhaps he should have at least found a still seething parishoner from the time Welby removed the pews from his parish church in the 1990s and replaced them with chairs.



Filed under Anglicanism, biography, book review

Faith in the Shadow of Death: A Review of Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) 

Christian Wiman is a poet with a rare cancer, currently in remission. He was brought up a Texan Baptist, lost his childhood faith, only to return to church and a new kind of faith in the midst of falling in love and being diagnosed with cancer in his late thirties.

It is the second great spiritual memoir I’ve read this year, and it reminded me a lot of the other – Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. White men in their late forties who both write beautifully, and have a faith on the margins of doubt. Both memoirs are digressive and lack structure. Spufford’s is the more whimsical; Wyman’s is the more urgent and darker – but not even by that much.

My Bright Abyss is an extended meditation – illustrated with poetry – on believing in God when God so often feels absent. It is a far better book on doubt than any evangelical attempt I have encountered – probably because it is so honest, and so unconcerned to get to a particular answer. (Really, for Wiman and any unbeliever reading, it is a book about faith; but most believers will probably find it to be a book about doubt.)

It is an extremely quotable book; almost a collection of quotable insights. But this one is as good as any to give a taste of Wiman’s theme:

We feel ourselves alive in the anxiety of being alive. We feel God in the coming and going of God – or no, the coming and going of consciousness (God is constant). We are left with these fugitive instants of apprehension, in both senses of that word, which is one reason why poetry, which is designed not simply to arrest these instants but to integrate them into life, can be such a powerful aid to faith. (27)

He has not compelled me to return to poetry, although I believe he’s right, and the book itself stands as a testimony to the significance of poetry in making sense of life.

For Wiman, faith is something fragile:

To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. (60)

At the centre of Wiman’s faith in this book is the moment Christ on the cross calls out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It is a book which takes existence and death seriously, when so few books and so few people do. This is a man who has stared into the abyss and written beautifully about it.

More: Interview with Wiman here.


Filed under book review, death, existentialism, faith and doubt, spirituality, theology and literature