Month: October 2013

Menno Simons and the influence of biography on theology

MennoSimons

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.

 

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.