The Sunday Assembly, ‘godless congregations’, have been in the news a lot recently. (CNN Belief Blog has just reported on a schism within the movement.) But I wonder if they’re actually a rebirth of the nineteenth century phenomenon of secular societies (which probably never really went away)? I was just reading Timothy Larsen’s Crisis of Doubt, about nineteenth century secularists and atheists who reconverted to Christianity, contrary to the accepted mythology around the ‘crisis of faith’ in the Victorian era. Many of the capsule biographies he provides feature men who became practically preachers for secular societies, giving regular addresses to their meetings, with ‘outreach’ type rallies at other points. It’s an interesting historical phenomenon; I’d like to see the parallels and divergences considered.
A sign at the front of my parish church, St Martin in the Fields, records that the building was erected in memory of the sons and daughters of the suburb of Kensington who served and died in war. Today was the celebration of its sixtieth anniversary; the memory of the dead would still have been fresh in 1953. There are other connections to the military. We prayed today for chaplains serving the defence force. On the wall is an honour roll of the dead. We also hold a special ANZAC service each year.
I am a pacifist, and believe non-violence is a central part of the ethics of the kingdom. But the Anglican Church is never going to be a pacifist denomination, or even have a general tendency in that direction. It still holds the vestiges of its status as the state church, serving as a place for communities to mourn dead soldiers and make spiritual sense of war. I have sympathy for that; the juggernaut of war crushes ordinary people and leaves survivors needing to make sense of it. Yet, naturally, it is a point of great tension for me.
Imagine my joy, then, of learning that I attend a church named for a conscientious objector. Martin of Tours is a wonderful saint for Anglicans – a soldier wrestling with his conscience. In a wonderful irony, he was born in 317, during the reign of Constantine, a period which can be seen as the turning point toward a militarized church. He was a Roman soldier who eventually decided his faith in Christ prevented him from fighting. Jailed as a conscientious objector, he offered to go before the enemy army unarmed. In some versions of the story, the enemy army fled; in others, the battle didn’t happen as peace was negotiated first.
This would be an interesting point at which to probe our saint’s example. Are we called, too, as Christ’s saints to lay down the sword, and refuse to kill our enemies? The temptation is to see Martin of Tour’s actions as the extreme, somewhat legendary, and completely unrealistic actions of a saint called to perfection, while the rest of us have to live in the real world. Yet the message of saints is surely meant to be that one does not have to be Jesus Christ to attempt to live a holy life, and that real men and women who follow Jesus can do it also.
Perhaps Martin of Tours was chosen as the name of the parish because he is the patron saint of soldiers and it seemed appropriate for a memorial church. It seems a historical irony, or perhaps a holy paradox that he would be designated thus. Built into the designation is the call to each soldier who calls on him to wrestle with their conscience as he did and decide what it means to be a “soldier of Christ”.
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.
There was a time in my life when I sought the continuity of truth in ‘the trail of blood,’ the communities who defined themselves against the established church. As I began to study the history of the church, I became particularly concerned when I discovered that “the trail of blood” generally included the gnostics of the early church who denied the incarnation and the Catharists of the medieval era who denied the Trinity and practiced communal marriage.
When I turned away from a sectarian view of the church to embrace the whole church with all of its triumphs and failures, I sensed a belongingness to this vast community of people. I also experienced a connectedness to history that broke the arrogance of my sectarian attitude and created a humility that allowed me to be defined by the church as the worldwide community of people to which I belonged. This means that I am able to affirm the whole church in all the various paradigms of history.
– Robert Webber, Ancient Future Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999. p.73.
I read this book when it came out twelve years ago, at a time when my faith was at a formative stage. Reacting against fundamentalism and responding to postmodernism, I’d just started reading theology and I was malleable. I was inspired and influenced by Webber’s book. It was before I’d read Yoder and while I was living with my grandfather, an ecumenically minded evangelical Anglican minister, who probably would have liked Webber very much. Reading Webber I came closer than I ever have in my life to becoming an Anglican.
Reading parts of it again now, it still resonates. This passage stuck out as I read, as you might imagine it would. I’m much less sectarian and much less ‘against’ the mainstream church(es) than a few years ago, say when I aligned myself with the housechurch movement. Working for a denomination has helped me with that, as has preparing some lectures this year introducing theology. I tried to enter sympathetically into a variety of perspectives, and it made me broader.
But still, what am I to do with Webber’s words here? Is to be an Anabaptist to align oneself with the ‘trail of blood’?
And how do we take ‘trail of blood’? Blood spilt or blood shed? Being persecuted and killed for your beliefs (by the mainstream church?) is nothing to be ashamed of, if I read the gospels correctly. Spilling blood for your beliefs – now that is a problem.
Can I have a more nuanced position than the alternatives Webber gives us here? Not every community that defines itself against the established church, but some? The ones that have good reason for distinction?
With his new attitude, could Webber still embrace the sectarian churches? Or are they now excluded from the vast church in all its connectedness through history?
I think the ‘trail of blood’ theory of churches is related to a Landmark Baptist view of church history – that there is a succession of persecuted true Christians culminating in the Baptists. I’m sure it is tied to some terrible fundamentalist ideas. But in a mild form, of at least acknowleding the idea of renewal throughout church history, it has some merit.
I bring the quote from Webber to you because it at once appeals to me and makes me bristle. Yes! And No!