Written for "Into Action" the magazine of the Parish Church of St Helier in the Island of Jersey. First published online at MennoNerds.
Relations between Anabaptists and the Church of England didn’t particularly start all that well. From its Swiss, German and Dutch roots in the 1520’s Anabaptism reached England through people like the Bible smuggler Joan Butcher, an early example that leadership in Anabaptist communities featured both women and men. Joan was arrested, sentenced and condemned to be burnt at the stake in 1549 under the famed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer. At the time the well-known chronicler John Foxe appealed to the Chaplain to the King, John Rogers, for him to appeal for clemency, but His Majesty’s chaplain refused with the comment that burning was "sufficiently mild" for a crime as grave as her heretical views against the "sacrament of the altar". Interestingly her views must have been somewhat persuasive at the time as Cranmer’s own theology shifted to a position close to hers shortly after. It is of course better known to most Anglicans that both Cranmer and Rogers suffered a similar fate to Joan in the Marian counter-reformation.
In 1590 Anabaptists were given the choice to take exile to the continent or to join the Church of England. A few declined both these options and went underground. The last heretic to be burned at the stake in England was the Anabaptist Edward Wightman in 1612, whose heretical theology of the "sleep of the soul" suggested that “the soul of man dies with the body and participates not either of the joys of Heaven or the pains of Hell, until the general Day of Judgment, but rested with the body until then."
Anglicans who know their Prayer Book will also be familiar with Archbishop Parker’s Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571, in which Article XXXVIII explicitly repudiates Anabaptist economic teachings "The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common … as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast". Other parts of the Anglican creed draw up lines of distinction on matters of non-violence, civil obedience, oath-swearing, the ecclesiastical authority of the monarch and, of course, baptism.
Moving from the inflammatory theological contentions of Tudor England to modern day Jersey I am very pleased to report that relations today are much more cordial indeed. To give a short introduction, I grew up without any connection to a church and was quite dramatically converted on 24 October 1987 at a quarter to nine in the evening. My Christian formation was in a House Church with equally strong charismatic and Anabaptist influences. How did I come to share fellowship with Anglicans? Reader, I married one. My wife Katie is cradle Church in Wales, and we married in St Mary’s Pennard, where she was christened, brought up in Sunday School and confirmed, and where my in-laws still worship.
So what marks an Anabaptist approach to following Jesus? Well we tend to have a fairly literal approach to reading the Sermon on the Mount, leading to well-known Anabaptist distinctives such as nonviolence and the aversion to oaths. We tend to think that Christendom was not such a good idea, and so for us "Jesus is Lord", also means "and Caesar is not", leading to a general suspicion, as opposed to an honouring , of the Principalities and the Powers that be. In many cases this led Anabaptists to turn their backs on politics, and to avoid civil office. We love to read our Bibles, and are less keen on creeds and centrally authorised of worship. We don’t have any concept that corresponds the idea of the laity, so in Anabaptist theology all who are baptised into Jesus and indwelt by the Holy Spirit are called to participate in Christ’s priestly mission in the church and the world. We tend to see the Eucharist as a "peace meal" shared among the communicants as much as it is a personal and individual sign or sacrament. And then there is of course Baptism, which we tend to see as a thing for consenting adults
But the question I was asked was what is an Anabaptist’s impression of the Church of England, well that’s a much harder one. I now know and love many Anglicans and inasmuch as they are the experience of the CofE to me, then the relationship is a fond one. There are of course things that even after a decade of being a welcome guest at the St Ouen’s Church, and husband and father to four of its members, still strike me as just odd. I can’t, for example, get used to the names of dead Victorians on the walls. I find the little sermons frustratingly short, although I do appreciate that some find that a blessing. I still find it odd to see a national flag or a military symbol honoured in a church. I find the Anglican Holy Communion Service to be a strange way to break bread, although I am grateful that communion is extended to me (even though your bread does taste a bit like cardboard). The furniture smells funny and all those names for parts of a church or bits of the Vicar’s costume just seem to elude my memory – I do know what a Narthex is now though, which must count as progress.
Above all the thing that struck me the most powerfully is that you all find these things, which I find strange as, completely normal. And you don’t just find them normal, but deeply meaningful in your discipleship of Jesus. This has been a wonderful lesson to learn, about the diverse ways in which we express our love for Jesus.
Theologically my sojourn in Anglican-land has been enriching too. I have become an avid user and writer of liturgy. I love for example using the Chrism Eucharist, I’m less of a fan of the Commination service, but then I am still new at this. Most people would think this which is very strange for an Anabaptist, but our Balthasar Hubmaier (1480 – 1528) wrote a fine Eucharist which is still sometimes used today. The rhythms of the Anglican calendar have also been a joy to discover. I love the daily Offices you all say at morning and evening prayer, although I do tend to get my coloured bookmarks all muddled up.
Finally I have come to love the variety within the C of E. In the last year I have broken bread with Anglicans at St Ouen, St George, St Peter and St Helier here in Jersey as well as Westminster Abbey, Holy Trinity Brompton, St Paul’s and Southwark Cathedrals in London. This has helped to show me that Anglicans do not believe in a single right way of doing church but a multiplicity of equally accepted ortho-praxies, something which I tended to think was an Anabaptist distinctive until I met again it in the least expected place.
So I would say thank you for your hospitality in the name of Jesus, the welcome has been much more cordial than the history might have given me cause to expect and it has been warmly appreciated. I have learned much in my walk of discipleship through the ways that you Anglicans practise your love of Jesus in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Peace.