An Anabaptist Family Meeting

In the world of theological conversations it seems that everyone is talking about us. Brian McClaren named Anabaptists as part of the composition of his Generous Orthodoxy. Stuart Murray outlined the markers of a Naked Anabaptist. Greg Boyd and others continue to trumpet the peace testimony and challenge imperialist theologies, even to the point of losing members from their congregations in doing so. Funny thing is that in talking about us, these pastor theologians rarely get the opportunity to talk with us. Even more striking is the fact that those of us in the Anabaptist family rarely have the chance to talk together.

Thanks to Missio Alliance and a number of co-sponsors, including the Church of the Brethren, we finally got the chance to have a family meeting. On September 19 and 20 nearly 400 people met in Carlisle Pennsylvania to explore the intersections between Evangelicalism and Anabaptism. Historic Anabaptist groups such as the Brethren in Christ, Mennonite Church USA, and the Church of the Brethren all provided speakers. Emerging Anabaptist leaders such as Greg Boyd, Brian Zahnd, Bruxy Cavey, Kurt Willems also shared in the main sessions. Many noted from the stage and in the hallways that such a gathering of these groups is rare, and thus the opportunities are vast.

In a culture where Evangelicalism is increasingly identified with stripes of Calvinism and Reformed theology, the space opened by Missio Alliance and these Anabaptists revealed a depth to North American Evangelicalism. To be sure, Anabaptists and Evangelicals are not antithetical. Both strains of Free Church theology share the conviction that the Christian life is marked by conversion and adult baptism. We also have a high regard for the Bible as the church’s scriptures and a Christ centered vision of the Christian life. There are also significant markers of difference, but in this gathering one of the common points of conversation focused on a shared welcome of the end of Christendom thinking. That shared connection takes many forms, but the general idea that North American Christianity has been dominated by theologies that link empire building and the church was one that many rejected.

In the course of the gathering it was clear that we still needed to identify what we meant by “Anabaptist.” Some clearly understood it in a thick way, including communal interpretation of scripture and the desire to simply do what Jesus said we should be doing. Still others used Anabaptism as short hand for a non-violent ethic of discipleship. Yet, given the range of Anabaptist traditions and the many strains of influence in what is becoming called Neo-Anabaptist theology, we missed an opportunity to gain some understanding of this breadth and thus the possibilities for an engagement of Anabaptist thought in the wider theological conversations. Frank James of Biblical Seminary, while recounting the history of Anabaptism, also invited us to look at a larger dialog between Reformed and Anabaptist strains of Evangelicalism. The nature of this gathering, however, made it feel more like a family meeting than an opportunity to explore the range of Evangelicalism. To some, it felt like a gathering where many of us congratulated ourselves on being “Anabaptists.”

The format of the gathering also revealed an interesting contrast between historic Anabaptism and more culturally attuned Evangelicals. A number of noted Neo-Anabaptists were recruited as speakers, and it was clear that these were names intended to draw an audience. Many of us welcomed hearing and engaging these writers and pastors, yet for many historic Anabaptists, the celebrity culture of the North American Church was a clear hurdle. While Missio Alliance is framed as an organization that is trying to make space within the fissures of the North American church for important and integrative conversations, the conference still had an air of bringing in the celebrities to talk to a crowd. While several historic Anabaptists were part of the plenary schedule, it was quite clear that there was not much conversation to be had. Instead, the task of synthesizing the various ideas was placed on those in the audience.

Part of that reality was due to the schedule. In recruiting so many plenary speakers we crammed 3-4 presentations into a two hour sessions. When, as inevitably happens, speakers went over time the result was a question and answer time that was often limited to one question and a short response from (hopefully) each presenter. Rather than having a conversation, the end result was a collage of ideas that the leaders in the room had to assemble for themselves. This inundation of speakers also was a taxing schedule for all those who attended. There was simply too much to synthesize and keep track of, without much space created for processing the information. I wonder if the low attendance on the second day was in part due to exhaustion.

There certainly are, especially for those interested in Anabaptism, better ways of structuring a conference to reflect conversation and communal discernment than packing the sessions with so many speakers. I wonder if we could have had two or three short presentations from church and congregational leaders and had those celebrity pastors respond and be in conversation with those presenters.

The breakout sessions were clearly intended to be the space for conversation. Yet, we also leaned heavily on presenters who offered more content than on facilitators. I wonder if we could have tried not having set sessions and identified key concepts from the plenaries and offered space for those interested in talking together about critical topics that emerged from the presentations. This may still sound like what was intended by the planners, but we could have done this on a more ad hoc basis. Rather than ask people to prepare a session with more content and a little space for conversation, these sessions could have been more tactical and responsive to the issues arising in the large group sessions.

All that aside, this was surely a unique gathering. It offered a place for pastors and leaders who frequently feel alone and taxed to meet with others who are thinking in similar directions. As a staff person for the CoB who worked on the planning team, it was worth the effort seeing pastors engage a range of people talking about our tradition. It gave us the opportunity to network with other CoB pastors as well as connect to other leaders.

At the end, it was clear to me that this was just one conference that offers us future opportunities. In the plenaries a number of critical questions were raised that could easily bring us together again. Rather than try to narrate those questions, I will simply list a few that filled my own notes.

1) The mono-cultural problems with historic Anabaptists- Is our Germanic heritage an asset or a hurdle to sharing the unique emphases within our traditions?

2) Structural racism in our society and our churches- How can a tradition whose very beginnings were rooted in marginalization by the wider Christendom structures rethink our own complicity in the continued marginalization of others in our town and our churches?

3) The need for more women voices- The balance of presenters were men, yet the struggle seems that opening space for women isn’t the real issue. What changes in the Anabaptist conversations when the voices of the women who are clearly engaged are heard on their own terms, and not because they speak from the male dominated language and expectations?