Thursday, 6 August 2009

how old are Baptists?

Am I a Baptist, or an Anabaptist? Am I part of something, which is 400, 500, or 2000 years old? I would have loved to have been able to go to Amsterdam for the celebration of 400 years of Baptist history. Basically, however, we needed to have a holiday before Emily returned, but neither is there any money left in the kitty for such purposes. I wanted to be there to breathe and feel the temperature of what is still talked about as the Baptist ‘movement’ throughout Europe. What was it about the DNA of the group which first met on Bakkerstraat where a baker named Munter allowed the first English Baptists to be, to live and worship.

What I find fascinating is how we tend towards seeking to own, rather than be owned, by this sense of movement. Of course, it’s not just Baptist who are prone towards making the institutional expression of any movement the end rather than the means. I still find it intriguing why most English Baptists seek to disown the influence of the Continental Anabaptists. After all, in 1525 in a prayer service a company of fifteen believers, formally devoted to Ulrich Zwingli’s evangelical reformation, were led by what they were convinced was a divine call to establish a brotherhood of believers under the outward sign of believers , as a confession of faith and a pledge to live a true Christian life. Baptism. There is, to my mind at least, a clear line of influence of this big idea, which runs from this group, of whom Conrad Grebel was acknowledged as the first leader of the ‘Swiss Brethren’, to the English group led by Thomas Helwys and John Smyth.

I’m perfectly happy to belong to the legacy of the Amsterdam foundations, but let’s not pretend ‘we’ were first and only we ‘we’ are right in any case. Paranoia about distinctiveness is OK if it’s distinctiveness, which is tried and tested by the Biblical witness to the mission of God, not if it’s paranoia determined by our allegiance to what have become our own traditions. So, for example, I frequently hear reference to the Church meeting as a Baptist distinctive. This is then interpreted as the way British Baptists have conducted these for the last 100 years, or so. However, wherever I’ve spoken to Baptists from elsewhere in this world, which is rather larger than the British Isles, I hear something else – this tends to lead to me to conclude ‘we’ think we own, rather than being owned by.

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