I mentioned earlier Rowan Williams’ charitable comments about the Anabaptist/Mennonite stream of the Christian faith, and the important contribution it bears for the rest of Christianity as a whole. While I appreciate Williams’ comment greatly, the occasion — not the comment itself — reminded me of what I think is a common problem in the way in which Anabaptism tends to be “appreciated” in certain ecumenical circles (like the Ekklesia Project, for example).
It goes something like this: Anabaptism is important and helpful because, out of all the streams of the Christian tradition, it is the one that can teach us about how important it is to be pacifists. Thus, we the way that the Anabaptist witness is appropriated is generally by Catholic or mainline Protestant Christians embracing pacifism while remaining unchanged in regard to other theological distinctives. A good example of this is the Mennonite-Catholic dialogue group, Bridgefolk, which describes itself as “a movement of sacramentally-minded Mennonites and peace-minded Roman Catholics who come together to celebrate each other’s traditions, explore each other’s practices, and honor each other’s contribution to the mission of Christ’s Church.”
Note the way this is set up: Mennonites have got peace and Catholics have got sacramentalism. Let’s slap the two together for extra ecumenical awesomeness! The Bridgefolk self-description goes on: “Together we seek better ways to embody a commitment to both traditions. We seek to make Anabaptist-Mennonite practices of discipleship, peaceableness, and lay participation more accessible to Roman Catholics, and to bring the spiritual, liturgical, and sacramental practices of the Catholic tradition to Anabaptists.” Again the mode of ecumenism at work here is clear: Mennonites have some good stuff to say about “discipleship” and “peaceableness” while Catholicism has got it figured out when it comes to “spiritual, liturgical, and sacramental practices.” All we need to do is appropriate these lovely elements and, viola! we have the perfect new instantiation of the Christian faith!
Now, to be sure I appreciate the way in which the contributions of the Anabaptist tradition to nonviolence and peacemaking are being appreciated by other elements of Christianity. I am truly thankful for this and I’m sure a lot of good comes out of groups like Bridgefolk. However, I think this sort of “reception” of Anabaptism is often a way of not actually taking Anabaptism seriously. The Anabaptist tradition is not, first of all, about “nonviolence” but rather about the nature of discipleship, the church, the world and the meaning of Christ’s Lordship. You can’t divorce Anabaptist’s theology of peace from their commitment to things like believer’s baptism, voluntary church membership, congregationalism, the rejection of clericalism, and yes, opposition to certain understandings of sacramentalism. To do so is to fail to take the tradition with any real seriousness. The same is true for Anabaptists and Mennonites who quickly latch on to quasi-Catholic enthusiasm about sacramental theology. (Indeed, most of what I’m saying here applies, vice-versa, to free churchers who think they can appropriate whatever elements of Catholicism they find compelling, a similarly-common tendency.)
The only point I really want to make here is that the assumption of some sort of easy give-and-take between the free churches and the establishment churches (Catholic or Protestant) is profoundly misguided. The Anabaptist tradition isn’t just “there” to provide mainline churches with a handy theological pacifism any more than the magisterial traditions are there to give free churches a nice way to think sacramentally. The divisions are much deeper, much more real, and indeed must more theological than such sorts of ecclectic ecumenism of convenience tends to acknowledge.