The Siege of Münster and the Anabaptists, via Melvin Bragg…

The cages hanging from a church in munster which held the corpses of the anabaptist leaders

Another great programme on Radio 4 the other day- available as a podcast for your listening pleasure here.

This one digs into the story of the Anabaptist attempt to create a New Jerusalem in the city of Munster during troubled times in 1534.

I had not heard about this tragic part of church history before- and am grateful to old Melvin for waving it at me through the ether. It is a case study from the beginnings of the protestant experiment- in the early days of the old reformation. Much of what we children of this reformation have come to accept as the bedrocks of faith can be seen in the various sects and streams of the Anabaptists. They were the pioneers.

Indeed if you will forgive me for being partisan for a moment- they were the radical activists of the ’emerging church’ of their day.

But as this programme points out, they were a disparate bunch, who regarded persecution as signs of God’s election- so justifying some pretty odd wacky ideas too. So alongside adult Baptism, the leading of the Holy Spirit, the authority of Scripture (now widely available of course thanks to the technological revolution of the printing press) there were leaders who claimed to be the Godly ordained successors of David, or Gideon, and to claim Biblical justification for polygamy.

Oh- and the Anababtists of Munster thought that the world was about to end- and in such a context, murder, despotism and all sorts of evil became legitimate means to an end…

As ever, we grasp some things of the Kingdom of God, whilst confusing and even perverting others.

Perhaps above all, this is case study of what happens when Jesus (or at least his most fervent followers) and politics are thrown together in troubled and changing times.

Add in a dose of charisma, a dollop of religious zealotry, and the result is bloodshed and destruction.

I think one of the biggest lessons we children of a new unfolding reformation need to learn is that Christians are called to lay down power in the name of love and service.

Or the funeral fires of Munster will have burned for nothing.

Protestant sectarianism and emerging church…

The history of Protestantism is littered with division and conflict.

Reformation of what has already been reformed.

Schisms of schisms.

Battles over whose truth is truer and whose understanding of scripture is most enlightened.

The legacy of these truth wars can be seen in the countless Protestant descriptive labels/denominations. Here are but a few as they occur to me;

Lutherans, Wesleyans, Reformed Weslyans, Methodists, Free Methodists, Primative Methodists, Baptists, Southern Baptists, Reformed, United Reformed, Assemblies of God, Anglican, Church of Scotland, Episcopal, Quaker, Shaker, Amish, Menonite, etc etc.

This list is in part a noble one. We have learned much from the men and women of God who have celebrated faith within these organisations. Such variety speaks of the freedom that people felt to follow after God in the way they understood him, away from the central powerful control of older forms of religion. It also is a story of fervency, of revival, of movements of the Spirit across whole communities, of great leaders who were bold and true.

But there is a dark side, measured by truth promoted over love and grace, and in a serial fracturing of the unity of the Spirit. Such division can be seismic in terms of the violence done to community in the name of Jesus.

I wonder if this kind of spiritual development can become addictive and even infectious. Almost as if all new Protestant church movements carry a destructive gene within their DNA…

Scotland has had more than a fair share of this splintering and fragmenting. Take the recent very public difficulties seen in the Free Church of Scotland, which splintered as recently as 2000.

I have used this picture before- taken in a small West of Scotland town about 7-8 years ago. Two churches so close that they are almost touching- but separated by a chasm of doctrine. I should add the proviso that I do not know either of these churches, and the image may miscommunicate entirely. But I think it makes a valid point about a certain characteristic of Protestantism…


How did we come to this, we followers of Jesus?

How did Agents of the Kingdom of God, sent out into a broken world to form revolutionary cells characterised by love, somehow sign up instead to be driven towards such segregated exclusivity?

Is this more about psychology than it is about theology? Our tendency to seek a point of expansion and accomplishment, and to measure it against others around us- elevating ourselves by finding others wanting.

I wrote this poem in an attempt to understand these things in myself-


We meet and move about one another
Probing, exploring borders
Presenting our petition
And revealing this badge of office-
Sewn on sleeves whilst our hearts stay hidden
Revealing carefully edited glimpses
Of whom we want to be
But are not yet.

Then begins the measuring
Of the size of armies
The bore of canon
And the reach of your rockets
As we carefully deploy our camouflaged troops
To occupy the high ground
To hide uncertainty behind
A cloak of accomplishment
And capability.

Sometimes it seems that who I am is only revealed
In understanding what you are not
In seeing you
And finding you wanting
In mapping out your strongholds
And avoiding them
And raising up my tattered flag
Above this uncomfortable alliance.

Why is this important now?

Because I think that this is a real challenge to those of us who are part of the ’emerging church’ discussion, particularly here in Scotland. Some questions-

Is ’emerging church’ just another Protestant reformation- another fractious denomination in the storming and the forming- throwing stones at those whose truth is not our truth, looking around and finding others wanting.

Or are we a break from modernist Protestantism- a more generous, open, embracing movement that seeks unity, not uniformity and is willing to learn humility and to value the other.

Are we Protestant at all? Where are the emerging Catholics?

If something new and hopeful continues to emerge, in all its flawed beauty- how do we(or even SHOULD we) nurture and sustain whatever we become without following a familiar pattern of splinter and schism?

From my point of view, the story is mixed.

Emerging church has no form and no structure- at least in Scotland. It is not a descriptive definition of any way of doing church- rather it is a loose affiliation of malcontents and hopefuls, defining themselves rather by the fact that they are prepared to question and seek.

And because we are human, friction is inevitable. People compete for prominence, and justify themselves by the rightness of their cause, or the small success of their activity.

But brothers and sisters- I find myself longing for something else. Something a little more of the Kingdom, and a lot less of the Empire.

Something characterised by tolerance and love. (Even as I am intolerant and unloving.)

On forgiveness rather than defensiveness. (Even as I defend and find it hard to forgive.)

Of a willingness to enjoy one another without the need to compete. (Even as my own insecurity drives me to do the opposite.)

And a determination to see community as the origin and the means for all things- with one another and with Jesus. And that the quality of these interactions should become the measure of our success. (Even with my own history of broken community, and the wounds I carry because of this.)

This is the church I long to see emerging.

I have not desire to be part of another schism.