Improvising Church & State: Overaccepting as a Synthesis of Anglican and Anabaptist Approaches


From the church’s perspective, is the state a promising offer, or a threatening one? At the risk of breathtaking oversimplification, Anglicans have tended to adopt the former perspective, leading to accommodation, and Anabaptists the latter, resulting in separation.[1] Following Samuel Wells in his theological appropriation of terms from theatrical improvisation, the Anglican tradition has tended to respond to the promising offers (invitations to respond) of the state by accepting – maintaining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s).[2] The historical legacy of the Church of England has given Anglicanism, as Anderson notes, an “inheritance of a strong loyalty to the state and a conservatism that has led the church to promote the status quo more often than it agitates for reform.”[3] This inheritance from the established Church of England has coincided with a dual tendency to adopt a high status (a strategy for getting one’s way), in terms of relative privilege and political optimism, and a low status, in terms of frequent subservience in church-state relations.[4]

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)

However, the Anabaptist tradition has tended to respond to the threatening offers of the state by blocking – undermining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s).[5] For many contemporary Anabaptists, as Joireman summarizes, “[T]he state has the function of ordering the social world, and the church should be the visible witness of believers, the primary affiliation of Christians, and separate from the state.”[6] Passively, blocking the state can be “a choice to shut oneself away and keep oneself unsullied by the world.”[7] Most often, drawing upon their sixteenth-century inheritance of facing persecution from Catholics and Protestants alike, Anabaptists have adopted a low status as somewhat of a fringe movement. Actively, however, blocking can be “a choice to take up arms,” as seen during the (admittedly rare) example of high status Anabaptist opposition during the Münster Rebellion of 1534.[8]


The differences between accepting and blocking are apparent in the Anglican Articles of Religion of 1563 and the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession of 1527. Although the former document, in article 37 (“Of the Civil Magistrates”), restricts administration of Word and Sacraments to the Church alone, it grants the monarch “the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil,” claiming that Scripture grants monarchs the authority to “rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.” Article 37 also accepts the death penalty and Christian military service.[9] In contradistinction, the Schleitheim Confession forbids Christian participation in civic affairs, swearing oaths, bearing the sword, and serving as a magistrate.[10]

In interpreting these texts, we must remember that, as Bell notes, “[I]t is anachronistic to speak of the church and the state as if these were two distinct social entities prior to the advent of modernity.”[11] And the subsequent historical realities of both movements have been much more complex and nuanced than the glaring differences between these two documents would suggest. Nevertheless, a political-theological impasse seems to exist between the two traditions, and I argue that both Anglican and Anabaptist movements – to the extent that they have engaged in the kinds of socio-political accepting and blocking sketched above – share a common weakness, which Wells’ improvisation framework highlights. Both are prone to accept the realities of the state as a given: a nonnegotiable fact of existence that must be either accepted (by Anglicans) or rejected (by Anabaptists).[12]

For example, in his explanation of the thirty-seventh Article of Religion, Bray demonstrates an Anglican acceptance of sinful socio-political realities as given:

Like it or not, the world is in the grip of Satan and secular rulers who are Christians must come to terms with that fact. It is all very well to believe in peace, but pacifism is not a realistic option in a fallen creation. There have always been groups of Christians who have advocated it, but they have only been able to exist and maintain their principles because they are small and because the majority has been prepared to tolerate them.[13]

Furthermore, though it disagrees on the corresponding duties of the church, the Schleitheim Confession agrees with the givenness of state violence:

The sword is ordained of God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and puts to death the wicked, and guards and protects the good. In the Law the sword was ordained for the punishment of the wicked and for their death, and the same [sword] is [now] ordained to be used by the worldly magistrates (Article 6).

The resulting disagreements between Anabaptists and Anglicans frequently take place on the level of either accepting or blocking the state, not questioning the state itself as a given.

Wells is right to invert the normal relationship between givens and gifts when it comes to Christian ethics:

God takes the place in Christian ethics normally reserved for time, death, sin, bodily limitation[, socio-political realities], and so on – the conventional boundaries. The only boundary, in other words, is the boundary of God. And meanwhile the place that God conventionally takes in Christian ethics – that of a perhaps helpful but largely peripheral and certainly not essential figure – in other words, a gift, a ‘bonus’ – should be taken by those familiar perennial so-called ‘givens.’ […] [T]he only given is God’s story, the theo-drama, the church’s narrative: all else is potentially gift.[14]

While the state is indeed an actor within the theo-drama, the “five-act play of God” (creation, Israel, Jesus, church, eschaton), the church must remember that the state’s role pertains only from the fall and until the eschaton.[15] Arguably, Anglicans have overemphasized Act Two (Israel) in accepting the state, by tending to read the Old Testament (rather than Christ) as a model for political theology.[16] And Anabaptists have perhaps overemphasized Act Five (eschaton) in blocking the state, when, for instance, “Mennonites have sacrificed the study of politics, and this has led to a lack of sophistication in efforts to advocate for the worldwide church and an ineffectiveness in efforts to promote development and the well-being of Christians around the globe.”[17] Both traditions, at their worst, have defined politics as mere statecraft – the management of “a centralized power holding monopoly on violence within a defined territory,” a “civil society.”[18] Anglicans tend to join in the statecraft, and Anabaptists are more likely to withdraw.


There is a way beyond the impasse between accepting and blocking the state: overaccepting it. As Wells defines it: “Overaccepting is accepting in light of a larger story,” in this case, the five-act story of God. To translate Wells’ language into the current topic, the Anglican risk of accepting is that the church “will be determined by the [state] and thus lose [its] integrity and identity.” The Anabaptist risk of blocking is that the church “will seal [it]self off from the world and thus lose [its] relevance in humanity.”  However, “Overaccepting is an active way of receiving that enables one to retain both identity and relevance. It is a way of accepting without losing the initiative.”[19] It therefore offers the possibility of a synthesis between Anabaptist and Anglican approaches to the gift of the state.

Overaccepting involves the realization that politics is not primarily about statecraft, but about true power and a just community. The church already has something to say about both. To the former, it confesses that “Jesus is Lord,” and that the most significant power-act in history has already occurred in Act Three of God’s five-act play. To the latter, it maintains that true community and communal justice are to be found in fellowship with the Triune God – a fellowship which takes place now in Act Four through Word and Sacrament, the church’s life of worship, in anticipation of Act Five. The church must therefore become more political, not less. As Cavanaugh rightly states: “The role of the church is not merely to make policy recommendations to the state, but to embody a different sort of politics, so that the world may be able to see a truthful politics and be transformed.”[20]

Although a more political church sounds superficially similar to Anglican accepting, overaccepting the state involves countering the state’s apparent givenness – its myth of politics as community-through-dominion – by out-narrating it into the true givenness of God’s story, and remembering that the church, not the state, is catholic.[21] Therefore, this approach resembles the Anabaptist view of the church and the state, as Joireman puts it, “as separate and unequal, with an elevation of the church over the state.”[22] Nevertheless, the church’s overaccepting of the state is not the same as blocking through withdrawal. The church is public and political for the sake of the world, whose socio-political realities can be overaccepted as gifts, not givens.[23] As Bell clarifies, this need not lead to “a wholesale rejection of other political formations like modern states and civil society,” for it is possible that some forms of statecraft may serve the church “by maintaining an order that enables the church to carry out its properly public and political mission, which is the proclamation and ingathering of the true human communion/community.” Overaccepting the state can thereby overcome the weaknesses of both traditions and exploit their strengths.

In its liturgical worship, the church already has the resources to live a habitual life as a true polity for the sake of the world – even though liturgical manifestations differ between Anglicans and Anabaptists. The truly political worship that takes place in the church’s liturgy is, as Wannenwetsch clarifies, “meant neither to merely mirror existing political structures and procedures not to provide them with a religious rationale, but rather represents the unique politics of God.”[24] Through Word and Sacrament, the church reminds the world (and itself), that true politics is not found in wielding dominion, but in worshipping Dominum Iesum Christum.


One final way in which Anabaptists and Anglicans can unite in their approaches to the state is by entering the public sphere to advocate for the many victims of statecraft. During this, the Fourth Act of God’s story, the world’s false sense of politics has made a bloody habit of trampling upon exactly the kinds of people who will be exalted in Act Five to God’s heavenly banquet: widows, orphans, immigrants, and refugees. As Wells poignantly maintains: “The church has got to get used to the faces of the poor, because it will see them on the thrones in Act Five.”[25] The church’s test of the state’s offer is therefore liturgical: does the state resemble the liturgy by creating a polity in which the victims of statecraft can flourish? For that matter, does the church itself embody such a liturgy worth resembling? Very often, the answer is “no.”

And yet, by the grace of God, this depressing given can be received as a gift, if these people are received as God’s gifts. Christians – Anabaptists, Anglicans, and others – can enter the public sphere and invite the oppressed to leave the ghettos, refugee camps, and killing fields into which they have been discarded by the world’s statecraft. We can eschew the twin errors of accommodation and separation, and instead invite these “others” to become “us” – to cross the borders, which states have erected to cling to their false and fear-driven dominions, and to enter into the true polity and politics of the Triune God.


[1] Rowland briefly describes the “complex oscillations between accommodation and separation” throughout church history, citing Anglicanism as an example of the former and Anabaptists of the latter. Note: if this oversimplification is too breathtaking, please substitute “Anglicans” with “accomodationists” and “Anabaptists” with “separationists” throughout. See Christopher Rowland, “Scripture: New Testament,” in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, eds. Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 21.

Due to length requirements, my analysis of these two Christian traditions will be primarily theoretical and theological. For a better historical analysis of Anglican and Anabaptist views on the relationship between church and state than I can provide in this paper, see, among others: Leah Seppanen Anderson, “The Anglican Tradition: Building the State, Critiquing the State,”  in Church, State, and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement, ed. Sandra F. Joireman (New York, NY: Oxford, 2009), 93-114; Peter Hinchliff, “Church-State Relations,” in The Study of Anglicanism, eds. Stephen Sykes, John Booty, and Jonathan Knight, rev. ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998), 392-405; and Sandra F. Joireman, who provides an extensive Anabaptist bibliography in “Anabaptists and the State: An Uneasy Coexistence,” in Church, State, and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement, ed. Sandra F. Joireman (New York, NY: Oxford, 2009), 73-91.

[2] Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004), 105-6.

[3] Anderson, 104. Hinchliff provides a thorough examination of this historical legacy, before concluding that “historically, establishment has tended to make the Church, at least in some respects, the servant of the state. It might be thought, then, that the Anglican tradition would have been one which was conservative politically and disinclined to challenge the government. This has not, however, been the universal pattern.” He then cites a few examples which give nuance to the portrait of Anglicanism. However, the strong sense remains that the dominant Anglican approach has been politically conservative in terms of state loyalty. Hinchliff, 404.

[4] See Wells, 87-113; Anderson 95-101.

[5] Wells, 106.

[6] Joireman, 77.

[7] Wells, 108.

[8] Wells, 108.

[9] “The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences. It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars” (1563 Articles of Religion, #37).

[10] Andrew Bradstock, “The Reformation,” in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, eds. Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 68.

[11] Daniel M. Bell, Jr., “State and Civil Society,” in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, eds. Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 425.

[12] Wells, 15; Bell, 424.

[13] Gerald Bray, The Faith We Confess: An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: The Latimer Trust, 2009), 207.

[14] Wells, 124-5.

[15] Wells, 53.

[16] Anderson, 106.

[17] Joireman, 84.

[18] Bell, 425. Bell notes that “civil society,” though “classically understood as…a mediating realm between the state and the individual, which is inhabited by a host of voluntary associations” (427), is often more accurately “a disciplinary space…where persons are shaped and formed in the state’s image” (428).

[19] All quotes in this paragraph are from Wells, 131.

[20] William T. Cavanaugh, “Church,” in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, eds. Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 404.

[21] Bell, 436; Cavanaugh, 404-5.

[22] Joireman, 77. This is her summary of the contemporary position of Mennonites, the largest branch within the Anabaptist movement.

[23] Cavanaugh, 404. This is similar to the approach advocated by John Howard Yoder in The Christian Witness to the State (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997).

[24] Bernd Wannenwetsch, “Liturgy,” in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, eds. Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 87.

[25] Wells, 145.

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