One of the UK’s smallest religious movements will hold its last act of collective worship this weekend as age, mortality and changing attitudes to faith have forced it to abandon regular services.
The Mennonites--part of the Anabaptist tradition dating back to the 16th century--are closely related to the Amish, who are noted for their plain dress, simple life and rejection of modernity and technology.
But the Mennonites have a wider range of customs and practices, according to Ed Sirett, who was an elder of the church, based in Wood Green, north London, until last year. “On the spectrum, there are some that are very like the Amish to those that are really modern and urban,” he said.
The numbers attending Sunday services have dwindled to single figures from a peak of 40 in the 1990s, said Sirett. “In the last five years, there have been some untimely deaths of highly committed individuals, which has been a huge blow. We’re older and less energetic, and it got to the point when just keeping the rota of Sunday worship going was taking most of the energy of the last half a dozen people. We could probably do more to advance our cause if we weren’t expending so much effort on something which people weren’t coming to.”
Another factor in the church’s decline was changing attitudes towards religion in society generally. In the 2011 census, about a quarter of the UK population reported that they had no religion, up more than 10 percentage points since the previous census in 2001.
“As with many Christian churches, we failed to convince the next generation that following Jesus was the best way. We lost the next generation,” said Sirett.
The London Mennonite Centre closed in 2010, and the church has struggled to fill the positions of elders. Members decided at the end of last year that “we could no longer sustain our usual pattern of community life, despite a perceived obligation to maintain the UK’s only fully functioning, English-speaking Mennonite church,” said a statement from the last remaining elder, Sean Gardiner.
Sirett said the decision to end services was “a very sad moment. The pain is not a super-shock, but it’s still like a bereavement.”
Mennonites, along with all Anabaptists, are baptised or re-baptised as adults. “We are a believers’ church, a church of choice, not a default church,” said Sirett. They are committed pacifists and strong believers in justice, mutual aid and community.
Anabaptist churches were largely driven out of England during the reign of Elizabeth I, only returning in the middle of the last century. There are about 2.1 million Anabaptists globally, concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and North America. Only about 3% live in Europe.
Following the north London group’s final service on Sunday, members may attempt to establish a virtual community and will continue to meet and socialise individually.