One thing I am determined to do on this blog is to fairly report significant developments in the Church, especially when it concerns the parts of the Church I am most closely associated with. I have been what is often called a credobaptist all my Christian life, and my marriage certificate even says I was “married according to the rites and ceremonies of the Baptists” standing underneath a C.H.Spurgeon -laid foundation stone. So what happens in the Baptist Union matters to me.
Yesterday I reported on the news first covered on Premier Christian Radio that it seemed there had been a seismic shift in the Baptist Union of Great Britain’s doctrine on sexuality. I was pleased to be able to interview today their spokesman Stephen Keyworth, who is the Faith and Society Team Leader.
Adrian There has been quite a bit of controversy and some confusion over a decision that was made over last weekend, and a headline that stated Baptist Churches would now be offering same sex marriages. I wanted to give you an opportunity to clear up some of that confusion and help us understand what has actually happened.
Stephen I’m sorry, but first I need to correct you, there was no decision made last weekend.
What happened was a very small part of a very long, thorough and prayerful journey. As a Baptist Community, like every other Christian denomination, we have had to make a response to some quite significant changes to same-sex partnership and marriage legislation.
We are not a denomination that makes central decisions and policy – we discern the Mind of Christ through the prayerful deliberations of His people gathered together in church meetings.
On this issue, over the last year or so we have encouraged churches, minsters and associations to engage in conversations through a whole series of approaches, and what was offered last Saturday, was a very simple update from the Baptist Steering group – which in essence said to the wider Baptist Community – this is what we believe to be your view on this matter. This is what we think we have heard. We do not want you to vote on it, or adopt it as a policy, we want you to absorb it, think about it again and then let us know if we’ve got it right.
If in the meantime, if we need to make any policy decisions on the matter – then this is the backdrop that we will use for forming them. And what we were very clear about was ‘this is not our last word on the matter’.
It affirmed marriage (man and a woman) as a foundational belief of BUGB and in upholding our ecclesiology, at the same time it acknowledged that some churches, together with their minister, may feel led to offer some form of same sex blessing.
Adrian I think that it may be helpful to move away from the specifics for a moment to talk about some general points. Perhaps you could help us by explaining the structure of the Baptist Union and how it is governed? Your website mentions a council, and assembly, the local church, and church ministers. How do they all work and how do they relate together?
Stephen Well first you have to embrace the core principle that the mind of Christ is revealed through His people, and that each local church has liberty under God to discern what is right for them. Now, of course we have to some shared values and beliefs, and we also have an organization to support and enable local churches to work in covenant.
Our Declaration of Principle is what each of us subscribe to – churches and ministers in covenant relationship.
Our Assembly is a national gathering of our churches, it is a place to listen, to draw together the diverse views of our community, and it is a place to seek to inspire, inform and envision people. Now within that, we do have to have an Annual General Meeting to adopt accounts, appoint officers etc. but it is the AGM of our Union – where the business of the organization that holds us together is overseen – I hope you can see that in a Baptist context, that is something distinct from those churches themselves.
More recently, we have tried to express this difference through the introduction of the phrase ‘Baptists Together’. Baptists Together is that somewhat amorphous whole of our churches and colleges working together in association, supported by specialist teams, core working groups and the like – BUGB Is the legal entity that enables all of that to happen. This was the AGM of the Baptist Union.
As I am sure you will realize, Assembly it is not the place where the detail can be worked out. Council does a fair bit of that, and one of the areas that council oversees is our ministry regulations.
Adrian What is the essential basis of what defines what is a Baptist Union church and a Baptist union accredited minister? Are there different standards for each?
Stephen Our Declaration of Principle is the essential basis of what a Baptist Church is – and all churches and ministers must subscribe to it. (Our website includes the declaration of principle.)
The first point of principle declares that the supreme authority in all things is the person of Christ, as revealed in scripture, discerned in community, through the power of the Holy Spirit and that each church has liberty to discern that for themselves.
This is the basis by which churches belong and function within our union.
What you have to realise is that we do not have a top down ministry structure – a minister is first and foremost a servant of the local church. In a Baptist context, you can’t even be ordained unless you have been called by a local church – it is not something that the Union can simply bestow on people.
Adrian In one of your comments you described “the Church Meeting as a place and context where Christian believers, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, discern together the mind of Christ.” Can you just explain to us a bit more what that means in practice in a Baptist setting? How does the congregation discern the mind of Christ, and on what basis doe they determine that?
Stephen That’s a big question and it’s hard to answer fully in this context – whole books have been written on the subject! What I would want to stress is that it is not simply the same as a business meeting of say the local cricket club. At its best it is the heartbeat of the church – a place where the church meets to discern the mind of Christ. It does this in many different ways, engaging with scripture, in prayer and worship – we might say that at it’s simplest and most profound it is asking: what would Jesus want us to do next?
Adrian Thanks for all that as not everybody understands how the Baptist Union works. One final general structural question, how would someone decide if a church or minister should no longer be associated with the Baptist Union for any reason? Is there a disciplinary process for ministers and for churches? Is it used often?
Stephen Yes, there is and yes it can be used, but not often. First and foremost this would be a pastoral response seeking to maintain fellowship. Ultimately, in extreme circumstances a church and a minister could cease to be associated with BUGB.
Adrian Moving on, can you explain what the position on sexuality was before the weekend, and what has changed since the weekend? Who voted? What was decided?
Stephen That’s easy – nothing has changed over last weekend, no-one voted, nothing was decided. The leadership team of our Union offered a statement of what it believed our common mind was at this moment. It was an opportunity to share what we hope will be a backdrop to continuing conversations.
Adrian If I understood your previous comments correctly, before the weekend the accredited minister was bound by their commitment to the Baptist union and could not have performed either same sex blessings or same sex marriages, even if their church wanted them to. Now, if the church wants them to and their conscience permits they can? Is that correct?
Stephen The simple truth is that BUGB could not forbid a minister to do anything – though we might respond to impose some form of discipline should they act in certain ways. There has always been a tension when the ministerial regulations stand in opposition to the will of a local church. What we have made clear is that in such a case as the one you have outlined, we would not automatically sanction a minister – that is not to say that some may wish to ask disciplinary questions, a minister is always expected to act within the ministerial regulations of our Union.
So, yes as we said, upholding the liberty of the local church it could be possible for a church meeting to discern that it is appropriate to offer a same sex blessing and if the ministers conscience permits for them to conduct that ceremony without breaching disciplinary guidelines. What was made clear over the weekend is that possibility, but that was not a decision reached at Assembly. It is Council who agree ministerial rules and these where updated in March 2014.
Adrian What would you say to those who argue that the very fact you have made this decision to allow for differences is actually already a doctrinal decision about how important the issue of sexuality is to the outworking of the Christian faith?
Stephen Well I would accept that they have a point – but I do not believe it is. There are deep theological issues at stake here, and it seems important not to oversimplify them. We have a doctrine of grace, a doctrine of salvation, a doctrine of Biblical authority, a doctrine of the church and many more. I totally accept that as a Union we have a clear responsibility to uphold and define these historic doctrines, but how they interact and work out in a whole range of local and ethical issues is a matter for mature Christian discernment. You are right about the importance of doctrine, which is exactly why BUGB has re-asserted that the foundational belief of BUGB that Marriage as a Union between a man and a woman as the basis for any ethical decisions in makes in respect of sexuality and sexual behaviour. This has not changed.
Adrian Is there any distinction between same sex services of blessing and same sex marriage in how the Baptist Union central body would handle this matter now?
Stephen I am not sure that there is, because we are clear that such decisions belong with the local church.
Adrian Are you aware of any Baptist churches who currently offer blessings of same sex marriages? Or who offer or plan to register so they can offer same sex marriages? Would any churches who make such a decision be able to remain in good standing with the Baptist Union moving forward?
Stephen Part of the expression of where we are up to in the journey upheld the liberty of a local Baptist church, in seeking the mind of Christ, to potentially reach the decision that they feel led to offer a blessing or register for same sex marriage. This is not to say that any Baptist church would or should, but it could.
Should a church desire to offer same sex marriage, they would of course have to ‘opt-in’ to the legal registration of their building. For Baptists, the appropriate religious authority is the local church. In other words, if one Baptist church might choose to ‘opt-in’, there is no compulsion for others to do the same.
In terms of their relationship with BUGB, it would be incumbent upon a church to demonstrate that they have properly sought to understand and apply Biblical teaching under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – and let me assure you, that is not just a convenience clause, it strikes at the very heart of who we are as Baptists.
Adrian There is something interesting which seems possibly contradictory in your original comments on this subject. You began by saying that decisions on this are devolved to churches, however you also said,
“We affirm the traditionally accepted Biblical understanding of Christian marriage, as a union between a man and a woman, as the continuing foundation of belief in our Baptist Churches.”
“A Baptist minister is required to live and work within the guidelines adopted by the Baptist Union of Great Britain regarding sexuality and the ministry that include ‘a sexual relationship outside of Christian marriage (as defined between a man and a woman) is deemed conduct unbecoming for a minister’”
Is there any disagreement between the beginning part and the end part of your comments here? It seems from reading your comments that churches can now decide to perform same sex marriages, but must however uphold the traditional view of marriage, and furthermore an accredited minister could not get married to a same sex partner. Do you see any contradiction there?
Stephen Yes, there is contradiction, but not in the way you might suggest. It is not a policy statement – it is an expression that tries to capture the essence of the views of churches in our union. There are a breadth of views and understandings of sexuality and faithful relationships, that is a reality and might I say very Baptist!
The requirement of a minister to abide by the sexual ethics described is a current ministerial rule, confirmed March 14.
Adrian If this understanding is correct, how do you see this developing in the future? Is the Baptist Union likely to consider adopting some sort of official policy on this matter? You mention ongoing conversations, what aspects of this are currently being discussed?
Stephen I simply do not know, we will have to see.
I would like us to find a way, a grace filled way, to agree to agree to disagree. I’m tired of speaking about sexuality and its complexities when what I would like to do is tell the world about Jesus. I’d like us to be known as spirit filled and spirit led communities who are able to make a difference in the world living as disciples of Jesus Christ.
The on-going conversations are focused on understanding how others, who read the same Bible, can reach a different conclusion to you or me. They are asking questions like ‘what should be our pastoral and missional response?’ What does it mean to be Christ-like in this (and all other) questions we face as we seek to be faithful to the mission of God in our time and place.
Adrian Thanks for joining us!
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