The title of a recent Premier Radio news story “Baptist Union to allow gay marriage ceremonies” could be read in a way that slightly misrepresents the UK Baptist group’s position, as it appears that there will not be any gay marriages in Baptist Churches just yet.
They have nonetheless made a radical change. As regular readers will be aware, Steve Chalk’s Oasis Trust was recently removed from the EA over their position on the Bible and homosexuality. Chalke’s church has not been removed from the Baptist Union.
This recent announcement by the Baptist Union seems to be an attempt to hold the group together, allowing local churches to hold very different perspectives on sexuality. The Premier article states that this, “follows a meeting of the Church’s Assembly 2014, which took place over the weekend and lifts the ban imposed on Baptist ministers’ blessing civil partnerships without breaching disciplinary guidelines.”
One needs to carefully read the whole statement which is attached below to understand fully what they are and are not saying. I did offer the Baptist Union an opportunity to be interviewed, and I published their response the day after I posted this..
- What is a Christian?
- What is an Evangelical?
- How to tell if you are an Evangelical or a Progressive Christian
- Steve Chalk’s Oasis Trust has been expelled from the Evangelical Alliance
- Steve Chalke says the Bible got it wrong in lots of places
- Steve Chalke and others on Homosexuality
- A spectrum of views on human sexuality
- Does God hate gay people?
- Coming out: Is “Evangelical” the new “Homosexual”?
- Vaughan Roberts admits same-sex attraction
Examining the statement, and some other materials on their site, it seems that the Baptist Union has decided to devolve to local churches some decisions regarding the issue of same sex relationships. This is undergirded by a restatement of what they say has always been their church government structure, which leaves all decisions on doctrine and practice to local churches. In other words, the Baptist Union have effectively announced that as a group they will have no position on this issue.
They appear to have decided that ministers who wish to offer blessings of same sex relationships will be allowed to do so provided both their personal conscience allows, and that their local church body agrees.
What this statement doesn’t address is whether local churches can go a step further and go through the process enshrined in the new legislation to “re-register” so that they would be allowed to conduct same sex marriages on behalf of the state. On the face of the statement below, this would seem unlikely at least initially, as having stated that they will give local freedom, they seem to contradict this somewhat and say that they uphold the traditional definition of marriage as a group, and further add that Baptist ministers will not be permitted to be involved in any form of sexual relationship outside of the context of a heterosexual marriage.
The statement does seem a bit confusing, as it appears to allow local churches to consider offering a service of blessing to gay couples who are either living together, or have had a secular gay marriage, but would appear to not allow local churches to consider offering actual gay marriage.
Most Christians see marriage as comprising two elements: the secular legal component before the government, and the spiritual before-God component. In many non-conformist churches in England these two elements are separated with the secular element happening in a registrars office, and the spiritual element happening in church. Unless I have misread this statement, it seems to suggest that local Baptist churches might offer a form of blessing service for gay couples that did not constitute marriage before God, the church, or the World. One of several points that is not clear is whether such a service might also be on offer to heterosexual members of society who had chosen to live together rather than get married.
Clearly the views of many Christian groups on gay marriage are in flux, but in all honesty I do find this latest move a bit confusing, perhaps we will be able to get some more clarity in the coming days.
UPDATE 15th May
Unsurprisingly Premier’s article about this has led to great controversy, and not a little confusion. The Baptist Union of Great Britain were disappointed by the way that Premier reported this event, and they have issued a second statement (also included in full below) in which they say,
Contrary to the headline claim of Premier Radio, no decision has been made that same sex ceremonies can take place in BUGB churches. What has been re-iterated, is that any such decision rests with the local church and not the Union as a whole. This is a response to the requirements of the Government’s Marriage (Same Sex) Bill 2013, which as a Union it was incumbent to make. In doing so, we worked hard to ensure that, in the case of Baptists, the recognised religious authority’ is properly recognised as a local Church Meeting
It is clear that there has been a gradually developing situation at the Baptist Union, and that they feel they have not done anything particularly new or radical. But this paragraph actually seems to go further than the original statement, as it seems to say that any local church which decided they wanted to offer same sex marriages would be able to do so while remaining a member of the Baptist Union. So, from the perspective of Premier Radio one can see why they felt this meant that same sex marriages were to be allowed in the future, while the Baptist Union see a distinction between the body leaving the decision to local churches and actually making the decision themselves.
The Baptist Union has also released to me the script of a brief statement that Stephen Keyworth, their faith and society team leader which was used to introduce what is included below as their “original statement” to their own Assembly. He described the discussions that they have been having for some time now as follows:
Some have not welcomed the conversations because they say that you want us to converse because you want us to change our view…
Others have not welcomed them because they say that they have been talking for ages and nothing has changed…
It’s important to remember that the focus of those conversations has been to try to understand and appreciate why others, who read the same Bible, think differently to me… or you… And to recognize where our shared values lie…To recognize and appreciate all that is held in common and to celebrate our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ…
These are not issues that can be understood in sound bytes… They are issues that on both sides are too often dealt with in terms of judgment and prejudice…
And they are issues that the media love to stir up and use against us…
I want us to rise above all that…
In terms of the ‘new law’ and the consequences for churches there are details on our website…
We know from ‘the conversations’ that there is a breadth of opinion in our union – There is a breadth of understanding and interpretation when we go to the resources of faith to consider issues of sexuality and faithful relationships…
Some on Twitter have welcomed the moves by the Baptist Union, for example:
— Dave Steell (@Steelly) May 14, 2014
Steve Chalke also supported the decision on Twitter:
Others, however, have argued that by agreeing to allow the non-traditional view to be held by some church leaders, the Baptist Union have already made a substantial policy decision:
I offered an opportunity to the Baptist Union to be interviewed here, as I must admit that I remained a little unclear about what has and hasn’t been agreed after todays news.
Full Baptist Union Original Statement (source)
As a union of churches in covenant together we will respect the differences on this issue which both enrich us and potentially could divide as we seek to live in fellowship under the direction of our Declaration of Principle ‘That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His Laws.’
Upholding the liberty of a local church to determine its own mind on this matter, in accordance with our Declaration of Principle, we also recognise the freedom of a minister to respond to the wishes of their church, where their conscience permits, without breach of disciplinary guidelines.
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’.
Baptist Union Follow Up Statement source
As a Baptist Community we welcome and celebrate the contribution that Premier Radio makes to sharing and promoting our Gospel message. While this remains, we deeply regret the organisation’s misreporting of the Baptist Union of Great Britain’s ongoing conversations and reflections on the issue of same sex partnerships, and would seek to correct and refute a number of inaccuracies in its recent reporting.
Contrary to the headline claim of Premier Radio, no decision has been made that same sex ceremonies can take place in BUGB churches. What has been re-iterated, is that any such decision rests with the local church and not the Union as a whole. This is a response to the requirements of the Government’s Marriage (Same Sex) Bill 2013, which as a Union it was incumbent to make. In doing so, we worked hard to ensure that, in the case of Baptists, the recognised religious authority’ is properly recognised as a local Church Meeting. In doing so, we have also represented the position of many independent evangelical churches and congregations.
Contrary to Premier’s claim, ministers have not been given the discretion to respond specifically to the wishes of their own congregation. Baptists have a longstanding belief in the theological significance of the Church Meeting as a place and context where Christian believers, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, discern together the mind of Christ. This is something altogether different to a situation where the ‘wishes of the congregation’ are solicited, and it is a misrepresentation of our historic principles to describe it as such.
This is not a ‘radical move’ as reported, because the update offered at this year’s Baptist Assembly was neither a shift in policy nor a departure from its longstanding traditions and principles relating to freedom of conscience. A report was given on behalf of the Union’s leadership, of what they believed to be the mind of its churches on this matter, as milestone in a long and ongoing discussion. It was not voted upon, nor was it presented as a proposal or policy statement. BUGB has emphasised this at every stage of the process, and it is misleading to describe it in any way as a change or shift in policy.
It is misleading and inaccurate to speak of a rule change, because no such change occurred at the Assembly. The Union has continued in working to re-state and re-phrase its longstanding commitment to religious freedom, in the light of changing marriage legislation.
The statement made by Premier Media describing the “Church’s decision to allow same sex ceremonies to take place in accordance with ministers’ conscience” is inaccurate on four counts:
We are not a Church, we are a Union of churches, and it is because of this, as reiterated above, that we have re-confirmed our historic belief that such decisions lie with the local Church Meeting.
The Union has made not made any decision on this matter – its leadership has reflected to its Assembly, what it believes to be the mind of Baptist Christians at this moment in time.
As already stated, the Union has not made any decision to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies, it has clarified that it will not initiate any process to ‘opt-in’ to same-sex marriage registration, as this would be an infringement of the religious liberty of a local congregation. In common with every other mainstream Christian denomination, the Baptist Union has clearly defined where, within its ecclesial structures any such decision would lie. As would be the case for every Independent Evangelical Congregation in the England and Wales, BUGB has acted to protect the local church’s right in this matter.
The reference made to a minister’s freedom of conscience in the brief update offered at Assembly, which is available for scrutiny on the Baptists Together website, is an explicit statement that a BUGB accredited minister cannot be asked, by their local church, to conduct a same-sex blessing or marriage against his or her conscience.
As a Union, we believe that it is vital for our churches to be able to express an informed and Biblical view on these matters. We have recognised that some of our ministerial rules have been open to being interpreted as forbidding full and open discussion. In the light of this, BUGB Council did make some amendments to those rules at a meeting earlier in 2014. These do not change the Union’s fundamental position on this matter, nor does it impose or remove any restraint on the actions of local churches.
Given the sensitivities of this issue, and the opportunities it presents for misinterpretation, it is regrettable that Premier Media has chosen to report it in such a misleading way. We urge Baptist Christians and other interested parties to base their opinions and reactions on the realities of the situation.