There’s already been quite a bit of blogging about the Baptist Assembly in London, which finished on Sunday. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts about it. If these make no sense whatsoever, then please bear in mind they’ve been dulled by the long drive back from London yesterday, extreme tiredness from all the walking in London I did, and the cold I appear to have picked up from my wife (we have a very sharing marriage!). So please forgive me if the following is utter rubbish!
I came away from the closing celebration with mixed feelings. Lots of people came away with smiles on their faces and had obviously found it to be a significant, faith-affirming and celebratory weekend; indeed, Jonathan Edwards said as much in his remarks at the end of the weekend. And there was much to celebrate: 400 years of Baptist history in the UK – what better reason to celebrate than that?
Yet this didn’t quite work, at least not for me. Partly this was because we didn’t actually mention our history very much, aside from the (very good) video clip at the start of each evening session. I know, I know the point was “Beyond 400″, that this was as much about looking ahead to where God might be leading us now than back and where God has led us in the past. But still it might have been good to have had some efforts, within the “all together” bits in the evenings, to have engaged with this?
And this “Beyond 400” focus raises another point for me. The future at the moment for BUGB is unclear: not, as Malcolm Broad reassured us in the Sunday afternoon discussion, that the whole thing is about to come collapsing around our ears, but that we do face significant financial difficulties and bigger issues that these raise. Yet, aside from the Sunday afternoon debate (of which more later) there wasn’t a whole lot of engagement with this. We had rallying cries from Tony Campolo and Agu Irukwu on Saturday and Sunday respectively. But where were the voices speaking directly into our situation? Where were the addresses addressing the problems we face, from people (whether inside or outside the denomination) who were familiar with our situation and could bring a word from God about it? To have any real talk about the future limited to a 2 1/2 hour debate on Sunday afternoon (when people are tired and many were surely beginning to prepare themselves for the long journey home) felt like a wasted opportunity.
That said, I found that debate one of the best bits of the weekend and was really grateful that time was found to include it. It was good to hear people’s voices about the process so far, those who were supporting it and those who had concerns or real, painful issues to raise with it. The debate was well-chaired by Chris Ellis, especially when he decided to allow one person to run over time when she spoke movingly of the pain many black and ethnic-minority Baptists are feeling with the process so far. Jonathan Edwards said he wanted the process and eventual outcome to be inclusive of all, but little more than that – these words now have to be turned into action. The debate was worth having but it needed more time! If people were hearing these things for the first time (and I accept Phil Jump and Rowena Wilding’s points about ministers’ lack of passing on information completely) then they needed time to digest and process it.
The main innovation towards this goal, the Saturday conferences, were a good idea. I went to Chris Duffet’s “Pass it on” session about mission, which was interesting and challenging. It was good to have the time to explore the issue more fully, rather than just a short session that stops just as it’s getting interesting, so more of this, please! Also, Chris embodied his idea of the “Big-Hearted God” so well in his wonderfully generous and enthusiastic responses to people’s questions and comments and ideas. The examples of mission we heard about were inspiring and challenging (that word again!)… but, as well as the fantastically innovative projects that we do need to hear about, it would be nice if the “ordinary” churches taking their first steps in mission were given centre stage as well as these exciting new projects.
The worship… well, I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that the “Sing lots of choruses together, and repeated” model isn’t my cup of tea – I’ve known this for a long time and it really hit home this year. So it’s a shame that, Communion aside, this was the only form of sung worship we had during the whole weekend. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been there at all – but is it not possible to have some more variety, especially when there was no “Prism” or similar? It just felt like there was no variety at all, that many of the songs we sung sounded the same (I’m beginning to sound old now!!) and there were few spaces for silence, reflection, corporate prayer amongst it all. And in a collective event of Baptists from around the country, the fact that nearly every song was an “I/me” not an “us/we” song was unfortunate. This sort of thing seems to thrive on everyone feeling and expressing a particular emotion, and if that’s not how you “work” (and it isn’t for me) then you can feel left out, or like you’re doing something wrong.
The communion service was different and much the better for it. Aradhna, who led the music, were excellent. The theme that connected much of it, hands, was very worked in providing many different ways of praying and worshipping. Jane Day’s sermon was the best talk of the weekend: much less rabble-rousing, but reflective, working with the Bible passage and connecting with the theme of the Assembly and the situation of BUGB.
Chris Duffet’s presidential address was warm-hearted and generous, hopefully encouraging and challenging us to be more evangelistic as churches and Christians. It was best when he felt able to stop looking at his cue cards and simply speak what was on his heart and mind and I wished he’d done it more often! As for the other two address, I’m not sure. Neither of them, as Andy Goodliff points out, engaged in any way with the texts from Hebrews that were read just before. There were some good one-liners and some serious points in Tony Campolo’s address, but… it was clear he didn’t have much of a handle on the context for the Assembly (mixing up BUGB and BMS) and so failed to address these points in the most superficial of ways. This made the decision to allow him to to contribute to Sunday afternoon’s debate baffling: he got some good cheers, especially when he talked about how mission was so much more important than the structure (yes, but that matters too) and how BUGB and BMS should simply merge, as if that was the easiest thing in the world. But I didn’t think he had much that was of huge value to say, nothing that provided a keen insight into the debate.
Pastor Agu’s closing address was thought-provoking in some ways, but seemed to rely on stereotypes of the “secularisation debate” that has been going on (as far as I’m aware, prayers haven’t been banned in Parliament, and given how often the Coalition government speaks of the importance of Christianity to this country, to accuse them of being anti-Christianity, something that I keep hearing, was just bizarre). Again, though, I didn’t feel like he said much that was specific to our situation as BUGB, he almost ignored the Bible text (Hebrews 12) and the theme of “Beyond 400”. An address by Jonathan Edwards might have been much more necessary.
And so it was the strange mix of the superficial (the worship in the evening sessions, two of the addresses) and the much deeper (the Day Conferences and the Futures Debate) that left me with mixed feelings. I felt much more drawn to the latter, which seemed to explore faithfully and openly the problems ahead of us and which allowed us to contribute, than the former, which seemed to skate over the issues with a “Trust in God – He is faithful”: yes He is and yes we should, but that’s easier said than done and doesn’t do away with the difficult questions that maybe God is asking us as Baptists. At this important, vital moment for Baptists in BUGB, I think we do need to stop and think and to have space made available for us. Perhaps combining the AGMs with the Futures Debate and allowing these to take up the bulk of Sunday, finishing with the Communion service, might have been better (though I appreciate the practical problems this would’ve raised with Methodist Central Hall’s regular Sunday service – could we borrow Parliament, it’s only across the road!). Perhaps we need to sacrifice some of the “feel-good” worship, not to wallow in self-pity or to deny that we need to worship and celebrate God even in the hard times, but that we need to take those times seriously. There were hints of something different and better within the Assembly – let’s build on those and maybe something good and profound will emerge.
(Oh and finally, finally, thanks to everyone who organised it and made it happen!)