Baptist Assembly 2012

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!)

Different is good…

On my blog for Greenfield Church, I’ve linked to the new site that’s been set up to discuss how the future may look for the Baptist denomination in Britain, Being 400.  This was originally going to be a comment for the second of the contributions to that site, but it became a wee bit unwieldy.  So here it is on here instead, in the vain hope somebody’s reading this blog…

For some reason, I’ve been looking back over an essay I had to do as part of my ministerial training on the Declaration of Principle (OK, it wasn’t the greatest piece of theology ever written, but maybe that was something there…) and at the Declaration itself.  Thinking about that and about Juliet’s question about what from our roots makes us distinctive, I’m wondering whether it’s somewhere in the tension expressed in the Declaration between the local church and the Union.

One of the parts of the “Basis of the Union” is the “liberty” granted to each church to “interpret and administer His [Christ’s] Laws”.  This comes after the authority Christ and Scripture have, but is still there.  The Union is built, in a large part, not on its own authority but on the authority it recognises amongst its constituent churches (if that makes any sense).  It recognises, accepts (and welcomes?) the differences that this liberty will inevitably bring – in fact, it makes it a key part of its structure.

This acceptance of difference can make life difficult.  But it can, if we continue to learn to live with it, show one of the key distinctive features of our way of being and doing church.

The UK seems to be a place which, although perhaps more diverse than ever before, seems to struggle with that diversity.  There are huge tensions around areas such as immigration and whether living in a multicultural society is a good thing (for the record, I 100% do).  Political parties and the media that commentate on them seem unable to handle dissent to any great degree: if anyone disagrees with the leaders, it’s portrayed as a damaging split, or a threat to the leader’s authority, rather than healthy, mature debate.  Our high streets are becoming more and more the same in appearance, with the same shops lining up next to each other.  (This next one may be a bit naff): regional television has been done away with in favour of corporate brands.  Although we live with difference perhaps more than ever, we struggle with it.

I wonder if one of our distinctive features is that we welcome and embrace that difference.  I said in my essay that one of the most significant things about the Declaration of Principle was that it deliberately maintained a loose theological framework, refusing to be creedal in nature so as to allow for the unity of churches and organisations with quite different theological outlooks.  This continues today.  For us, difference isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a problem: it is the basis of how we live together, recognising that God can be at work in as many different ways as there are different churches that call themselves “Baptist”.

Where’s all this going?  How does all this work out?  I’m not entirely sure; perhaps it’s something we do really well already.  One possibility is that our emphasis as a denomination (family/movement/whatever) shouldn’t necessarily be on a professional, media-savvy central Union (nice though that is) but on helping each of the local churches to perform that function in their own situations (I’m trying so hard to avoid jargon here!).  To boast that what we are, primarily, is not the central structures in Didcot, but the churches and regional associations throughout the country that seek to live out the Laws of Christ in their own context.

To show, as one of the CBeebies songs that sticks in my head from time to time, that “different is good“.

At last!

My horrendously stressful week is over, following our last residential weekend at Liverpool Hope Uni.  I had 2 presentations to do, both of which I managed to do reasonably well (I think!) – certainly I got good feedback from the audience (is that the right word?) at the first one.

A small tip, though: when doing a Powerpoint presentation, always make sure your notes have some indication of which slide’s going to come where; I didn’t for my second one, so it was a bit like “Oh!  That’s what’s next” or “That’s what I’ve just said” for half the slides.

Also, interesting to have a presentation on Baptist worship, being a Baptist and all.  But then as the tutor said, there were 4 Baptists in the room (including himself), which probably meant 5 different opinions and 8 different styles of worship!  That’s what being a Baptist is all about: call it openness, call it flexibility, call it just can’t make up our minds…

Actually, doing such an ecumenical course (albeit one that’s quite heavily Anglican-dominated, which isn’t a criticism) has made me want to explore more Baptist history and tradition and the reasons why we do the things we do.  The problem is you just kind of fit in with the ways things are done and never stop to ask why, what’s behind it all etc.  Why don’t we have liturgy, at least not the same extent as other denominations?  Why can any believer lead Communion in the Baptist church?  Why are Baptist services so different from church to church?  I’m not saying any of these things are wrong, but I think it is good to get to know the history, tradition and reasoning of it all.  Especially for a denomination with such a rich, radical, eventful past as the Baptist denomination.