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“.