The papers for the March Baptist Union Council have arrived turning my thoughts again to Union affairs and, in particular, what a vision for the Baptist Union might look like.
Assuming that such a thing is both possible and desirable perhaps the place to start is to ask what any attempt needs to grapple with; I think there are five main areas:-
- Understanding the strains of evangelicalism. For the most part Baptists are evangelicals though they differ in how they would define ‘evangelical’. Yet this breadth, whilst a strength, means that a variety of theological opinions exist and needs affirming within the Union.
- A coherent explanation of what the Union is. I’ve mentioned the difficulty in describing the relationship between Regional Associations and the Union previously, but some explanation of the relationships between the groups that make the Union is needed. The current trajectory seems, to me at least, to be a slow movement towards associations becoming regional offices, dependant on the central resource. Furthermore this explanation needs to revisit the place of ministers within the Union. When the General Union was founded in 1812 it was a society of ‘ministers and churches’ and while the current BUGB recognises ministers as members of assembly it tends not to understand them as basic to make up of the Union.
- Our contemporary mission context. Baptists have, for the most part, seen the evangelisation of the world as a key issue. Now this is more explicitly set in an interfaith context where we might share more in common with followers of other religions than we do with secular humanists. Raising the question of how we can maintain the particularity of the Christian faith, and call people to become followers of Christ, whilst holding out hands of friendship to others who see things differently. In addition the growing interest in spirituality and distrust of institutions in society provide exciting new opportunities for making Christ known.
- The cry for leadership. In the early days of Union the focus of wider Baptist gatherings was for deliberation in order that gospel causes might be furthered. So, for some, any attempt at defining vision or providing leadership might be regarded with some well founded suspicion. Against this there have always been Baptists who have had a wider church perspective and whose ministry has encouraged others to see with fresh eyes, serve with greater zeal and live in worshipful humility before God. It may well be that the cry for the Union to show leadership is misplaced but as a group of ministers and churches who have covenanted together we perhaps ought to give voice to people to see if their contribution resonates with the wider church. Any attempt at leadership needs to tread warily, but we need to give permission for some among us to take initiative, recognising that the Union has a creative diversity within it, not to create a single vision that churches should buy into but to open up imaginative possibilities for future work and co-operation.
- Practical Application. As I write this, and when I’m taking part in debates at council, I’m aware that for many people in my own church all this would seem utterly irrelevant. What the Baptist Union says or does appears to make no difference to our local church at all. And while there is some collective consciousness that being a Baptist Church connects us to other Baptist Churches in Britain, who are also members of the BUGB, the idea of local association seems even more remote. While for some churches it maybe the other way round, so that while they see some linkage with the local association they see less with the national union, this sense of disconnection and/or irrelevance does seem widespread. Any attempt at describing vision for the Union needs to find ways of communicating the relationships between local churches so that we can discover ways of genuinely supporting each other, encouraging best practice as we learn from each other and help one another to grow healthy churches. It also needs to find a way of expressing catholicity, enabling us to value our place within the wider church of God and express our part within the people of God.
As always with analysis the challenge is not describing the issues, nor identifying weaknesses with the current situation, but in suggesting positive ways forward. Maybe that should be my next post?