Baptists and sexuality

[UPDATE: It seems that I understood what was said wrongly; I apologise unreservedly for this; I did check with several people who were present and listening hard, but the error is mine and not theirs of course. I reaffirm everything I said about BUGB handling this discussion astonishingly well, but I now understand that what I heard to be a change of policy was not; it was a statement of the present understanding of the state of the Union which will inform and shape future policy decisions. This is made clear by the statement on the BUGB website here. I will try to blog better on this soon.]

 

Twitter reports from the Baptist Assembly down south this afternoon have indicated a shift in BUGB policy on sexuality, which, if the reports are correct (& I am told they are) is worthy of comment.

BUGB has had a line at least since I was ordained that ministers may not teach that lesbian/gay relationships are equivalent to straight relationships (I forget the exact wording); with the introduction of civil partnerships, this was extended to include a provision that BUGB accredited ministers should not officiate at a civil partnership. This was defended in the face of dissent on the grounds of a shared covenant between accredited ministers; this worked as an argument, but it seemed to apply only on this one issue, which – to me (and I made this point more than once to the relevant national officers when occasion arose) – seemed odd. (When I finished college, I had to affirm my belief in Trinity, Christology, Baptistic ecclesiology, and the wrongness of same sex relationships, to be ordained; I did not have a material problem with any of that list, but it looked a mighty odd list to me then – a point I made before indicating my assent – and it still does now…)

Reports suggest that this line has changed (or soon will change) so that decisions concerning the recognition of same sex relationships will be made by the local church, and ministers will be responsible to their church meeting, not to the national ¬†denomination. This decision is a surprise to me, because I thought it would be politically impossible, or nearly so, to reach; it is also very obviously right. The way (British) Baptist life works (the SBC is rather different) is that decisions like this properly belong to the church meeting; that is an obvious deduction from our ecclesiology.¬†(Similarly, the Church of England’s requirement that the decision is reached nationally, and that parishes/dioceses and priests/bishops abide by national decision – presently not to offer blessings of same-sex relationships – is right: that is how their ecclesiology works.)

In the present febrile atmosphere of ecclesial debates over sexuality, this – to me, obvious – point has been lost; these decisions are not foundational ones that are more important than our fundamental accounts of how Christ by His Spirit governs his church (which is what our ecclesiologies are in fact stating); they stand alongside a set of other decisions about what faithfulness to Christ’s call looks like, and should be treated in exactly the same way. If BUGB has succeeded in not letting the politics/hysteria of the issue overpower its fundamental ecclesial commitments, it has been true to its own best instincts in an enormously noisy and pressured context. It is to be commended for this.

[I will add more on Monday, when apparently details of the position will be published online.]

19 Comments

  1. ruthg
    May 10, 2014

    Thank you

    • David Hilborn
      May 10, 2014

      Thanks, Steve. You’re right – the logic of congregationalist polity is surely that a decision like this is for the local church to make. When I was in the URC I suggested several times that one way to avoid the rancour that had brewed through the 1990s on same sex relationships in that denomination would be for it to ‘recongregationalise’. However, that, of course, was somewhat insulting to the ex-Presbyterian minority who had helped form the URC, and many ex-Congregationalists in fact seemed to have come rather to enjoy translocal councils, synods and assemblies. So the appetite for this was, shall we say, limited. Ironically given your contrast between BUGB and the CofE, many English Anglicans of a more liberal persuasion on gay marriage exhibit distinctly ‘congregationalist’ tendencies where that issue is concerned. Then again, on other matters (e.g. liturgy) it has often struck me that evangelical Anglicans can be profoundly ‘congregationalist’ also!

      In a module I teach called ‘Understanding Anglicanism’ I begin a session on polity with a question about whether the ‘basic unit’ of Anglican ecclesiology is the national Synod, the diocese or the parish. Before they start really to delve into episcopacy, the mostly evangelical ordinands I teach answer ‘the parish’. Clearly the parish is not the same as the local church in Baptist ecclesiology, but this is at least a more ‘congregationalist’ response, and somewhat belies the manner in which key decisions on matters of doctrine, worship and church order are actually made in the CofE – i.e. nationally, as you say, through General Synod.

      • steve
        May 11, 2014

        Thanks, David. In Anglican-Baptist ecumenical conversations, we’ve often identified the diocese as the equivalent unit to the Baptist local church (which makes all us Baptist ministers bishops, but I don’t think that’s the main reason we’ve done it!)

        • David Hilborn
          May 11, 2014

          Yes, I’ve noticed that, Steve, and it’s a pretty good analogy. If there are rough edges to it, that old ecumenists’ standby – the episcopacy/episcope distinction – can do a job. When I teach ecumenical theology here, it’s noticeable that the Anglican-Baptist reports engage most of our Anglican ordinands more than texts from other bilatererals. Says a lot about St John’s – and quite possibly the influence of David Firth!

          • steve
            May 11, 2014

            I remain proud to have been a part of the team that produced ‘Pushing at the Bounds of Unity’; I thought we did some really creative and challenging work in that one, more so than is generally the case in an ecumenical bilateral.

      • Brian Davison
        May 14, 2014

        David, the 1999 URC debate and actions arose from a response to the 1997 resolution 19 that did in fact determine that the URC would act congregationaly in the matter. Objections included all the ones that have been raised about baptist ministers freedom – ie what one does affects us all etc. This was of course about ministers being in a gay partnership, (pre civil recognition) not about presiding.

  2. s a russell
    May 10, 2014

    Thank you for this, but perhaps I am a bit more cynical and think it gets BUGB off the hook as far as Steve Chalke is concerned.
    I wonder how it leaves chaplains, particularly health care ones and how they may respond to requests for blessings etc., – are they to be left to make up their own theological conclusions without reference to any commissioning body or to their local church where they may be in membership? What is our theology for ordained ministers in such work and how they practise their

    • steve
      May 11, 2014

      Good question; I assume chaplains will be responsible to the church meeting of the congregation they are a member of; this will need to be worked through very carefully, though, to protect chaplains as far as is possible. The recent legislation on same-sex marriage almost certainly did not include adequate protection for dissenters, a point that will no doubt rapidly be tested in court; this is not BUGB’s fault…

      • Matthew Farrow
        May 11, 2014

        The issue about Chaplains is an interesting one. I am not quite sure how they can be accountable to the church meeting of which they are in membership on this issue when, presumably, they are not accountable to that congregation for their actual work as a chaplain except in the broadest sense. Accountability as employees (if they are employees) is to their employer, many of whom might take a very different approach to this issue than the ‘typical’ Baptist congregation (and how much a ‘typical’ Baptist congregation would understand of the working context of a chaplain in their midst is a moot point) The danger of this congregational approach for chaplains is it leaves them utterly exposed and without ‘denominational’ guidance or any obvious denominational support. Of course it isn’t unusual for congregationally based organisations to forget all about ministers who don’t work in that context when making policy (or deciding that there is to be no policy) but in considering this change the position of chaplains cannot, it seems to me, be an afterthought.

      • Brian Davison
        May 14, 2014

        I’m not convinced that the “church” detail will be all that literally followed. My understanding is that it derives solely from the wording of our declaration of principle.
        They cannot argue for freedom of conscience for ministers (which is what is being asked for & what is (i think) really being agreed to) from the declaration of principle, but they can justify directly the freedom of churches & derive ministerial freedom from that.
        Given the necessary work-around I can’t see any likelihood of nit-picking over whose wishes the minister was fulfilling.

  3. Andrew Kleissner
    May 11, 2014

    Hallo Steve,

    I have been making this same point with members of BU Council (of which I am not a member) for years. The existing situation was “unBaptist”, not just from the point of church polity, but because it was foisted on ministers with inadequate consultation and because we do not have a tight Statement of Faith but only a Declaration of Principle. In fact, churches with Unaccredited pastors could celebrate Same-Sex Partnerships but those with accredited ministers could not. Yes, the Steve Chalke controversy may have pushed this to the fore: we’ll see what stamen emerges tomorrow. I have no idea how Chaplains will cope – they are surely not “under” local congregations in the same way as the rest of us.

    For what it’s worth, I was at the 2012 URC General Assembly when the decision to allow churches to register Civil Partnerships was made, and basically they did adopt a congregationalist position on this.

    • steve
      May 11, 2014

      Hi Andrew, I don’t want to be quite as damning as you are on the existing situation: the covenantal argument made perfect theological sense, but it needed to be much broader if it was not to be vulnerable to being portrayed as an exercise in special pleading.

  4. Tim Presswood
    May 11, 2014

    I think the shift was very nuanced – not the significant change being heralded by some of the twitterati. My understanding is that it has always been the position that the local congregation had the authority to decide on this – and other – ethical questions. What is ‘new’ is the unambiguous statement that it is not a disciplinary matter for a minister to follow the instruction of the church meeting.
    The statement strongly re-iterated the belief that heterosexual marriage is normative. It also strongly rejected any move towards ministers themselves entering into any homosexual relationship.
    It also strongly stated the Baptist principle of congregational governance. Hence the fact that it was a brief statement of where the journey has got to, and not a formal resolution. There was – in my view, quite rightly – no vote.
    Personally, as a heterosexual minister who would wish to be able to respond positively to requests from members of the fellowship to conduct their wedding, I am encouraged by this small step forward, but it is not the seismic shift some seem to be portraying.

    • steve
      May 11, 2014

      Thanks, Tim. I guess the significance of the decision depends in part on your point of view; for someone who wants the denomination to be unambiguously affirming, this is probably a seriously retrograde step (as we’ve discovered on female ministers over several decades, letting the churches decide is no way to achieve a united position…); for someone who merely wants the freedom to conduct same-sex marriages (I am told the decision was about marriages not civil partnerships – which again shows great wisdom if right – more on that tomorrow) this is the green light s/he has been longing for; for me, it is a theologically-serious attempt to negotiate an issue which almost every other denomination seems to be negotiating by fudge and fear (in one direction or another), and that is extremely significant, even if the result of the change ‘on the ground’ is a minimal shift.

  5. Andrew Kleissner
    May 11, 2014

    Here’s a brief report on the BUGB website – clearly there is more to follow: http://www.baptist.org.uk/Articles/402117/Giving_what_we.aspx

  6. phil jump
    May 11, 2014

    Glad you think that this is right Steve. If this is right, than I assume you would agree that it can’t be right to claim to be “the voice of evangelicals” and yet assume to be able to tell those evangelicals what to think, what to place on the websites and to kick them out if they place their ecclesiology above that.

    • steve
      May 12, 2014

      [sigh…]. Will email you when I’ve taken the kids to school, Phil…

  7. Andrew Kleissner
    May 12, 2014

    This has appeared on the BUGB website – it seems a bit ambiguous to me: http://www.baptist.org.uk/Groups/220650/Sexuality.aspx

  8. Brian Davison
    May 14, 2014

    Maybe a provocative thought..

    But what would happen if a church meeting ordered their minster to marry their gay lover?

    Just asking….

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