On not having closed our churches

Language matters. It matters more in how it is heard than in how it is meant. If we want to communicate certain things, then disciplined use of language can help us, because it will improve the chances of what we want to say being heard, rather than being misunderstood. There was a time when we British Baptists would not have thought of calling the building we met in for worship a ‘church’. We knew that the church was the congregation, gathered together by God, covenanted to each other before God. If the church habitually met in a particular building, we called that a ‘chapel’. ‘Church,’ we once understood, meant people, saved by grace, making expansive vows to each other because God has called us together. ‘Chapel,’ we used to know, meant a building, where the church can conveniently congregate. [This is for us Baptists—and of course for others, although I do not presume to identify those traditions that would be happy to be defined by this point—other faithful followers of our King Jesus will disagree, and so will define things differently.] This old, almost lost, tradition, seems important just now. Our chapels are closed, but our churches are alive and active, and doing wonderful Kingdom work, spreading the gospel and doing justice. Perhaps this present strange season will teach us that there was value in the old language: we should not identify ‘chapel’ and ‘church’ because the former is incidental to us, the latter the definitive core of who we are. Our chapels are closed—and, on Sundays in particular, that is a great sadness to us, because we long to gather together for worship. Our chapels are closed, but our churches are open and active. Announcing the gospel, however they can; serving the needy; comforting those who mourn; praying for the needs of the fellowship, the community, and the world; living out the call of the Kingdom. For us Baptists, our chapels are closed, but our churches are open and alive and active; the one is an inconvenience; the other a vital gospel...

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On ‘Kitchen Table Eucharists’: a plea to my Anglican friends

It is, to my regret, nearly ten years since I last joined in worship with the small fellowship at Hawkshead Hill Baptist Church in Cumbria. My memories of the fellowship are warm; my memories of the building in which they meet, and of the garden behind it, are vivid. The building is an ancient cottage, registered for worship in 1709. There is no historical record of what changes were made as it was registered for worship, but very probably the kitchen table was the only table, and so became the place where the Eucharist was celebrated for those people. The Baptists had begun in Hawkshead in 1678, at a time when the Church of England was aggressively devoted to persecuting anyone who would not worship according to its formularies (even though then, as now, it could not agree on what its formularies actually meant). I know the Baptist stories; others will tell the Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Quaker, Catholic tales—and the stories that do not fit into any of these denominations. In my tradition, John Bunyan was famously imprisoned for his Baptist faith; Elizabeth Gaunt was burnt at the stake in public for hers, denied the customary ‘kindness’ of a quick death by strangulation before the spectacle. I could add scores of other names from my own memory, people who I have read and studied, whose faith and courage I have learnt from, whose piety has formed my own; people who are my mothers and fathers in the faith. I could add tens of thousands of names if I had reference to books. The persecution was savage and widespread. It was also systematically prosecuted and vocally encouraged by Anglican clergy and bishops. Although a measure of toleration came with the Glorious Revolution in 1689, the Clarendon Code (which, inter alia, forbade meetings for prayer of more than five people unless they were reciting forms from the 1662 BCP) was not fully repealed until well into the nineteenth century. When William Dennyson of Hawkshead registered his cottage as a meeting place in 1709, it seems clear that memories of persecution were still fresh. The building carefully appeared, from the street, to be still a cottage, and did so until 1876, when the present ecclesial-looking windows were installed. In the garden a baptistry was created by a clever damming of a stream, and then shrubs were grown to conceal its site, and the path that led to it. When we were last there—and today, I assume—you could walk the garden completely unaware of the baptismal pool, until someone showed you the carefully-pruned branches that needed to be pushed aside to open the path down. Hidden sacramental spaces are a common theme of Christian persecution; normal domestic paraphernalia are repurposed to allow worship to happen. For one example, a kitchen table often becomes the site of eucharistic celebration. The phrase ’kitchen table Eucharists’ seems to have become, in the last few weeks, the chosen sneer of a number of Anglicans angry at their Bishops’ guidance, revised yesterday, on clergy not entering their churches. I have no view at all on that guidance; I know that my understanding of ‘church’, and ‘sacred space’ is simply different from my Anglican sisters and brothers. I am concerned, as others have been, about the denigration of domestic space implied by this sneer, and by the gendered implications of that. I am at least as much concerned by the implied criticism of the faith and practice of our persecuted sisters and brothers around the world right now, who find the kitchen table the only eucharistic site available to them. Most seriously, however, I remember William Dennyson, John Bunyan, Elizabeth Gaunt, scores of others I could name, tens of thousands whose names I could discover—and at least as many again who are nameless. For nearly three decades they celebrated the Eucharist on kitchen tables, in Hawkshead and across England, because Anglican bishops and Anglican priests were active and aggressive in having them thrown into jail, or even burnt alive at the stake, if they did it anywhere public. For over three centuries they, and their co-religionists, were prevented from celebrating the Eucharist as they might have wished by oppressive laws, pressed by the Anglican establishment. I am not an Anglican and I do not live in England; the policies of the Church of England are no business of mine. But for office-holders in that denomination to denigrate ‘kitchen table Eucharists’ is for them to trample once again on the faith and lives of people who, through reading, I have grown to know and love, people who, at their predecessors’ hands, were extensively persecuted, people of...

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Can we celebrate an online Eucharist? A Baptist response 2: Some possible objections

I argued in the previous post that an online Eucharist could be a theological possibility for Baptist Christians. I here want to consider and forestall some potential criticisms: The need for ‘physical’ presence Do we need to be physically together to meet around the Lord’s Table? Yes, but let me interrogate what that means. Too much recent writing in this area has worked with a ‘physical’/’virtual’ dichotomy, which makes no sense. Signals in fibre optic cables and electromagnetic waves are physical realities; our shared presence together in an online—virtual—meeting is therefore a mediated physical presence. What it is not is a somatic presence; we are not together bodily. This distinction is important. There may be eucharistic practices that require somatic action; I don’t off-hand know of one, but an insistence that the celebrant must touch every eucharistic wafer for it to be properly consecrated is not very hard to imagine; a rubric that insists that every communicant must make bodily contact with every other communicant as the peace is shared is less plausible, but certainly not beyond conception. But these have not been our practices. We have been unreflectively comfortable with non-somatic physical presence, and so should be comfortable with virtual presence, because it is still physical. Mediation This granted, could we imagine a different distinction, between mediated presence and unmediated presence? Possibly, but: (a) it will not make much difference; (b) it is probably again nonsense; and (c) in any case would be a very odd thing indeed to imagine in the context of the Eucharist. On (a), we have again been demonstrably very relaxed about mediated presence—I do not recall the last time that I preached without a microphone, and for those relying on the induction loop and their hearing aid, any engagement with my sermon was necessarily mediated by technology. I have communicated at, and indeed celebrated, eucharists where some or many of those present could see the celebrant only because of projection onto a screen. Further, mediated relationships at a distance have been normal for the whole history of the church. Consider, for representative example, the medium of the letter. Mark Noll, amongst others, has argued that the Evangelical Revival was shaped, if not totally sustained, by the existence of good trade routes for sharing epistolary testimonies across the North Atlantic; in the fourteenth century, Catherine of Siena had a profound influence on the reform of the medieval church, and on Italian politics, through her letter-writing; and in the first century the letters of Paul, Peter, and John are generally judged to have successfully harnessed the medium for gospel purposes… Unmediated relationship has never been the only practice of the church, and so discussions about the adoption of new media must be comparative judgements—is this new medium better or worse than media we have previously adopted, and in what ways?—rather than complaints that mediated relationship is somehow antithetical to the gospel On (b) we need once again to think about physicality: when I recite the words of institution in a normal Eucharist I create sound waves which reach the ears of the congregation; physical mediation is a condition of all human interaction. If there is something inappropriate about mediation that involves wifi, we will need to give a theological explanation of why sound waves are an acceptable mediation when electromagnetic waves are not; I assert with some confidence that no such explanation is available. On (c): a sacrament is, following Augustine, ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’—sacraments are physical mediations of divine action. It is possible that, precisely at the point where God is mediating His own gifts through physical media, He bans us from using (certain sorts of) physical media, but it is hardly plausible, without a very compelling argument. The shared meal Some have argued that online communion is impossible because the basic reality of communion is a shared meal. There is an easy argument against this, turning on the very visible divergence of most eucharistic celebrations from anything resembling a meal, but I would rather go a different way. Many of us in the past few weeks have become used to taking social occasions into virtual space. I have encouraged my staff to continue their various coffee hours using video conferencing, and I know that other groups in my university have continued regular pub nights in a similar way. If we sit and chat together whilst each drinking a coffee, or indeed a pint, how is what is happening not a shared communal drink? (Consider that, for the pub night, everyone present could easily have ordered something poured out of a different bottle.)...

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Can we celebrate an online Eucharist? A Baptist response 1: A positive argument

For us Baptists, I think that there are two possible ways of asserting that an online/scattered Eucharist is possible: one is obvious but bad, and one less obvious but better; both are completely dependent on distinctives of Baptist ecclesiology.

The first is the suggestion that we can have many household communions at the same time; the second the idea that we might celebrate one communion, even if we are in separate homes as we do.

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Our story begins in exile: ‘Baptist social theology’ and the EU referendum

One of the books I have recently been reading with interest and profit is Anglican Social Theology (ed. Malcolm Brown) (London: Church House Publishing, 2014). Apart from the intrinsic interest in tracing significant contributions to political theology that happened to come from within the Church of England, I was struck by the contributors’ awareness that the project, or projects, they were tracing were distinctively ‘Anglican’. As Brown puts it in an early prospectus: We have chosen to speak of an Anglican social theology with a deliberate intention of echoing the concept of Catholic social teaching because we recognise that the latter is much better known as a theological school or tradition that informs practice. Our contention … is that a distinctively Anglican tradition of social engagement can be discerned through most of the twentieth century… (p. 2) I find this interesting because I have long had a minor interest in the extent to which different Christian traditions in fact propose different practices in various areas—and of course a sustained interest in the distinctively Baptist contributions that may be available. What, I have begun to wonder, would a ‘Baptist social theology’ look like? We are, after all, the largest protestant tradition in the world, and have had our fair share of social reformers whose programmes were in some way shaped by their faith—a list headed, but far from exhausted, by Martin Luther King. At the same time I have been following what Christian contributions to the debate over the EU referendum I have been able to find. Most are Anglican, whether for Remain (Michael Sadgrove, ex Dean of Durham, founded Christians for Europe), Brexit (Christians for Britain is run by Giles Fraser and Adrian Hilton), or thoughtfully neutral (Andrew Goddard‘s personal contribution, or the excellent and thoughtful Reimagining Europe blog, which is billed as a joint project between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, but a glance down the contributors list suggests the balance is heavily tilted south of the border). Is there, I have wondered, a specifically Baptist approach to the EU referendum, and to the wider questions it crystallises? Political matters are generally questions of practical wisdom, and so do not admit of definitive theological answers. We might argue theologically that the most vulnerable in our society must be protected, but theology cannot then guide us to the best way to offer such protection. A robust doctrine of original sin will warn us that greed and fraud will be endemic under any tax regime, but it will not then help us to construct a regime that protects effectively and efficiently against these problems. I am not, then, looking for an argument that will insist that all Baptists should vote one way; there are issues where this might be the case (a narrow proposal to limit religious liberty, for example), but it seems clear enough that the EU will not be one of them. Rather, I want to suggest that Baptists, if they are faithfully Baptist, will argue and evaluate differently. Things will matter to us that others will be careless of; things that are decisive for others will be unimportant to us. Although not decisive, such considerations might well make us more likely to lean one way, so that Baptists might split 70-30 when society is 50-50. In other cases we will split the same as others, but for very different reasons. An obvious example of this is the sermon many of us preach in the run up to each general election. The messaging from every party is often enough ‘you will be richer if you vote for us’; we preach that Christians should not vote selfishly, to enrich themselves, but for other reasons (which vary: for some it will be, pick the pro-life candidate, regardless of party; for others issues of justice and ‘good news to the poor’ will loom largest; for others again it might simply be the personal morality or faith of a candidate). I want to suggest that one of the main themes of the EU referendum is a matter Baptists should have a distinctive view on. The matter is national sovereignty; and at the heart of our Baptist distinctiveness is, I suggest, the historical fact encapsulated in my title: ‘our story begins in exile’. The British Baptist movement began in 1609 when, as John Robinson reports, ‘Mr Smith [sic] baptized first himself and next Mr Helwys and so the rest.’ Smyth and Helwys were the officers of an illegal separatist congregation that had been meeting in Gainsborough, north of Lincoln, but like many others they fled Anglican persecution and by 1609 were resident, with much...

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