Just back from Spring Harvest, which (as ever) was generally exhilarating, often encouraging (our eldest daughter making visible strides through the week in her own faith), and occasionally bizarre (dancing on stage with a rap band in front of some thousands of people; wondering quite what to do with the guy who I gave the microphone to in a live vox pops as he was describing a ‘profound sexual awakening’). The highlight for me was preaching on Tues night. It wasn’t a great sermon (the opening was pitched wrong; the end was weak; the delivery was a bit stilted; and one of the running gags was, on reflection, probably inappropriate – on the plus side, the content was OK), but the people I was working with were wonderful – I have already ordered my ‘Graham Kendrick is my worship leader’ t-shirt (and hoodie, fridge magnet, lapel pin, and car number-plate). And, although I am a bit ambivalent about the idea of an ‘altar call’, seeing scores of people waiting to register their response to what God had been doing after I sat down was profoundly moving and humbling.
I spent most of the week working with a great guy I’d only briefly met before, Andrew Grinnell. He asked me in one of our breaks, ‘Does being Baptist matter to you?’ The answer to that one was rather easy (‘yes…’); the follow-up (‘why?’) was more interesting.
I became Baptist by accident (humanly speaking) – a university Christian Union mission convert, a friend happened to be going to a Baptist church at the time. He took me along, and I have never left… I am aware, though, and Andrew noticed pretty quickly, that I do fairly regularly preface comments with ‘As a Baptist, I naturally think…’; Andrew was interested to know what lay behind that statement.
It is not that I am signed up to a platform, the way a party politician has to toe the line. The major British Baptist denominations (BUGB & BUS) are not good at giving long lists of things which must be believed – their ‘Declarations of Principle’ are slightly different, but either version contains three brief clauses, totaling to significantly fewer than 150 words. Rather, it is a recognition of context: ‘being Baptist’ means that I inhabit certain liturgical practices and traditions, received my ministerial formation in a particular way, and am committed to a small number of ecclesiological distinctives – and ‘being Baptist’ means that these things mutually reinforce, because the British Baptist tradition is a vibrant and coherent tradition. The way I think about mission, say, is informed at an intellectual level by a commitment to congregational ecclesiology, and to believers’ baptism; it is also shaped at an unconscious and visceral level by the practices of evangelism, discipleship, and worship of the Baptist communities which have formed me and which continue to form me. And these two aspects support and interpret each other.
I am aware, of course, that there are other vibrant Christian traditions that others inhabit; I make the effort, as a theologian, to try to understand how it feels to inhabit some of those other traditions, what life and faith looks like from there. But that is an effort of imagination; to be Baptist comes naturally to me.
Is this a problem? To confuse ‘being Baptist’ with ‘being Christian’ would be a problem; but there is, as ever, no neutral view from nowhere. We either inhabit a particular tradition, and so understands one way of being Christian instinctively, or we live incoherently, believing something that practices deny, or we come to questions of faith as an outsider to every tradition, not understanding anything intuitively. The first, I believe, is the best way to be. So I will go on cheerfully being Baptist, and being self-conscious and open about the particular interpretations of things that my Baptist context creates and reinforces in me.