[Lengthy apologia – skip past the italics for the meat if you like… This post is something of a departure from a self-imposed blogging rule. Lots of denominations, and lots of groups within denominations, issue statements, enter discussions, make pronouncements. I read a lot of them, and think about many of them. From time to time I have begun to write blog posts about some of them. Always, I revise my plans in one of two directions. Mostly, I simply don’t write the post. Sometimes, I abstract into generic ideas and post about the ideas. Discussions in denominations other than my own are, in an important sense, none of my business – I don’t know the contexts and the conversations, and so anything I might say will inevitably be poorly-directed and gauche.
The Baptist Union of Great Britain, however, is a context to which I am close. I was baptised in a BUGB church, ordained as a BUGB minister, served locally and nationally on BUGB working parties and committees. Over five years ago I transferred my church membership and ministerial accreditation to the Baptist Union of Scotland, but last year I spoke at the BUGB Assembly; this year I have and will again address conferences of BUGB ministers. I have the privilege to count the present and former General Secretaries as friends; one of the divisional heads is a former student of mine; many, many friends to whom I speak regularly are in BUGB churches. There is always more going on than one person can understand but this, perhaps, of all foreign contexts, is one I understand.
That said, it is no longer my context, and I have no responsibility, or mandate, to speak into its deliberations. (Although, through either editorial error or astonishing graciousness, I notice that I have not yet been removed from the published list of BUGB accredited ministers…) I have resisted more than once the impulse to write to the Baptist Times, BUGB’s house journal – whilst I retain an interest in what goes on ‘down South’ it is, straightforwardly, none of my business.]
BUGB Council recently strongly re-affirmed the ministry of women within the denomination. This re-affirmation has been queried in public by people whose history of commitment and insight is something I can only hope to aspire to in the future. The causes of the queries would seem to be two, linked, hesitations: on the one hand, what is the formal role of BUGB Council in determining and dictating policy for the Union or the churches? On the other, where in this decision is the traditional Baptist commitment to liberty of conscience?
The latter of these points seems to me a simple misunderstanding. Baptist commitment to liberty of conscience has never been, and should never be, a bar to religious (or other…) associations expressing choosing to gather around certain convictions. No king, government, bishop, or priest should ever coerce anyone into believing anything – this is liberty of conscience – but the inevitable concomitant of this is that any person or association should be free to determine her/its own determinations of the limits of fellowship. I can decide that I will only worship with those who are Calvinistic, or who hold to a premillennial escahtology, or who take their communion cups in their left hand; I can form a religious association with others who believe the same; what I may not do is create laws that disadvantage those who do not belong to my religious association. As Thomas Helwys had it:
Wee still pray our lord the king that wee may be free from suspect, for haveing anie thoughts of provoking evill against them of the Romish religion, in regard of their profession, if they be true & faithfull subiects to the king for wee do freely professe, that our lord the king hath no more power over their consciences then over ours, and that is none at all: for our lord the king is but an earthly king, and he hath no aucthority as a king but in earthly causes, and if the kings people be obedient & true subiects, obeying all humane lawes made by the king, our lord the king can require no more: for mens religion to God, is betwixt God and themselves; the king shall not answere for it, neither may the king be iudg betwene God and man. Let them be heretikes, Turcks, Jewes, or whatsover it apperteynes not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure. This is made evident to our lord the King by the scriptures. (Mistery of Iniquity 1612, p. 69)
Helwys wrote this in a book, the matter of which was a disassociation from virtually every religious group then extant in England (in his table of ‘principal matters’ to be treated, he includes ‘the false profession of Puritanisme (so-called) … the false profession of Brownisme (so-called) … some particular errors in Mr Robinson’s book …’ Helwys was not shy of unchurching others!)
BUGB – or any other group – could choose tomorrow to expel from membership all churches that did not accept the ministry of women, or that did not accept the ministry of men, or whatever. Provided the decision was taken in the genuine belief that it was a discernment of the mind of Christ, there is nothing unBaptist or objectionable in that. If I, and sufficient others, chose to dissent, we could create a new association or union. Such a split would of course be profoundly regrettable, but that would not make it unBaptist.
The latter point is a question of constitutional validity. It happens that I have not read the BUGB constitution, but the complaints, as I read them, do not particularly turn on the niceties of whether the decision made was in accord with proper procedure as there laid down. Rather, the question raised seems to be whether the BUGB council could ever, in a Baptist/congregationalist system, have any power to dictate to the churches. On the one hand, the answer is obviously ‘no’ – each church has responsibility to discern the mind of Christ for itself. What the council, or any other denominational body, can do, is determine what are the conditions for walking together in this particular fellowship of churches. Denominational organs may properly say ‘If you believe that you have heard God say this, or that, then we must, regretfully, in future walk apart, not together.’ A Baptist denomination may properly separate from churches that hold to a position that is not in accord with the mind of the denomination.
The question that remains is, given that the council decision was not to separate from those congregations who deny the ministry of women, what is the practical effect of it? That is a subject for another post.