Whatever we make of the Baptist Union's Council statement on same sex relationships last month it will not be the last word. Those Baptists who feel they are unable to affirm any kind of same sex relationship and who see this as a victory for a perceived 'majority', will find that the statement will not be the last word. In fact it may well be that the statement will galvanise those who seek to affirm same sex marriage to be more open in their conviction, and will also lead others, not affirming themselves, to more vocal as well, in arguing that an affirming position be acceptable within the Union. That is, rather than drawing a line in the sand, the statement has ignited a bigger conversation.
Those who affirm same sex marriage amongst BUGB Baptists are more numerous than the conservatives realise; not a majority within the Union, but then I challenge the view that the conservatives hold the majority either. (I'm not convinced that speaking in terms of 'majority' is helpful, because it smacks of democracy rather than communal discernment). I suggest that many sit in the middle between the two extremes, and find themselves pulled by both Bible and culture, but are driven most, by wanting to find pastoral solutions. If I'm right then the view of the Baptist Union, if the Union is to hold together, must be one of reconciled diversity on this issue. The question that must drive the Steering Group and the Council and all those who care about the future of the Union, must be, (as Angus Ritchie's suggests with regard to the Church of England):
can we find a way of living together in one Body that preserves the integrity of opponents as well as supporters of change?
This is what we have done on the issue of women in ministry, we generally tolerate a diversity. We do not (openly) seek to unChristian those who hold a different view from our own - and this is not always easy.
We need to find ways not to unChristian one another of the issue of gay and lesbian relationships. To quote Ritchie again:
This requires traditionalists to accept they are not the only orthodox Christians, and those of an affirming view to accept that traditionalism is not always based on homophobia.
What is needed are those on both sides to say, in view of the tie that binds us, can we for the sake of unity and mission, seek to listen to one another, hard and painful though that may be, to see if that tie is strong enough to enable us to continue to walk together. My hope is that the Steering Group might, behind the scenes, seek to make that happen.
The Council's statement attempted to 'humbly urge' those who affirm same sex marriage not to press ahead, in all reality, this will carry little weight. The seeming imbalance of the 'mutual respect' asked of those churches who have registered or are seeking to register, challenges any moral authority they might otherwise see the statement as having.
It is my own view that neither those who are against or those who affirm hold the monopoly on truth on this question. In fact much of the arguments for or against I find wanting. As on many other issues, it remains contested, and it remains contested, also amongst those who identify as gay or lesbian.
This will continue to not be an easy time for the Union, especially those who hold office at a national level. For them we must pray especially. Whilst I don't think they can or will (at least not quickly) retract the statement, I hope that the Steering Group and the Council (when it next meets), will recognise they will have to come back to this issue, that we have not reached a settled place. A more theological conversation is now all the more pressing and the willingness of all sides to participate is essential if we are to avoid the fragmentation of our Union. This is the story of all other church traditions, Baptists are no different.