As we approach this year's Baptist Assembly (which is a much shorter and will be less well attended) a statement from last year's Assembly has emerged back into the spotlight in the news that one Association of the Union is seeking to dissent from it.
Last year's statement sought to find a way to recognise our Baptist principles of local church government and our wider associating as a Union (see here for my reflection on it). The Union changed the ministerial rules to allow a minister and the church in which served (which was already free) to discern whether they could take part in blessing or performing a same sex marriage.
According to this news report, the West of England Baptist Association has sought to take the move to disallow any church that comes to the decision to register their building as a place where same sex marriages could take place, by exerting their control of church trust deeds:
It appears to say that it would refuse outright permission for any church held by the WEBA Trust Company (the ultimate 'owner' of most of the churches in its region) to be used for a civil partnership ceremony.
In 2007, there was a request for a redundant church to be used for the blessing of a civil partnership; the request was refused. The trustees say that in line with that decision, "The WEBA Trust Company does not give permission for any building for which we are the holding Trustees to be used for such purposes."
It seems a number of points can be made here:
1. The statement made by the Baptist Union at last year's Assembly was one that had been agreed by the Council of the Union.
2. It might be commented that now the Council is only 80 people, it could be argued that it is not as representative as it once was of the Union. However, it is the only decision making body of the Union or at least is the only body able to hold the decisions of the National Steering Group to account.
3. The statement was one announced and there was no opportunity at the Assembly for delegates from local churches to affirm (or not) the statement. It is my view that on issues like these the decisions made by Council would carry a lot more weight if they were brought as resolutions to the Assembly. This of course would require that the Assembly has time to carefully reflect on any resolution put before them - not a present possibility. I argued back in 2011 for the renewal of Assembly in this direction.
4. Turning to the WEBA statement again we see an example of the WEBA Trustees making a decision without consultation with the local churches that make up their association. So I return to my argument that having 'reformed' the Union, the Associations themselves need reform, as too many Associations have become a separate entities from the local church.
5. The WEBA response would carry more weight if, having heard the Union's statement, it called its churches together to discern on whether this was something the churches of WEBA could support. Even if this was what discerned, it is not clear whether the authority of the Association can trump the liberty of the local church, according to the Baptist Union's Declaration of Principle, to discern differently.
6. As a side note, the WEBA statement does reflect, that for all our talk of being independent churches, we are bound together by church trust deeds, local churches are not entirely free. Our buildings being in trust with an association or the Union is an expression of our catholicity. (See Keith Jones BQ article from 1989 on the 'Authority of the Trust Deed'.
7. We are left with asking where does authority lie? With the local church, with the Association, or with the Union? The answer must be to say that authority is shared across these different bodies, residing most clearly in the local church, in the same way that authority in a local church 'flows' between minister, deacons and church meeting. Union and Association cannot act independent of the local church and we must find ways once again to allow local churches to discern and deliberate together as Union and Association.
8. The actions of WEBA go against our Baptist principles, which last year's statement by the Union sought to re-affirm. The WEBA trustees should be challenged against this unilateral action, in disagreement with both Union and, at least, in one case, one local church. Likewise the Union must find ways to trust the Assembly to be able to affirm decisions made by the Council and so give them more weight as statements of the Baptist Union.