What joins Baptist churches together in the Baptist Union of Great Britain* is a commitment to the Declaration of Principle. This has three articles of which the first is most significant for our ecclesiology:
"That our Lord Jesus and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws."
What makes a Baptist church part of the Union is a commitment to trinitarian doctrine, a commitment to the Bible (as the means of discerning the mind of Christ with the help of the Holy Spirit), a commitment to and the practice of congregational government and the belief and practice of believers' baptism (article 2 of the Declaration of Principle).
There is no hierarchy within baptist ecclesiology, nothing can be imposed upon a local church, outside of the commitments stated above, with which the local church has assented to. To un-assent from these commitments would mean a church no longer identifies with the Union.
So the recent Statement from the Baptist Union Steering Group on same sex relationships affirms our ecclesiology. Each church has liberty to interpret the Scriptures, with the aid of the Spirit, in seeking the mind of Christ on its response to same sex relationships. To have said anything different would be change the basis of our union.
At the same time, because we are a Union of churches, associations and colleges, we are in a covenant relationship with one another and so what we believe and how we act matters. As Sam Wells puts it 'if we can't all stay in the same room and talk to each other, we're telling the world our gospel isn't true.' The update on sexuality conversations says this is a "determined effort to keep the unity of the Union." One reason as a Union - whether in Council or Assembly - we have not yet taken any vote to affirm or not affirm same sex relationships. On other issues, like, the apology for involvement in the slave trade and affirmation of women in ministry, Council has voted and passed resolutions, but this has reflected a strong consensus, which the statement from the Steering Group recognises is not the case in regard to same sex relationships. We recognise that we are always 'on the way and in the fray' (Helen Dare, 2014 Whitley Lecture). The statement is not, and could never be, the last word. We are still "on the way" in this conversation, probably to some people's dismay (both those who would affirm same sex relationships and those who would not). We still have serious disagreements, we're 'in the fray'.
Alongside the covenant relationship of churches that is the basis of our Union, there is a second related, but particular, covenant relationship of ministers who are accredited by the Union: 'The Register of Covenanted Persons Accredited for Ministry.' Accredited ministers are those that the Union (by which I mean the churches, associations and colleges) recognise as ministers of the gospel beyond just the local church or a particular association. Accredited ministers are those whose call to ministry has been tested and affirmed - locally, regionally and nationally; they are those who have been prepared and formed (those with competence) for the practice of ministry; and they are those who have been ordained as ministers. To be an accredited minister is to have a representative role, not just of Christ, but of the wider church, in the form of the Union. What this means is that an accredited minister is both accountable to the local church where they hold office, but also to the Union who have accredited them.
This explains why the Statement from the Steering Group does not end with its affirmation of the local church has the place of discernment and governance. For while a local church may hold one view, this may not be reflected by the whole Union, and the accredited minister is a representative of that Union. So alongside the Register of Covenanted Persons Accredited for Ministry are the Ministerial Recognition (MR) Rules, which set out the basis that a minister can be accredited, or have their accreditation removed for what is known as conduct unbecoming.
The MR Rules contain an appendix which offers some guidelines for what is conduct unbecoming. One of those guidelines is that homosexual genital practice is regarded as conduct unbecoming. Until March 2014, when the MR Rules were revised, it also contained a line that said, ''Ministers are expected not to advocate homosexual or lesbian genital relationships as acceptable alternatives to male/female partnership in marriage." This line has now been removed. The Baptist Union holds the 'traditional' view that Christian marriage Biblical understanding of Christian marriage, as a union between a man and a woman. Whilst this view cannot be imposed upon the churches, it is a requirement for accredited ministers, because of their particular relationship to the Union.
Here lies the tension, which is admittedly somewhat awkward, and is a similar issue for the Church of England. The expectations and rules for ministers are different from other church members, because they are accountable to the Union in a way (outside of the Declaration of Principle) other church members and churches are not.
The revision of the MR Rules, removing the line about advocacy, now gives clear permission for ministers to hold and present a different view of marriage, without prejudice to their accreditation, but they cannot enter into a same-sex civil partnership or marriage. The removal of the line is good and right, because there was a danger that those who were ministers were inhibited in reflecting their understanding of scripture and their freedom of conscience. This reflects, as indicated above, that our conversations will and must continue, on the way and in the fray.
We are left with a situation where an accredited minister is now responsible to the local church where they hold office, and where personal conscience permits, on how they exercise pastoral care towards same sex couples seeking to get married or have their partnership blessed. Where as before they were accountable to the Union, they are now accountable to the local church. They are not free to marry or bless, outside of the permission of the local church where they hold office.
I think there is much merit to say that this is where we are as a Baptist Union. One which recognises the authority of the local church under Christ and freedom of conscience, and at the same time, that as a Union, we are not yet (and very possibly this will not change) able to affirm an understanding of marriage outside of that as a man and a woman. To go further would both pre-empt our listening to one another and would risk causing the Union split.
This may well remain unsatisfactory for those who hold strong views on both sides. In my view it does provide a more satisfactory understanding of our ecclesiology. It asks can we live together by a shared commitment to the Declaration of Principle, recognising that the strong possiblity of disagreement is built into its understanding. As Baptists we put Christ before creed, covenant before dogma. Its risky, but its to say we are people on the way of trust, that Christ speaks, and the Spirit leads (for more see again Helen Dare's Whitley Lecture). The statement offers a space from which conversations can continue, and for some, in some places, the opportunity to welcome and affirm those in same-sex relationships.
* This title is largely anachronistic, really its the Baptist Union of England, a little bit of South Wales and few churches elsewhere).