A Further Reflection on the Baptist Union Statement on Same Sex Marriage

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. 


Reflections on the Council of the BUGB's New Statement on Same Sex Marriage

Preamble

Last week I posted that Council were to meet and part of their agenda was to reflect again on same sex marriage. Following their meeting they have issued a new statement, which appeared on Monday morning. (A copy was emailed to ministers on Friday afternoon).

I am part of a Baptist church that is not planning to register as a place where same sex marriages can be held.

As a minister I do not feel at the moment in a position where I could conduct a same sex marriage.

I do though have good friends who take a position of wanting to affirm same sex marriage in the church. I would happily be a member of any of their churches and would happily share in ministry with them. 

I continue to be open to engage theologically, biblically and pastorally around this issue. In my mind this is not a settled issue.

I am not troubled that other churches and other ministers might come to a place of affirming and celebrating same sex marriage. 

I recognise that as Christians we will come to different positions, and that every view on homosexuality - those that affirm and those that are against - have strengths and weaknesses. 

In the words of one friend, we always read the Bible 'in the fray and on the way', in fact, I suggest our relationship with God is always one in the fray and on the way. As American Baptists Curtis Freeman and Steven Harmon have argued recently, Baptists are a pilgrim people, both historically and theologically. 

Our engagement as a Union on the question of homosexuality I think has been a too narrow one. We have not even begun to engage with the conversation that is taking place biblically and theologically amongst theologians and biblical scholars. We have not adequately considered the biblical and theological arguments of those who have come to affirm LBGT relationships, which while they may not convince all, do demonstrate that this again is not a settled issue.

With this preamble in view, I am disappointed by the statement the Baptist Union Council agreed last week. On first reading I didn't think it was too bad, further readings worry me more. On the plus side it has not overturned the 2014 statement and there are some gaps in the new statement that give space for churches to continue to dissent from what is claimed is the Union's view. (For my reflections on 2014 statement see here).

In the accompanying letter to the statement, the Union's General Secretary Lynn Green mentions that 'we identified from the outset that our aim was to reach a settled place on this issue.' First of all I'm not sure who the 'we' refers to - the Council, the Steering Group, the Trustees? Second, I am unconvinced that we can reach a settled view on same sex relationships. Council making a statement does not mean we have reached a settled view. (While we have adopted the name Baptists Together, I am of the view that the changes to the Union, implemented in 2012, have made us more fragmentary.) I would prefer that we see this as an ongoing conversation and the most recent statement is where the Council discerns we are currently.

Churches and individuals have been invited to contribute to the Union's attempt to reach a settled place on this issue via an email address that is called 'talkingtogether' -  how can we be talking together, when those who might contribute a view by email are not part of the talking together - there is no opportunity to hear what others have said. The Council are talking together but that is not the same as the Union. While the Union held one (good) session at the 2013 Assembly, this has not be repeated. In the five years I have been part of my Association at no point have we 'talked together' about homosexuality.

I am troubled that we can have 'profound disagreement' over other issues - women in ministry, the use of violence, what constitutes Christian economics, etc - and yet we make no statement that seeks to ask churches to refrain from not allowing women to preach or lead. We live with the difference, even though I am more troubled and more angered by those that seek to deny women as ministers of the gospel. Why must the profound disagreement over the issue of same sex marriage require us to make a statement that 'humbly urges churches to refrain' from conducting marriages of this kind?

Lynn speaks of the 'way we discern' as being as important as 'what we discern.' I think the way we discern can be done better. The way we discern at the moment is churches or individuals are encouraged to make their views known and then Council discerns. I would like to see an improvement in the way we discern:

    1. Recover the practice of Listening Days. Twice during the 1990s the General and Deputy Secretary toured the Associations, holding listening days about the future of the Union.

    2. For Associations to take much more seriously gathering together for discernment. Again in many cases the view of an Association is not a view of the churches that belong to it, but the Trustees/Council.

   3. See Assembly as a place of discernment that complements the work of the Council. This of course is very difficult with the current one day Assembly format (which will continue until 2017).

Reflections on the Statement

'The Union's historic Biblical understanding of marriage' I guess is reflected in the ministerial rules, rather than any other kind of historic statement made by Council or Assembly. Has the Union ever reflected on a theology of marriage? I am equally troubled by the language of 'Biblical', because we use it as trump card. The use of 'biblical' reflects a conservative evangelical doctrine of Scripture that claims the text has one meaning and we can know that one meaning. (John Colwell's chapter on scripture in Promise and Presence is one example that challenges this view). Marriage in the Bible is not the same as we understand Christian marriage in 21st Century.

It is good to see that the Declaration of Principle comes first in the statement. The statements refers to 'the potential for some diversity in pastoral and missional practice'. Does this mean there is room for diversity also in theology, of which I am sure there is lots. The Declaration of Principle emerged out of the two Baptist streams - Calvinist and Arminian - joining together to form the Union without their convictions about the gospel being required to change. Theologically the Union has never been uniform, outside of a shared conviction of being trinitarian. 

The second part of the statement refers to mission and the need for churches to engage in mission with imagination and compassion. Does that give space for churches to engage with the LBGT community in different ways. I suggest there is so room here.

The final part of the statement is the more contentious bit. The first paragraph is helpful - it acknowledges genuine and deep disagreement and there is tension around the fact some churches are registering their buildings for same sex marriage. It then adds the need for God's grace to enable us to walk together. All good.

The final paragraph sets out how this should be outworked. The Council first asks that 'we humbly urge churches who are considering conducting same-sex marriages to refrain from doing so out of mutual respect.' I'm not sure that this follows from the previous paragraphs around freedom and mission. It seeks to stop churches exercising their freedom. The key words are 'mutual respect.' It secondly asks that 'we also humbly urge all churches to remain committed to our Union out of mutual respect.' This second sentence appears to give room for churches to dissent from the Council's view and asks other churches and/or Associations to remain committed to the Union, where this might take place. (Of course it might also be read that those who might affirm LBGT relationships are being asked not to leave the Union.) Again the basis is 'mutual respect.' The strength of the statement and its interpretation will be to hold these two sentences together. 

The statement does leave a lot of questions unanswered. If a church does decide to go forward and conduct same-sex marriages, what consequences will there be? The statement gives more power to those churches and associations that are seeking to discipline and remove said churches from relationship. (I don't think it is unfair to say that is what they were pushing for.) Here we will have to see whether they heed the call to remain committed to the Union out of 'mutual respect'.

To remove a church from an Association does not mean removal from the Union and so it may create the need for a new non-geographical association (although that would need Council and Assembly approval) or to see those churches joining another Association. None of this could happen with a real possibility of churches leaving the Union. There is also the question on what basis are churches members of associations, is it on the basis of the Declaration of Principle, which it is does not make it entirely straight forward for Associations to override the autonomy of a church meeting. We will have to wait and see how this plays out, but the issue is definitely not settled.


Baptists Reflecting again on Same Sex Relationships

This week the Council of the Baptist Union will meet. On its agenda will be to look again at the issue of same sex relationships, two years on from the statement it agreed, which affirmed the Union's position that marriage is between man and women, but also affirmed (in line with the Declaration of Principle) the liberty of the local church, through a process of discernment to possibly affirm a same sex relationship. 

In the two years a good number of churches have spent time considering the issue of same sex relationships, many using the BU's own material that seeks to help church think biblically and pastorally (I can think of at least 5 in the Southend Area). This is good news.

What has also happened is that a small number of churches have registered, or are in the process of registering, as places of worship in which same sex marriage can take place.

That some churches have registered is proving very difficult for churches (and possibly Associations) who are unable to affirm same sex relationships. 

This may well be a test of our Union. This is not the first test (other issues have tested it in the past) and it will not be the last.

I pray that the Council and the churches and associations of our Union will find ways to continue to live in fellowship despite our disagreement around this issue, that we will seek to continue to talk, and pray and worship and read the Bible together. I hope that we can say that disagreement does not have to mean division.


2016 Whitley Lecture

The Whitley Lecture is an annual lecture given by Baptist in the UK. This year's lecturer is Joshua Searle, who teaches at Spurgeon's College. It's title is: 

Church Without Walls: Post-Soviet Baptists After the Ukrainian Revolution

Recent events in Ukraine have forced post-Soviet evangelicals to address a question they had long avoided: ‘in what way is the gospel not only the source of personal salvation, but also the source of social transformation?’ This lecture advances the provocative argument that instead of calling the people to repent and make peace, the church itself should repent for betraying the people, and for failing for so many years to speak truthfully to those in power and to stand on the side of the oppressed. The lecture concludes on a hopeful note by showing that despite their limited numbers, Baptists can be in the vanguard of a new movement (a ‘church without walls’) for the reformation of the church and the renewal of society, which moves towards an open future with hope for greater freedom. While drawing on the author’s experience of living and working in Ukraine, this lecture also addresses vital issues that affect the global Baptist community, such as the missional imperatives of social justice and solidarity and the limits of political authority.

You can here the lecture here:

– Cardiff (SWBC) on Wednesday 27th January, 13:30–15:00

– London (Spurgeon's College) on Wednesday 3rd February, 11:15–12:45

– Oxford (Regent’s Park College) on Tuesday 23rd February, 16:00–18:00

– Manchester (Northern Baptist College) on Monday 14th March 19:00–20:30

– Bristol (Bristol Baptist College) on Tuesday 12th, 19:30–21:00

Or buy a copy here.


The 1640 group

The 1640 group are 9 Baptists churches that celebrate their 375th anniversary since they were founded in 1640. These are some of the earliest Baptist churches. Together these churches are gathering in Bristol at Broadmead for a shared anniversary service on the 19th September. 

1640baptistThe 9 are:

Broadmead Baptist Church, Bristol - read about Broadmead here

Newbury Baptist Church, Berkshire

Abbey Road Baptist Church, Reading

Dagnell Street Baptist Church, St Albans

Kings Stanley Baptist Church, Gloucestershire

Alcester Baptist Church, Warwickshire

Berkhamstead Baptist Church, Hertfordshire

Kingsbridge Baptist Church, Devon

Castle Hill Baptist Church, Warwick - read about the church here


Baptists and Same-Sex Relationships: a new issue

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.


In Honour of Paul Fiddes

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This evening saw Regent's Park College honour Paul Fiddes with two festschrifts. Paul, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford - a title uniquely conferred on him in 2002 - and former Principal of Regent's Park College and current Director of Research, is the pre-eminent Baptist theologian at work in the world today. It was then more than fitting that the contribution he has made to the task of theology, both with academia and the church be recognised.

The evening was a planned surprise of which Paul had no prior knowledge -  rarely do you see him stuck for words, but his speech in response was brief, demonstrating how touched he was by the presence of friends and colleagues and the two books. Jürgen Moltmann, who taught Paul for a year back in 1976, started the evening by giving a lecture on behalf of the Centre of Christianity and Culture based at Regent's (celebrating 20 years this year, having been birthed by Paul in the early 1990s). Moltmann named Paul as a 'radical Baptist.' The evening then continued to present Paul with the festschrifts, which included a speech from Rex Mason, former tutor in Old Testament at Regent's. He shared that he knew Paul as a child (Paul's grandparents being in the church where Rex was then minister).

9780198709565_450The two festschrifts reflect Paul's contribution to academic theology and to Baptist church life. The first, Within the Love of God: Essays on the Doctrine of God in Honour of Paul S. Fiddes, is edited by Andrew Moore and Anthony Clarke (both former students and now current colleagues of Paul) and draws together an international line-up of theologians including Jürgen Moltmann, John Webster, Keith Ward, Paul Helm, Frances Young, David Burrell, Chris Rowland, John Barton and two other Baptist theologians in John Colwell and Stephen Holmes. The book engages in different ways with the doctrine of God, which has been a central focus of Paul's theology, especially in his first major book The Creative Suffering of God and the later Participating in God.

The second book, For the Sake of the Church: Essays in Honour of Paul S. Fiddes, edited by Anthony Clarke (again!) is a collection of essays by colleagues at Regent's Park - Rob Ellis, Nick Wood, Myra Blyth, Larry Kreizter and Deborah Rooke, Anthony Clarke, Tim Bradshaw - as well as other British Baptists scholars - Ruth Gouldbourne, Stephen Finamore, Nigel Wright, Richard Kidd, Brian Haymes, John Weaver and John Briggs. These essays mostly reflect and interact with Paul's contributions to Baptist theology and life, with regards to ecclesiology, the sacraments and ministry.

Both books are fitting tributes and offer some good critical engagement with Paul's theology. (Other future festschrifts might reflect Paul's contribution both to wider Baptist life and in the area of ecumenical conversations).

Paul has been in Oxford since the 1960s and at Regent's since the 1970s and so you could say it was long overdue to honour him in this way. Paul is the Baptist gift to wider theology - we have produced very few theologians of his stature. As Baptists, I'm not sure we will see another like him (partly because as a Baptist Union in Great Britain we don't invest and encourage people to take up the theological task like Paul has) and as Baptists, I'm not sure we've really fully appreciated and paid enough attention to his voice, but here's hoping these festschrifts will be one way to change that. 


David Goodbourn (1948-2014)

I heard today that David Goodbourn has died. I did not really know David Goodbourn. I remember spending a few evenings with others at Baptist Union Council where he was present. He made lots of contributions to Baptist life and to ecumenism, as well as theological education amongst adults. He will be missed. In October 2013 with knowledge that he was dying he wrote a moving article which was published in the URC Reform magazine.

There is a obituary here written by Simon Oxley.

PhD (Manchester, 1989)

Tutor in Lay-Training, Northern Baptist College - 1973-1985

Dean of the Scottish Churches' Open College, and Assistant Director (College Education) for the Church of Scotland Board of Parish Education

Tutor, Scottish Baptist College

General Secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland - 1999-2006

Member of the WCC Commission on Education and Ecumenical Formation

President, Partnership for Theological Education, Luther King House - 2005-2011

Associate Lecturer, International Baptist Theological Seminary

Editorial Board, Journal of Adult Theological Education

Trustee, Baptist Union - 2011-2013

 

Publications 

'The Learning Needs of Christian Adults', British Journal of Adult Theological Education (1988)

'Father, it is right and fitting', Baptist Praise and Worship (Oxford, 1991)

'A Churches Open College for Scotland', British Journal Theological Education 4.2 (Spring 1991) 

'Overcoming Barriers to Adult Christian Education', Ministry Today 7 (July 1996)

'Mapping Church-Related Adult Education', British Journal of Theological Education 11.2 (2001)

'Richfulness and Ruefulness: Looking Back over a Life in Theological Adult Education', Journal of Adult Theological Education 9.1 (2012)

'Adult Christian Education', Baptistic Theologies 5.1 (Spring 2013)

'Parting Thoughts', Reform Magazine (2013)


Baptist Theology and History Day Conferences

Centre for Baptist History and Heritage (Regent’s Park College)
& The Baptist Historical Society
Day Conferences Remaining in 2014

Saturday 22 November at Regent’s Park College
10.00 am – 4.30 pm.

“Baptists and the Communion of Saints”

Papers:
‘The Communion of Saints and the Mystery of God” by Paul S. Fiddes (Principal Emeritus Regent’s Park College and Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Oxford.)

‘The Communion of Saints and the Re-Thinking of the Church’, by Brian Haymes (Formerly Principal, Bristol Baptist College.)

‘The Communion of Saints and the Vitality of Memory’, by Richard Kidd (Formerly Principal, Northern Baptist Learning Community).


This study-day will mark the launch in the UK of a book co-authored by the three speakers: Baptists and the Communion of Saints. A Theology of Covenanted Disciples (Baylor University Press, 2014)

This conference is without cost to attend. But please register by emailing paul.fiddes@regents.ox.ac.ukto secure a place, and bring your own packed lunch (or buy sandwiches nearby): tea and coffee provided freely.

 

Saturday 6 December at Regent’s Park College
10.00 am – 4.30 pm.
“Movements for Peace in 1914”
A German-British Conference Commemorating the Founding in August 1914 of the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches

Major Papers:
‘An Alliance for International Friendship? Sentiment, Reality, Hope’ by Keith W. Clements (Former General Secretary of the Council of European Churches).

‘The Relation between the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Early Civil Rights Movement’ by Andrea Strübind (Professor of Church History and Dean of Faculty, Institut für Evangelische Theologie, Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg)

‘Friedrich Siegmund-Schultze, a Founder of the Peace Movement’ by Erich Geldbach (Emeritus Professor of Ecumenical Theology, Evangelisch-Theologischen Fakultät, University of Bochum and Honorary Professor, University of Marburg)

Several shorter papers will also be offered.
This conference will cost £10 to attend. Please register by emailing paul.fiddes@regents.ox.ac.ukto secure a place, and bring your own packed lunch (or buy sandwiches nearby): tea and coffee provided freely.


Reflecting on Ministry (3)

This is a third interview with a Baptist minister. The previous two were with John Rackley and Tim Presswood. This present interview is with Ruth Gouldbourne.

Ruth is the co-minister of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London and has been there since 2006. Previous to that she ministered at Bunyan Meeting Free Church, Bedford and was a Tutor at Bristol Baptist College (1995-2006). She was the 1998 Whitley Lecturer and gave the 1998 Hughey Memorial Lectures at the International Baptist Theology Seminary, at that point in Prague. She was until recently the Chair of the Board of Trustees at IBTS. She has a PhD in church history from the University of London and her thesis was published under title, The Flesh and the Feminine: Gender and Theology in the Writings of Caspar Schwenckfeld. She has also co-written a book on Baptist ecclesiology and written several other journal articles and book chapters. She is involved in the Baptist Historical Society.

What’s the most important lesson you learned about ministry that you didn’t know at the beginning?

It’s impossible and that’s ok; that is, we will never do all that needs to be done and we will never do it all to our own or anybody else’s satisfaction, and speaking of the things of God and ministering in the name of God is a ridiculous undertaking when you stop think about it, and all of that is ok, because it’s God’s idea and so God’s responsibility. All I have to do is turn up and offer. 

What led your into ministry?

An experience of inevitability. The careers teacher at school suggested it when I was 16, and I dismissed the idea because “women aren’t ministers” – which at that stage and in that place was true. I seriously did not think about it for another few years through ending school and doing a degree, and then it became obvious that, while it still wasn’t possible, it was really the only possibility. The insight and bloody-mindedness of my parents, and the openness and exploration of the church in which I grew up, and the taking it for grantedness of my husband all combined to make what was impossible possible – that, and being welcomed into another Union.

You've recently been developing a new service at Bloomsbury called Informal Church. How did it happen, what is it and how is this changing you and the church?

Our evening service was just the same as our morning one, but much smaller – so small it seemed pointless. We had tried various things, but nothing really worked, and when Simon arrived, because of our common interest in Anabaptist theology, we decided to do something radical and start a multivoiced service using the themes and convictions of the Anabaptist Network. We share food, we share worship in which everybody is able to take a vocal part, through prayers and through discussion rather than a sermon, and through a leaderless liturgy for communion. We have grown a new congregation of about 20-25 people, some who sleep rough, some with significant mental health challenges, one an infant, and others who enjoy the exploratory nature of the discussions. It can be hard work, disconcerting and, at times, wonderful. Personally, it is both the hardest thing and one of the more rewarding things I do – it has been an interesting experience to actually to put into practice some of my theoretical convictions, and discover how to do it, and whether I really am prepared to live with the reality. For those who come, it has been a freeing place. For those who have stopped coming, it has been a release from “duty” and a discovery that it is possible for us to do something they don’t relate well to, and that to be ok. And for the bulk of the congregation, they don’t really notice it….

What one thing should ministers do more of and what one thing should they do less of?

More sitting still – with ourselves, with God, with other people. Less being active, and needing to do God’s work for God.

What keeps you going?

The proper and pious answer and the one I wish I could give is prayer. The actual answer is trying to remember to pray. And the experienced answer is my husband and knowing I can walk away from this whenever I choose.

That latter phrase probably requires some expansions; I think for many of us, being a minister is not what we do, it is what we are. Certainly, that is my condition. I was vigorously challenged by somebody who loves me when I expressed this once, who insisted that “you are much more than what you do or offer”. That challenge, together with a wise spiritual director who regularly draws me back to the conviction that a) God can run the universe and therefore the bit of it that I am involved in perfectly well without me, and involves me out of love and enjoyment, not out of need and b) God loves me, not what I do, combine to free me from the sense of “obligation” to what I do, and offer – on a good day – the capacity to offer what I do, and what I am, as a gift not as a duty.

There’s a real sense in this answer that any minister must be one who remains ministered to. You speak here of a spiritual director, have you always had one, or is this something that has come later? What led you to seek spiritual direction in this formal sense?

I think you are absolutely right about being ministered to. I started working with my first spiritual director when I went to teach in Bristol, so about 20 years ago. It had been something I had heard Anglican colleagues talk about, and I was interested in finding somebody who could help me think, and specifically pray more clearly. When I moved to Bristol, this put me in touch with people who were able to link me in with the networks of people who had trained in this work. And I started the discipline. And it has been that. But it has been really important; somebody who knows me well and needs nothing from me, who will challenge me and help me hear God, and also – and this has been vital – who is from a very different tradition, and so can offer me different resources, but also asks me to account for certain “assumptions” that I take for granted, but which might be viewed differently within a different theological framework.

Has there been one book or theological voice that shaped your ministry?

Eugene Petersen has been important to me; but I have been more influenced by people I know and interact with – and who know me, and challenge/encourage/question/mentor me

What does being a Baptist minister mean to you?

I am Baptist by background and by conviction, and before I was a minister. Thus the way in which I am a minister is shaped by this theology and practice; I am not a minister who happens to be Baptist, not even a minister who is convinced by Baptist convictions. I only know how to be a minister as a Baptist; in community, in covenant with a congregation.

With this strong Baptist heritage, what have you learned or received from other ecclesial traditions?

I talked above about spiritual direction – that would be one of the significant gifts I have received; specifically, being put in contact with a mystical tradition, which is not immediately available to Baptist tradition (though I think there are interesting links) Quaker friends (or perhaps just Friends!) have helped me appreciate even more deeply a radical openness to the Spirit’s leading and ministering through the community. Mennonite friends have linked me more deeply to radical discipleship and the meaning of baptism as more than “my witness to my saviour”. And working very closely with Anglicans has opened me to the richness of reading Scripture without comment in the service in very positive ways (I’m not sure I’ve phrased that right!)

How do you see the relationship between church and mission?

I’m not sure I understand what you mean by this question. Church is born from mission, and is the place where the mission of God is given voice. The mission of God for the transformation of the world, the coming of the Kingdom is much bigger than the church, but within the church it is rehearsed and voiced.  

This suggests that there is nothing the church does that is not mission. Do you find that too often Christians want to separate mission off as an activity of the church?

Yes. If we are church, then mission happens. I think our hardest struggle is to be church. Too often – and I will absolutely put my hand up to this as something I buy into – we are not church, we go to and we support, and we organise church – which keeps it out there, and not something that I am. That leaves me free to get on with the rest of my life, unencumbered by these impossible demands of discipleship. If we dare to be church, that is, if our primary identiy is as baptised people who are part of the body of Christ in and through everything, then mission is not a “thing we do”, any more than we might “do” inviting people to our friendship. We make friends because we meet people and get to know them. Mission happens as we love and move. I am about to start preaching….

What, if anything have you learn about ministry/church/mission from your involvement in IBTS?

My particular role there was one of the areas where my incompetence was most evident, and so I learned a lot there about just going on with it when I knew I couldn’t’, and seeing that God works through that. I learned more than I can say about the breadth of the church, the complexity of being Baptist, the joy and the pain of our particular way of being sensitive and shaped by contexts, which can mean we look very different, and find it hard to trust each other, if we have come out of and been shaped by profoundly different contexts – and the trust and appreciation, to say nothing of the love that can emerge as we discover that in belonging to God, we have to belong to one another.

As British Baptists, like in politics, we sit often on the edge of Europe. I’m interested in your phrase ‘the complexity of being Baptist’, which hints at the breath of Baptist life within Europe which we in Britain no little of. Being exposed to that breath, what is it that joins Baptists together?

I have no idea! Actually, that’s not true, but it’s not necessarily what we might expect or even feel comfortable with. There are plenty of ways of being Baptist in different parts of the world, including Europe that I would be very uncomfortable with – and which would be very uncomfortable with me. The place of women in the church is not the least of these issues.

Clearly, an understanding of baptism as belonging to believers is central. But what for me leads to that and grows out of it, the nature of church meeting, is not an uncontested position, for example. Nor is the notion of the independence of the local church. We do all claim to take Scripture seriously – but then, no Christian community as a whole is going to claim that Scripture doesn’t matter. Baptists often claim to take it more seriously than they/ we think we see others do, but I am not convinced about that. Evangelism and mission matter – and we do share that. But we don’t always mean the same things. Separation from state control – though I once had a fascinating, and mildly surreal conversation with a student at IBTS called Constantine about this whole issue, as he argued for the need for state protection. And as somebody who had lived through and seen the church suffer significantly because of Communist oppression, he had a particular voice I couldn’t afford to ignore.

I would love to see more UK Baptists in touch with the life of the European Baptist Federation, and discovering the delights and struggles of being Baptist in such different contexts – many where some of the things we struggle with really don’t matter, and where some of the things we take for granted are so so so different in different contexts.

Can you tell a story of where something didn’t work or that you failed?

Oh, so many! One of the things I was committed to, but didn’t work was “Playing at Prayer” – a series of Saturday mornings when I invited people to come and explore different ways of praying and being with God. Just didn’t work. However, one of those who mentored me had drummed it into me that you try something and if it doesn’t work, you stop, and try something else – without feeling too bad about it. I do feel bad, but only because I enjoyed it, and failed to communicate that to others.

Where I have failed; I dealt very badly with a bullying Zionist group, and let them win, when we came under pressure not to allow a Palestinian event to happen here. It happened, but I said we couldn’t do it again, because I couldn’t cope. I have failed to love various people enough and so they left. I failed to confront a situation which developed within the church because I was afraid of hurting people, and ended up with a situation in which more people were hurt even more than badly than might have been the case. 
…. How much more do you want? ☺

I ask this question to challenge the notion that there is any minister who is fully equipped or only knows success, which can often be what is presented. I wonder if success is a word that should be banned in church?

Yes! I know that that statement “We are not called to succeed but to be faithful” is both a cliché, and not particularly helpful. But – I don’t think we can always judge success and failure easily, and even more importantly, justly. I’m sure every preacher has had the experience of being told after the sermon “Thank you for saying such and such – God really used it to speak to me” and thinking “I didn’t say that” I wonder if we might want to reflect on how that applies elsewhere; that the places where we have no idea that we might have been the means of grace may be far more frequent than we know. And equally, the places where we “know” we have got it right, we have done well ,everybody tells us we are succeeding might be not the success we think in the “upside down kingdom” After all, the cross hardly looks like a triumphant moment….

Do you see yourself as an evangelist?

Back to definitions again; somebody once summed up my preaching as “God loves you, learn to live with it” which I believe is a profoundly “evangelistic” message; in that, we all need to hear that, believers and non-believers, and to allow ourselves to be turned around by it towards God and away from ourselves.

I usually end sermons with a call for decision, but normally that is a call for believers to live as if they actually believe what they say they believe, in the conviction that evangelism begins with the people of God.

Much of the rest of my work is with individuals who are in pain or confusion; some believers, some not. I don’t see that work as explicitly evangelistic, but more as offering something of a glimpse into the invitation and acceptance of God that may – or may not – enable somebody to respond insofar as they can at that moment, to being loved.

What role, if any, does tradition play in ministry, in church, in mission?

We are shaped by tradition whether we know it or not; so, it is helpful to know what the tradition is so that we can handle it well, and make informed choices. Tradition is our soil – but plants grow in different shapes and produce different fruit; tradition doesn’t determine us, but can nourish and sustain us.

As Baptists are bound too much by tradition or could we benefit from being more conscious of our tradition?

I fear that we might often be bound by it precisely because we are not conscious of it. Knowing where we come from, why we do something, how we have been shaped – and indeed, that we have been shaped – gives us more choices of response than simply this is how it is, or, it has to be different, without knowing why it is the way it is.

Where are you most incompetent as a minister?

Where to start….? I find it very hard to talk to people I don’t know – a bit of handicap in a church in the centre of London regularly visited by folk from beyond the congregation, both on Sundays and in the week. I struggle to view things from a detached point of view, which means I get paralysed by being hurt when nobody meant to hurt me. It is hard to speak of the things that mean the most, and so making preaching more than superficial is difficult. …… In almost every area, I think is the answer!

You of course gave the George Beasley Murray Memorial Lecture with the title ‘In Praise of Incompetence’, challenging in part a tendency towards the over-professionalization of ministry. At the same time is an equal tendency within churches to say everyone is competent apart from the minister?

Sometimes, yes. I think ministry is one of those “jobs” a bit like teaching, where people, especially if they have had experience of being ministered to, or being taught, think “I can do that.” I do on occasions bite my tongue to stop myself saying “could we please start from the assumption that I know my job” In some ways, I think it comes from a very healthy sense that the church is not hierarchy, and we all have a place and a voice.

Part of the argument of my lecture is that ministry is not a task, but a being. But it is, on the whole, the task, or tasks, that people see. And often think they too could do. And people may be right about that; there is very little that I “do” that others could not also do, and sometimes do better. But I do not believe that that is what ministry is. The minister offers more to the congregation than the fulfilling of certain tasks – and I don’t think anybody can do that. It is a God-done thing, and God does it through certain of us that God calls and appoints to it. This is not through merit, or even particular skills, but the weirdness of grace and gifting. I want to be as good at my tasks as I can be. But if all I do is my tasks, if that is all I am there for, then those who think they can do it better are probably right.

Are you hopeful for the future of Baptist ministry and/or the Baptist Union? Why or why not?

Yes, because, despite being a profound pessimist in many ways, I think that God works. As a teenager, I attended a meeting at which somebody challenged my father about the dire future then being faced by the church, and the faith in our country. And he said – and we teased him about it for many years – “I have every confidence in God”. I do believe that God can look after God’s self, and doesn’t need us to do it. And so, at a deep level, I am confident that the mission of God will continue. Will it continue among Baptists as it has done – I shouldn’t think so, but then it never has done. One of the delightful things about being a historian is that it quickly becomes very clear that things are always changing, and they never fell very secure – even in those times when we, looking back, think they were. And still the love of God is active. There hasn’t always been Baptist Union, and even when there has, it has always been changing, haven’t always been Baptists (contra Landmarkists!) - but there have always been the people of God, and I see no reason why that should cease. Our patterns and our convictions about how things “ought to be” are always penultimate.

What has been the main shape of your ministry? (e.g. pastoral carer / leader of worship / missionary / networker / fundraiser / social worker)

Leader of worship, pastoral carer, pray-er

Questions of finance (not surprisingly) seem to be in the mix of so much of ministry, church and mission – what have you learned, if anything, from how to deal with the issue of scarcity?

I’ve learned that I panic. I’ve learned that I need people around me who can actually read balance sheets and understand accounts, and that I need to learn to trust them. I’ve learned that there is never going to be enough.

If you could write your own obituary what would it say?

She did what she could – but that’s less of an obituary and more of a wish that that might be what is said. I’ve no idea what an obituary might say because I don’t think many of us have a clear idea of how others see us, or the impact or not that we have in the world.

I have found that too often in church we are not that bothered about mission – has that been your experience and why is that?

Again, back to what is meant by mission; most of the congregations I have had the opportunity to be involved with have been deeply concerned about what it is that God wants them to do in their neighbourhood – the call to serve and to meet people has been high. We haven’t always (often!) agreed on just what that should look like, and we haven’t always done it well, but people have been concerned to work it out.

Have you found that worship transforms people?

It transforms me – I don’t know that I can speak for anybody else.

The temptation of much ministry both inside and outside the church is to be “nice” – is this something that troubles you? Have you been able to resist it?

By “trouble” do you mean something I succumb to – I so, the answer is “yes”. I think that would have been true of me even if I had not been a minister. Resisting it happens – when it happens, because I get tired of being nice, or because one of my colleagues, who has a much stronger capacity to resist it, challenges me.

I wonder if the nice-agenda, stems from this is how God is viewed or how we present God; faith has become overly therapeutic. Is ministry about providing a more expansive, even “terrifying” vision of God?

I’m not sure how I feel about a more “terrifying” vision of God; but a bigger view, and a deeper sense of encounter, yes. Gospel is “bad” news as well as good news, so faith “simply” as therapeutic is problematic. Facing our own darkness, and the reality of the brokenness of the world is not about being nice; there needs to be anger and lament and fear – that’s not the right word, but I’m not sure what is - of our own capacity to hurt, and our own complicity in evil, and evil structures. And we don’t do that by being nice…..

Is social media a blessing or a curse?

Personally, I find it very useful; I can interact with people from the security of my own space, I have reconnected with people long-lost, and I am able to stay in touch with campaigns and conversations that I would only vaguely know about otherwise. For the church – I don’t think we have got to grips with it yet. Like any way of relating, it is simply a way of relating. How we actually use it is what will make it blessing or curse.

Would you be happy with the use of twitter in worship?

I do it – not when I am preaching – so, yes, I guess I am happy with it. With the normal condition I put on doing things in worship – that it doesn’t distract others. I often have people fall asleep in worship. I say that this is fine as long as they don’t snore enough to worry others. I think I feel the same way about tweeting. I know people worry that it leads to a “scattering” of attention, and that may be true. But it may also be a way of focusing attention; reflecting, commenting on what is happening is a way pf participating. It has, as I write this I realise, certain connections with what we do in Informal Church and multivoiced practice.