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.