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


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



'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”

‘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 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 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.

Reflecting on Ministry (2)

This is a second interview in a series. The first can be read here with John Rackley. This next interview is with Tim Presswood.

Tim has been a minister at Openshaw Baptist Tabernacle, East Manchester since 1993 having trained at Northern Baptist College. In 2013 he became the Transitional Regional Minister in the North Western Baptist Association. He is part of Urban Expression. He has been a chairman at a hospital NHS Trust chariman the Manchester Credit Union. With Clare McBeath he runs a website called Dancing Scarecrow.

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

Ministry is an emotional roller coaster. In the space of one afternoon, you can go from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair. A beloved project can fall apart acrimoniously, but a pastoral visit to a dying member of the community can lift you back up towards heaven. No matter what style of prayer or spirituality you favour - and I embrace many - it is important to embed your spiritual roots firmly in God.

What led your into ministry?

When I was eighteen I underwent my second conversion experience (!) which was accompanied by a strong sense of call to mission. When I went to talk to my minister (Roger Martin), he told me to “go away and grow up.” Painful though that message was to hear, it was invaluable advice. But the sense of a call to ministry never went away. After university I worked in sales for four years before applying to YBA for ministerial training. Just two weeks after I was accepted by Northern Baptist College (as it was then called), I was sacked from my job, which I took as confirmation of my call.

What keeps you going?

When David Coffey visited Openshaw he asked our late Treasurer the same question, expecting a deeply spiritual answer. The reply she gave has gone down in Baptist legend. “We’ve no flamin’ option.” So we are the church with “no flamin’ option.

Apart from all the obvious answers about family and prayer, I cannot imagine ministry as anything other than a team. Clare and I have operated a model of shared leadership since she came to Openshaw as a student. Theological reflection is built into the way we work together - and this finds its way into our broader church life. We meet to eat and break bread together - and from their earliest days our children have been engaged in theological conversations. Sometimes with devastating results. Our services are open and inclusive, encouraging folk to contribute - and thereby challenging and nourishing me.

You’ve been at Openshaw a long time, has there every been moments where you felt like giving up and walking away?

When the local drug dealer took a dislike to what we were doing and put a brick through our window for the second time a friend very generously told me where the key to their holiday cottage was kept and suggested that if we ever needed place of sanctuary we could use it. That was a huge comfort – but it also brought home to me just how much power and control over my own life I have – and that many of the folk among whom I work don’t have that luxury. I have a good education and that can’t be taken away from me. I have a loving and supportive family—and friends spread around the world. I have so many choices. Choices which are denied to those around me.

I guess my theological model for ministry is incarnation—which sounds a bit presumptuous. Ultimately, though, Jesus didn’t have the option of walking away, so although there have been many moments when I have been at my wits end – and tempted to despair, I don’t think I have ever really been close to giving up.

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

More: listening. Real listening, open to be changed by the person who is telling you their story.
Less: telling. I am deeply suspicious of certainty.

Is there anything your certain of?

When I was at school, I did O-level physics. I was taught that light travels in straight lines. We did experiments which proved that light travelled in straight lines.

My friends went on to do A-level physics (while I gave up on scientific methodology and went on to study French existentialism!). They told me that in the first week of the A-level course they were told that everything they had been taught so far was wrong. Light travels in waves.

We are now told that light is actually made up of quantum particles which move in an apparently random pattern. That light is bent by gravity and that in theory at least it could be bent so far that it meets itself coming back in time.

The German Romantic poet Rilke wrote:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

That seems a pretty healthy attitude. 

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

Rubem Alves - The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet

I don’t know the book, but great title. Does this reflect the way you’ve seen your ministry in these three words – poet, warrior, prophet? Or maybe is this has what has been required of you in East Manchester?

Neither Alves nor I are big on the warrior bit. At my ordination I chose the Nazareth manifesto from Luke 4. Heather Walton, the preacher, accused me of arrogance in claiming the prophetic mantle for myself—and went on to describe the prophetic task as rightly belonging to the community. So I guess that leaves the poet.

What does being a Baptist minister mean to you?

I am white, male and middle-class. It is easy for me to say that the status of being a Baptist minister sits fairly lightly on me. I am conscious that for many others they feel - rightly or wrongly - that they have had to fight to have their call recognised by our denomination. So I would never dismiss ordination or accreditation.

Nevertheless, I tend to view ministry functionally. I have received certain training and have skills and gifts which the church recognise as necessary for ministry. If, at some time, the church decides that it needs other skills and gifts - or I come to believe that my skills and gifts can better be used outside of the church, then so be it.

So why are you a Baptist? Accident, conviction? Are there things you treasure about the Baptist tradition?

Accident and conviction aren’t mutually exclusive! After several years of avoiding the Baptist church, I actually joined the youth group because of a girl. She dumped me on my first night at church – which I took as a sign that God wanted me there. Over the years, though, I have come to value so much about our tradition. Congregational church government and freedom of conscience under the Holy Spirit would be two aspects that I hold particularly dear. Now that I am a Regional Minister, it does me good to remember that I am not a bishop – and we won’t be repeating a creed on Sunday!

Tell the story of how Openshaw lost their church buildings. How has this changed you and the church?

It’s a VERY long story! I first discussed the possibility of the council acquiring our buildings in about 1999! I was chair of the East Manchester Regeneration partnership and it was already clear that the Toxteth Street estate on which we were located was heading for significant demolition. Our buildings were both in poor condition and not suitable for the kind of church we were developing into. The council agreed to look at resettling us and as the plans developed, our site was included in the plans. Unfortunately, we struggled to find a suitable site. We were, of course, reluctant to invest money in repairs. When the heating packed up, we were quoted £38,000 to install a new system - on a building that had been valued at only £60k and which was scheduled for demolition within eighteen months. Six years later the building was still standing - and we were being instructed by our surveyor and lawyers to keep the building as a ‘going concern,’ otherwise the council would be able to deny us compensation. So for six years we worshiped huddled around a couple of Calor gas heaters (which, if you don’t know, should be avoided at all costs as they throw out vast amounts of moisture into the atmosphere - which brought about other problems wit the building.

Eventually, we gave up on the whole process and decided to spend considerable time bringing the buildings back up to some kind of usable standard. We organised a “work party” weekend which we called “Worship in Wellies.” BU President John Weaver came up to help - as did folk from a number of other churches around the north west. We spent a glorious weekend cleaning the church and throwing out 50 years of accumulated rubbish.

Inevitably, it was that weekend that I received the letter from the Council informing us that they had agreed to pay us “full and equivalent” reinstatement costs through the Compulsory Purchase Scheme - over 10 times what we had previously been offered.

So we now find ourselves as a tiny, homeless church. Which is a real blessing. There is no obligation on us to maintain any of the structures we inherited, but which no longer meet our purposes. We can meet whenever and wherever we want. So there have been Sunday mornings where actually just sitting together and having a cup of coffee has felt a much more appropriate pastoral response than offering public worship. On the other hand, we are able to meet in our local SureStart children’s centre and run a storytelling project one Sunday afternoon per week, drawing in many of the folk who use the centre. We have developed a much closer relationship with our local URC - with whom we are aiming to merge soon. We have also - as a congregation - gone to visit other churches both to learn from what they do, and to share some of our story. This too feels important. As a small church, it is a huge encouragement to us that others feel that we have something to contribute.

Do you think as a result of having no buildings the church is more present and engaged (to steal a phrase from Rev!) now in the community?

Last night we had a meeting with Chris Duffet. He discussed the “Come and Hear” culture as opposed to the “Go and Tell.” He asked us what percentage of our efforts were spent on each. In our case, it was a clear 100% for “Go and Tell!”

Do you miss having a permanent ‘church’ building? Have there been downsides as well as upsides?

Oh yes. We have to work hard to ensure that the community knows the church is still here. And all age worship is made much more complicated by the fact that we have to carry all our resources with us rather than having somewhere to leave them.

Hospitality is at the heart of our mission – but it is not easy to make the unloved feel welcome when we don’t have a building into which to welcome them.

With your co-minister Clare McBeath, you run a website called Dancing Scarecrow full of self-penned prayers that have arisen from your leading of worship. What are the virtues/values of Dancing Scarecrow?

I can’t put it any better than the page on the site:

Here hangs a man discarded,
A scarecrow hoisted high,
A nonsense pointing nowhere
To all who hurry by
Can such a clown of sorrows
Still bring a useful word
Where faith and love seem phantoms
And every hope absurd?

We want to answer Brian Wren’s beautiful question with a resounding “Yes.” God is still active and Jesus Christ is still relevant in the modern world in which we live.

Sadly, it does seem as though much modern worship does not accept even the validity of the question.
Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit are addressed interchangably. They are imaged as “King,” “Lord,” “Saviour,” and occasionally “Brother.” All are, of course, male. They are described as mighty and victorious.
This all has little relevance to our inner city context in one of the most deprived areas of the UK. To speak of God as Father here is to risk conjuring up images of absence, neglect and even violence.
Of course, there aren’t many scarecrows here either! Although if you wander down onto the allotments, you may find one or two dancing in the breeze alongside the dangling CDs and other improvised bird scarers!
We offer Dancing Scarecrow as a resource for any and all who are searching for worship resources that reflect the reality of 21st Century Britain.

We will not shrink away from addressing the pain and horror of our community with a sometimes brutal honesty. We will not use language which excludes on grounds of race, colour, disability, age, gender or sexuality.

We will use humour. We will reflect upon the issues which face us in daily life, whether in our immediate neighbourhood or the wider world. We will draw upon contemporary media and will use images from film, television, novels, popular music, the internet and anything else which takes our fancy.

Our scarecrow dances, blown by the wind as it hangs precariously from a cross. Perhaps the dance is the agonising death throws of crucifixion. Perhaps the dance is the drunken stagger on the way home on a Saturday night. Or the disturbing dance of a woman with schizophrenia driving demons out of buses in the middle of the night. But maybe the dance is the exuberant whirling of a little girl revelling in the sensations of her own body. Or the celebrations of 15,000 home fans at the City of Manchester stadium.

As the Iona Community put it:
Jesus Christ is dancing,
Dancing in the streets,
Where each sign of hatred
He, with love, defeats.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I should triumph too.
On suspicion’s graveyard
Let me dance with you.

How do you see the relationship between church and mission?

To talk of a relationship is to imply that that church and mission are separate entities. A church which does not engage in mission is not a church. A church which exists purely for its own sake is not modelling the self-sacrificing love of Christ - and cannot own the label Body of Christ. Ultimately, therefore, the “institutional” church is called to follow Jesus to the cross and sacrifice its own existence for the salvation of God’s creation. Which is an interesting position for a Regional Minister to take!

Can you tease out a little what you mean by ‘sacrifice its own existence’?

It seems to me that many ‘new church’ initiatives are aimed primarily at reforming and revitalising the church. Surely, this should be, at best, a by-product. The prime purpose of our mission must be the salvation of God’s creation.

If, for example, a church is expending all its energy on maintaining a building, it will not be able to focus on the needs of its community. If, on the other hand, it engages in mission, it may find that the much-loved building is no longer meeting the needs of the community. Ultimately, this may even lead the church to follow Jesus into forms of mission which actually are no longer identifiable as “Church.”

Whilst being a Baptist minister you have also held important roles in the public service ((e.g. the NHS). What impact have these roles had on your ministry?

I remember one occasion when I sat in a board meeting and took a decision about a project which would cost us over £2 million. As I came out of the meeting, I realised that I didn’t have enough money in my pocked for my bus fare home! For a minister of a church with less than a dozen members, it was a huge shift in my thinking to realise that we were having an impact on a far wider scale. 

Tameside Hospital, of which I was chair, serves a patient population of over 250, 000. Working on that scale has undoubtedly brought me skills in terms of governance. Ultimately, I was responsible for around 7,000 staff and a budget of £175 million per annum. You cannot operate on that scale without having systems and processes in place to ensure that your decisions are based on the best possible information. This, in turn, has helped me to develop some of the other projects in which I am involved. Manchester Credit Union, for example, now has over 16,000 members (from 85 when I first got involved). Again, we have to have systems in place to ensure that our members’ money is secure.

On the other hand, of course, I have come to appreciate that, even as the Chair of an organisation, I am only one cog in a much larger machine. Whilst it does my ego good to have a PA who has a pot of coffee on my desk as I arrive in the morning, you soon come to realise that the world does not revolve around you. Since I left the hospital it has not fallen to pieces. I think most ministers would do well to remember that the church is far bigger than they are - and that ultimately, the church belongs to the God who is beyond all human knowing.

Do you think more ministers should seek this kind of public office? A wider question might be what place should the church have within society in terms of education, health, law and order, government?

I don’t believe in a state church. In none of my roles in public office have I been a “representative” of the church. Similarly, I don’t believe that ministers should seek public office merely to be present in society.

However, I would strongly encourage churches to engage with their communities. I have a degree in languages. When I began going to public meetings about the regeneration of our community I found that I was in a unique position to “translate” between the world of the highly paid regeneration officials and the people whom they for the most part wanted to help.

Ministers are often the only “professionals” who actually live in the communities in which they work.

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

How long have you got? I am the kind of person who has twenty ideas before breakfast - all of which are bad ideas. I need others around me to help sift the wheat from the chaff.

One of the projects I helped to establish in the early 2000s was a computer recycling company. We hired the wrong manager and were working in a business in which none of us had any experience. We thought we had a ready made market for refurbished computers - we had another, related project that was putting computers into people’s homes and we offered them a refurbished computer for £30 - or a brand new one for £200. What we had underestimated was that almost everyone chose the brand new option - paid for with a loan from the credit union. The recycling project very quickly collapsed.

Do you see yourself as an evangelist?

I have a gospel to proclaim and am always ready to give account of the hope I have in Christ. That said, the word evangelist has many connotations with which I am not comfortable, so it isn’t a word I ever use.

Does this link back to your suspicion of certainty, and I guess to often too many evangelists seem to have certainty all wrapped up? If that is the case is there the possibility of a different kind of evangelism?

Yes. I think the old liberal v evangelical, social engagement v proclamation distinctions no longer hold the power they used to have.

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

When I arrived in Openshaw - 23 years ago - it was with a clear vision to ‘re-invent’ the church. But it rapidly became clear that one of the main barriers to change was that folk didn’t feel that their history, their achievements over the years were valued. So a lot of our ministry has actually been about helping folk to tell - and celebrate - their tradition, their history, precisely so that they can let go of it and move on.

Are there any ways which were particularly helpful in helping people to tell their history?

Our folk seem to respond more visually. We tried storytelling and asking folk to write personal histories, but that never really took off. But crawling around the floor drawing timelines almost invariably stimulated some amazing conversations.

Where are you most incompetent as a minister?

Pastoral visiting. I’ve never really understood why I was sitting in someone’s front room while they politely wonder why I am there. And I am sure that my discomfort communicates itself to them. Mind you, I remember visiting the same ‘no flamin’ option’ treasurer just before Christmas and being given a large tumbler of whisky. By the end of that visit I was much more relaxed!

I recognise some of that. Does this mean you avoid it by making it someone else’s responsibility, or does it remain an inescapable part of being a minister?

Whilst I will always visit if there is a particular need, the days of spending afternoons routinely visiting members of the congregation have never been part of our church. It was never expected, or wanted.

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

Brian Haymes used to draw a distinction between hope and optimism. I am always hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic. The current situation presents us with huge opportunities to redefine ministry and the church as a whole. In order to do this, though, we have to accept that we are entering Post-Christendom.

Or have we already entered?

I think it is still early days. Many Christians still seem to believe that if we get back to traditional values—or preach the gospel more clearly—or speak with greater certainty, that the church will somehow regain a position of authority in this country.

There is a clear trend away from ‘traditional’ ministry. In the north west at least, the majority of new ministers are now coming through the locally recognised route. As an Urban Expression team leader, I welcome this flexibility. As a Regional Minister, though, I do recognise the challenge which this presents to any kind of national accreditation scheme.
London and the south east feel like another country. Many of the churches in the north of England appear to be in terminal decline. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Unless a seed falls to the ground… However, it presents us with significant challenges in developing denominational structures which are flexible enough to support the new and emerging patterns of church - especially when many of them do not even identify as church! I have been to two Home Mission funded churches recently which spoke proudly of themselves as ‘non-denominational!’

I’m concerned by some of that answer. I guess particular the line about being non-denominational, which seems to ignore the dependence upon the “denomination”. I fear sometimes our rush for the novel means we can be to quick to jettison some of that which makes both ministry and church possible. We need to tell a better narrative of how our institutions are life-giving as well as being admittedly life-restricting. Does any of that resonate?

Entirely. I wasn’t using the example of the ‘non-denominational’ churches positively. Unfortunately, ‘denominational’ seems in many minds to be associated with a focus on the institution over and above the life which it can bring. Whilst there is much that I would like to change about Baptist life, I have, for the most part, been energised by my engagement with its structures.

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

I have been all of these. Antonio Gramsci speaks of the ‘organic intellectual.’ The reflective practitioner who is embedded into the life of her or his community. That doesn’t seem to be a bad metaphor for ministry. The pastoral cycle begins with the experience of life in community, analyses that experience through a broader lens, reflects upon it in the light of Scripture and tradition and moves into transformative action - which, of course, brings further experience with which to begin the cycle again.

I like that, but I wonder if many churches might be suspicious or find threatening the language of ‘intellectual’.

Probably. It is though, crucial that we are honest about who we are. If I pretend to be ‘down wid da kids,’ they will not only rapidly see through me, but will have every reason not to trust me.

I am not suggesting that everyone has to become an academic. We are, though, all called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength and (crucially) with all our minds. We can all develop reflective practice.
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’m not sure what this question means. If by ‘scarcity’ you mean a lack of resources for the church to engage in its mission, then my honest experience has been that money can be found if the project is genuinely worth doing - but you might have to work for it. It is often easier to raise a million pounds than it is to raise a thousand - and you have to understand that funders are not simply going to hand money over for you to do whatever you want with it. My first real experience of funding was going to Manchester City Council with a business plan written on the back of an envelope (actually two sides of A4) to ask for £30,000 over two years. We happened to meet their requirements in terms of outputs and outcomes and walked out of that meeting with £60,000 - because we understood that we had to deliver some of the things that they had to deliver. It was the beginning of a genuine partnership.

If by scarcity, we are talking about personal poverty, then it is all too real. The first time you are faced with the absolute desolation of someone who genuinely has no income and who does not know how they are going to feed their children is a devastating moment. That there are people in twenty first century Britain who are absolutely destitute should be a national scandal. That, as a nation, we offer subsidies to employers through such ‘in work benefits’ as tax credits, which allow them to pay wages too low to live on is an outrage.

Foodbanks, credit unions, money advice and budgeting are all sticking plaster solutions which enable the poor to survive, but which do nothing to address the underlying causes of poverty and injustice. Capitalism, in its present form, is not sustainable. As a Christian, I believe we have a horizon which is able to point us beyond the here and now and to offer alternatives.

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

As a poet, when I write something, I am conscious that I put my meaning into the words, but I am equally conscious that the reader will bring their own context and experience to my words - and thereby change the poem. Each time it is read, it is different. The poet cannot control the meaning of his or her words.
Writing my own obituary feels a bit like a vain attempt to control how (and whether) people remember me.

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

Most churches speak about mission - but mission often seems to be “converting them to become like us.” It seems to me that the missio dei -God’s mission - is actually about empowering people to transcend the limitations of the present age and become all that God wants them to be. That may not look very much like me - which I find challenging.

Have you found that worship transforms people?

Rarely. We bring so much of ourselves to worship. We are strangely reluctant to allow the Holy Spirit, who works in relationship and community, to reveal God to us through the ‘other.’

Does it matter if worship does not transform people?

Can I encounter God without being changed by that encounter?
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?

Are you asking me whether I am “nice?”

It is sometimes necessary to make difficult choices. Occasionally, I have found myself in the situation where the choices I have been presented with have all seemed wrong. Life is not clear-cut and it is sometimes necessary to choose the least bad course of action. I’m not afraid of taking such decisions, but know all too well that this doesn’t necessarily make me popular. The decision to downgrade a hospital may be the right one from all medical and logical perspectives - but people respond with emotion too.

I do believe though, that while part of ministry is about taking such difficult decisions, that must not prevent you from responding pastorally. We may have had a vigorous debate in the church meeting, but we need to move beyond our disagreement. One of my key achievements with the NHS was to move management out of the offices and into the public arena. We had a number of awful public meetings - and I have, on occasion had to be escorted out of buildings by security personnel - but it does feel crucial that we remain accountable for those decisions we take. If - as happened - your loved ones have been let down by the system, it feels only right and proper that I am accountable to you for what has happened.

And there have been times when that has been a very painful experience.

Is social media a blessing or a curse?

No. It is a tool. Like all tools it can be used for good and it can be used for evil.

Reflecting on Ministry (1)

I'm hoping to a post a series of interviews with Baptist ministers over the next few weeks. Here's the first with John Rackley.

John was the minister of Manvers Street Baptist Church in Bath until his retirement earlier this year. Having originally trained for ministry at Regent's Park College, Oxford, he ministered in churches in Cardiff, Great Missenden and Leicester before moving to Bath in 1991. He was President of the Baptist Union in 2003-2004. He is a member of the Baptist Union's Retreat Group and the author of Seeking Faith, Finding God (BRF, 2007). He has recently started blogging here.

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

Discover how to ‘read’ the map of the congregation’s myths, story, preferences, fears and relationship with God and know your own map too.

What led you into ministry?

A need to tell the story of Jesus.

What keeps you going?

The moments when you encounter the ‘new’ whether it is a stranger or in the life of someone you know well. The Holy Spirit is always where there is a growing edge in a person’s life.

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

More confrontation of conflict, less fire-fighting.

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

That is impossible. I have to do it this way:
The 1960s The Cross and the Switchblade David Wilkerson
                 Come out the wilderness Bruce Kenrick
The 1970s The Go-between God John V Taylor
                Soul Friend by Kenneth Leech
The 1980s The Open Church by Jürgen Moltmann
                Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
The 1990s Jesus the new vision by Marcus Borg  
                Community and Growth by Jean Vanier
The 2000s When all you've ever wanted isn't enough by Harold Kushner
                 Justice and only Justice by Naim Ateek
The 2010s Surprised by Hope NT Wright (so far)

What does being Baptist minister mean to you?

Over the first couple decades of my ministry it was a given. It was the tradition into which I had been born and nurtured me. Latterly following increasing involvement (both negative and positive) with the ecumenical movement and the way in which the free-church/non-conformist identity has been eroded in our society; to be a Baptist has meant being non-conformist which involves, dissent, being a problem for clergy-centred churches, an emphasis on the Church meeting and a licence to roam theologically and spiritually.

Mentioning the Church Meeting, what role does a minister play in relation to the Church Meeting?

I used to let deacons chair their meeting but regularly chaired the Members’ Meeting with occasional deacon deputies. My role was to be
1. the memory of the meeting in addition to the minutes;
2. encourage adequate reporting by members and
3.bring forward new initiatives of my own.
In a long ministry 3. increasingly took second place to 2.
Note I tried to break the habit of calling it the CHURCH meeting in an attempt to emphasise the responsibility of members.

Part of the life of Manvers Street Baptist Church is the Open House, which seeks to provide a place of welcome for the city centre. It runs a cafe and hosts a number of different organisations amongst other things. How did it begin and how did this change you and the church?

It was in the planning when I arrived at the church. It was what ‘called’ me to the church. The church wanted to use an empty space beside their premises which would serve the community and assist the outreach of the church. They had developed a partnership relationship with a Night Shelter organisation and we started a youth advice centre with the local authority. These two use three levels of the building. Both are now independent entities. On the other level we built a coffee shop and lounge which is run by the church throughout the week by volunteers. This has two aims: to offer hospitality and promote concerns of social justice and humanitarian care.

We named the entire premises of the church buildings the Open House Centre whilst calling the ‘church’ the sanctuary.

In the early years it provided me with a base from which to engage with city centre agencies and meet the people who live there.

It confirmed my view that ‘church’ cannot be defined by either Sunday gatherings or membership and that the common understanding of ‘church’ amongst Baptists does not suit the city centre well. (See my forthcoming article for the BMF Journal)

I think it gave a majority of the church members and congregation a focus for their commitment to the church with opportunities to serve, raise money, run events, and offer ministries of prayer, listening and faith sharing.

Change for me: far more involved with issues of apologetics, justice-making and noticing the marginal and introduced me to the spirituality of space.

Change for the church: more difficult to say. I think the more people got involved the more they were changed profoundly. But I think a significant minority have either resisted change or not noticed it. 

Change for the experience of the church; a regular number of visitors coming to Sunday worship, some baptisms but probably not as many as was originally wished. There was a too simplistic hope that just to make premises more convenient and relevant would make disciples.

What are the virtues/values of the Open House?

I take that to mean all the enterprises that go on there; thus they include sacrifice, service, fun, hospitality, community and trust.

Were these virtues imprinted on it at the beginning or have they grown through the years? To put it another way, was this intention of the Open House (by design) or was this part of the journey (by accident)?

There was a lot of discovery as we went. I think the experience drew out some of these values/virtues but hospitality and trust were there from the beginning because they were in the nature of the church community which gave birth to the Centre.

It is important to draw your attention to the fact I was describing the outcomes of all the activities and life of the Centre not just what the church did. It is a gathering of people who have very different reasons for being on the premises/using the rooms/ hiring the space/creating the environment of the place. (All these descriptions change the perspective on the use of the property).

How do you see the relationship between church and mission?

A church is mission. Whatever it may do or be because it will in some way bear the name of Christ it will communicate, contact, and demonstrate him. Whether or not that will bear any likeness to the Jesus of the gospels is another matter.

Church is mission therefore it cannot serve itself and claim the description of Christian. The word that is missing in the question is Gospel. Both church and mission serve the Gospel. They are defined by the Gospel.

So what is the gospel in one sentence?

It is a prayer: your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven; in fact I would use the Lord’s Prayer in its liturgical form.

Do you see yourself as an evangelist?


This begs the questions, could a minister, and even a disciple, be anything other?

I responded in this way for two reasons. I resist the need to classify ministries so that a bog-standard pastoral minister can’t be an evangelist because it is a specialisation. And secondly because I don’t like the language and I think it has put off many church people so I will use it but mean something different from what it often means which is middle-aged overweight white men yelling at a claque. My word would be faith-sharing (see above).

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

Preacher; pastor; initiator; spiritual director; faith sharer and event organiser.

Are some of these forced on to you? Are there some bits of ministry that are more ‘job’ than calling? I guess I’m asking how much is ministry shaped by the minister and how much of the ministry is shaped by the church or the community. While I am drawn to Eugene Peterson famous rejection of finance and administration for preaching and pastoral care, it feels impossible to realise in most churches – perhaps because we don’t trust the deacons or church meeting or cannot relinquish the power?

I agree with your last question/answer.
I think the shaping is always a dynamic, a circling, an embracing, a letting-go and a taking up.
I came to ministry to tell the story of Jesus. I am hopelessly a Jesus freak. So I can’t avoid pretending that wherever I am; I am a wanderer; I encounter who I do and seek Christ in the moment. In my first church on an estate I would literally set – aside ‘walkabout’ days when I walk the streets and see who I would meet.

I cannot therefore think of ministry in terms of job either in the particular or the total. It is a life. It is not for everyone and too many have mistaken a sincere love for the Lord for the calling of the Lord to this odd life. It is a calling to an untypical Christian life and this should not be forgotten by congregation or their ministers.

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

Yes. There are possibly three types of church attendee: a. never thinks of mission other than works of charity and getting people to sit in church on Sunday. b. Used to be very involved to one form of mission e.g. Boys Brigade and once that was over could not transfer their energy to anything else. c. Is embarrassed by their church and doesn’t want new comers and certainly not their friends to come.

But I think there are two bottom lines:
One is that too many church goers have a love for the church but have not discovered a love for the Lord; without the latter there can be no mission; the other is that we have lost the ability to speak simply and confidently about what God has done for us in Christ.

This is very helpful analysis, my follow up question, what, if anything, do we do about it?

If I were starting again in a local church I would try to address these issues in these ways:
- Create worship which thrills people with a vision of God
- Place ‘the means of grace’ at the centre of the Church’s pattern
- Create understanding of what is happening in our society
- Teach apologetics and create worship with an apologetic mindset
- Teach and practice faith sharing
- Understand the congregation (see the answer to first question)
- Set up an initiative with myself at its heart which demonstrated good practice, good missiology, based on the apologetical imperative which had gone through a Members ‘Meeting process of discernment and affirmation and persist.i.e. seek out a growing edge.

Meanwhile I would accept people as they are and try to love them but not burden myself in the attempt. It will either happen or it will not. I would also know myself in Christ and so resist the expectations of others – although this is hard to do. And if I feel that I am losing contact with myself I would put in place opportunities to make sure this didn’t continue.

I take ‘in Christ’ to be an experience of koinonia and so would seek to belong to a gathering of God’s people other than the local church which has called me.

Was being the President of the Baptist Union and visiting lots of churches and places something that encouraged you or worried you?

Both in part but my overwhelming feeling was of being welcomed into communities of struggle, longing, frustration, bewilderment, determination and faithfulness.

I’m interested in the language of ‘frustration’ and ‘bewilderment’ – is this new, or is it always there? Are we less confident as churches or perhaps less confident of the UK as place that welcomes Christian presence?

I think the generation that brought me up in the church 50s/early60s would not recognise those two words.

Frustration was often expressed by church leaders and ministers. Bewilderment related to the attitude of society to the Church. Unless people had an ultra Calvinist approach to the society there did seem to be genuine puzzlement that what the church believed was being so rejected. It could be very self-regarding like ‘we’re making our premises available/running this toddler group; the least they could do is come to church i.e. Sunday mornings.

But I think whilst there was the Daily Mail ‘informed’attitude that sees terrorist Muslims on every corner there was a genuine concern that it was different out there now and we can’t be heard and won’t be heard.

The ground as it were was conceded. So less confidence that the UK as a place that welcomes Christian presence created a general lack of confidence in what we believe.

But I think that when the Gospel is at work there is resistance and controversy and for too long in this country it has been taken for granted that to be English is to the Christian. We live in a Genesis 3 world.

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

We attempted to open a ‘meet John Rackley; he’s a minister and will talk to you about anything you want about God’ in a local cafe (after hours). We tried it for two months; no one came. Not failure just ineptness and arrogance.

Failure? There is a school of faith that declares that for Christians there is no such thing as either failure or success only trust and sacrifice.

I ask the question, because it seems we struggle as churches and as a Union to present a story other than one of successes.

I agree totally. I think this arises from a principle of the evangelical disposition which is a spirituality of arrival. We know. We are there. We know whom we have believed. We are more than on a journey we are at the destination. ‘He is Lord'.

As often happens we have taken over the language; in this case ‘journey etc’ but not the spiritualities that created it i.e. Franciscan, 2 Corinthians Paul, Hebrew Exile Community, Celtic, Mennonite They are about dead-ends, turning around (repentance) cross carrying and sacrifice.

I also think the context in which we tell our stories encourages the latest success approach where it is felt necessary to give God the glory (but really it is very close to giving ourselves a pat on the back).

There is also something about being human here. We only open up to people whom we trust and have a ‘covenant ‘relationship. This cannot be engineered.

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

Ministry, church, mission are held within tradition. It is their bed, stream, back-story, identity. There are different traditions.

If you mean traditionalism than I would say too much in each of them. Traditionalism is a holding on to what was once a good thing but can no longer be the vehicle of the Gospel. It is what you most value and are not prepared to release for the greater good and further work of God; when you have discovered that you have discovered your traditionalism. Examples: the ‘preaching’ centre church; mission that is entirely centred on children’s’ work; different types of church furnishing; inaccurate church rolls with no satisfactory review practice, certain types of doctrinal language, the Platonic background to both Pauline and Johannine theology.

I am increasingly decided that the Baptist form of church has no suitable form of mission that suits the contexts of today. So what needs to change?

Can you tease this out a little more?

The Baptists churches arose as a response to an internal church disagreement. They re-ordered themselves in way which they believed was more true to God and the relationship of the Church to the State. There was no mission beyond that. They broadly subscribed to the orthodox beliefs of Christians of that time and lived within the Christendom model.
By and large they still do.

Whatever meaning one places on the word ‘post-Christendom or post-Christian’ society (see Rowan Williams' response to David Cameron's comments about Britain as a Christian country) Baptist Churches seem to be going along with the changing scene without any mission strategy other than ‘they know where we are, we will make sure they know by doing community-centred things, they will come if they want to’.

But going beyond such a jaundiced view let’s assume that a congregation wants each person and the ‘peoples’ of their local community to know the Gospel (i.e. know and live the Lord’s Prayer) now what?
I think the congregation will know one of the problems their type of church gives to people. It is the notion of membership or the ‘gatheredness’ of a local Baptist church. So what to do? 

I go with the analysis that the current scene requires of churches two types of gathering: The ‘occasion’ (Carol Services) and the ‘Supporters Trusts’ ie. ‘called to a purpose’; explained terms of belonging; different levels of meeting; annual review.

In others words people do sign up for a commitment if it is clear what it will cost and what it is for e.g. rescuing a football club; building a scout hut, joining the Iona Community (who offer three levels of commitment to the same Rule- member, associate and friend).

So in contradiction to what I am apparently saying I think our notion of ‘Membership’ is an effective mission-feature if we would make it more demanding and at the same time easier to step back from.

I think Moltmann’s The Open Church spells it out for me. In my language: at the centre is the means of grace to which everyone is in some sort of relationship and around that centre there are a series concentric rings which have no boundary and provide people with a place to strand and belong with others. ’Membership’ expressed in terms I have is just one of those rings.

The minister moves through them as does Christ!!!

Where are you most incompetent as a minister?

When people tell me that they want to see but won’t tell me what it is about – this can completely unnerve me and deskills me in the subsequent conversation. In recent times I refuse to be treated like that and ask for an indication of what they were concerned about.

My prayer life.

Forgetting to say: that’s a good idea but let’s give it some thought and see what others think.

Not checking that people are doing what they said they would do.

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

Although I have been drawn into discussions about these two futures recently it is not a question that comes naturally to me. Where does the future start and end? I listen to the prognostications and observe individuals and groups seeking to anticipate the various paradigm shifts that are meant to be upon us. But I cannot say which will endure.

So I cannot be hopeful about what I cannot see but I do see signs of hope:
Covenant language;
Preparation for bi-vocational ministry;
Smaller more community-like churches;

I also see signs of decline:
The Union becoming a federation of independent associations to the neglect of the churches and the ministers.
Too many ministers becoming community workers to the neglect of other expressions of Gospel ministry.

Is the pressure to become community workers a loss of a (non-conformist) priestly presence? To put it another way, we’ve lost sight of what it means to be a minister of word and sacrament, or perhaps, it is recognition that as ministers we’ve been too ‘church-focused’?

I think the latter is often given as the reason. Ministers feel that as the church hasn’t the people who can do this they must but they must be wary. What is their motivation really? Is it avoiding the dullness of ministry? Is it avoiding the discomfort of being set-aside to do what is often and hurtfully disparaged within the church, which is the Word & Sacrament style of ministry?

Your comment on the ‘priestly presence’ of the congregation is important. The ‘priesthood of every believer’ needs re-affirmation. But not in the individualistic way in which it is has been used in recent times. Nor with ‘ministry’ used as a substitute for ‘priesthood’; this gives the functional view of ministry too much precedence. Our first mothers and fathers knew exactly what they were doing when they called on this priesthood to define the gifting and calling of the local congregation. It was an act of defiance to the priest in whose parish they met – dissident, radical and obstreperous.

Questions of finance (not surprisingly) have 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?

- have clear reasons for the request for the money
- be prepared to cut back on what has not created a disciple in the past five years
- do not become oppressed by the apparent success of what is happening along the road
- support/nurture the Treasurer

The Anglican priest Sam Wells says he writes his obituary every couple of years. If you could write your own what would it say?

He’s obviously read ‘God of Surprises’. I think it is an exercise of self-indulgence. One should neither know your obituary; nor write it; it won’t be accurate anyway. It is not for us to have the last word or not even a long-distance penultimate one about ourselves. Death creates a focus which we cannot anticipate. The reflection in John 15-16 suggests that even Jesus needed to be absent before the disciples really could receive a true perspective on what was going on.

What Sam Wells was suggesting I think is that we need to consider our faith journey in the light of our mortality; that is important and correct.

Have you found that worship transforms people?

Yes; but not necessarily in the big occasions or by the standout sermon. There is a transformation that can arise when it is the pastor who preaches. They are known and trusted and they know for whom they preach. The Spirit works at a level too for words but through words travels deep into the spirit of another person. I think also thoughtful choice of visiting ministers can bring in that transformation because their ‘new voice’ speaks to a situation that is ready for them.

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?

It does not trouble me sufficiently and no, I have not been able to resist it.

Is social media a blessing or a curse?

A blessing.

Thank you John.

A drop in the number of women Regional Ministers - 2010-2014

This week two Associations of the Baptist Union announced new Regional Ministers. In both Associations  women Regional Ministers have been replaced with men. (Regional ministers are those who exercise ministerial oversight over a group of churches within an Association. Typically Baptists have recognise the need for translocal ministry, but have done little theological reflection and/or articulation of what this ministry is*.) There are 13 Associations.

In 2010 there were 8 women Regional Ministers, of which 2 were "Team Leaders" (there were 26 male regional ministers). Four years later there are now 5 women Regional Ministers, of which 1 is a "Team Leader" (and 27 male regional ministers). From 23% of Regional Ministers being women in 2010, it's dropped to 15%. During 2010-2014, there have been 10 new Regional Ministers of which only 2 have been women. In 2010 7 of the Associations had women Regional Ministers, in 2014 there are now only 4 Associations with women Regional Ministers.

I am making no comment of the suitability or capability of those men who have become Regional Ministers. I know several of them, and they are excellent ministers. I am wondering why it hasn't been possible to appoint more women into these roles. Is it because they have decided not to apply? Is it because they have applied, but not been chosen? Is it a failure of Associations to positively seek women in these roles? Does this reflect that the Union's commitment to women in ministry (and leadership) is not a key priority/concern within Associations? Is it because the job descriptions for Regional Ministry are "male-orientated"? 


* See Stuart Murray (ed.), Translocal Ministry (Baptist Union, 2004) for one attempt to offer a basis for translocal ministry amongst Baptists.

An attempt to explain British Baptist ecclesiology in light of recent statement on sexuality

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).