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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on the Statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

40 Days of Baptism: 34

I offer today 3 pictures of the baptism of Jesus. 

Baptism_of_christ_from_a_gospel_t_shirt-rd68af25931c04965b4ae3faf4c38d9d2_imtb4_1024This pictures comes from 1330, it is from an Armenian Cathedral in Iran. It also appears on the front cover of Curtis Freeman's Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists (Baylor, 2015).  Baptism-of-christ-1450(1) 













This is Piero Della Francesca's painting from 1450 and can be seen in the National Gallery, London.   














 The River 2

This painting is called 'The River' and is by John August Swanson (1987). At the bottom is Jesus being baptised and then above are all these other persons using the river.

40 Days of Baptism: 33

Will Willimon tells a story of baptism.

Once upon a time I went out to a small rural church to baptize a twelve-year-old boy whom a pastor had been instructing in the faith. I was happy to oblige until the pastor said, “Jeremy very much wants to be immersed. Can you do that?”

“Er, uh, sure. I can do that,” I said, unwilling to admit that I had rarely baptized anyone by immersion.

I arrived at the church that Sunday morning, and sure enough, there was the pastor standing on the front steps of the little church with a small boy.

“Jeremy, this is the bishop,” the pastor said proudly. “It’s an honor for you to be baptized by the bishop.”

Young Jeremy looked me over and said only, “They tell me you don’t do many of these. I’d feel better if we had a run-through beforehand.”

“That was just what I was going to suggest,” I said.

We went into the church’s fellowship hall where the pastor showed me their newly purchased font, dressed up by a carpenter in the congregation, surrounded by pots of flowers. Jeremy said, “After you say the words, then you take my hand and lead me up these steps, and do you want me to take off my socks?”

“Er, uh, you can leave them on if you want,” I said.

Well, we had a wonderful service that Sunday. I preached on baptism, the choir sang a baptismal anthem then the whole congregation recessed into the fellowship hall and gathered around the font. I went through the baptismal ritual. Then I asked Jeremy if he had anything to say to the congregation before his baptism.

“Yes, I do. I just want to say to all of you that I’m here today because of you. When my parents got divorced, I thought my world was over. But you stood by me. You told me the stories about Jesus. And I just want to say to you today thanks for what you did for me. I intend to make you proud as I’m going to try to live my life the way Jesus wants.”

Though I’m now weeping profusely (Jeremy asked, as I led him up the steps into the pool, “Are you going to be OK?”), I baptized Jeremy and the church sang a great “Hallelujah!”

Baptism is God’s word in water that saves. Not that the church necessarily says that we are saved by this ritual, but rather baptism gathers up all the meanings of Christian salvation and demonstrates those in word and water. The dying-rising dynamic that is signified in baptism is at the heart of salvation in Christ. The church promises that this has happened to you, is happening, will happen to you in your salvation.

William H. Willimon, Who Will Be Saved? (Abingdon, 2008), pp.29-30

40 Days of Baptism: 32

Flannery O’Connor's short novel The River is a shocking story, in which a baptism lies at the centre. Below is the extract of Harry Ashfield's baptism in the river.

“Listen to what I got to say, you people!  There ain’t but one river and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’s blood.  That’s the river you have to lay your pain in, in the River of Faith, in the River of Life, in the River of Love, in the rich red river of Jesus’ blood, you people! …. All the rivers come from that one River and go back to it like it was the ocean sea and if  you believe, you can lay your pain in that River and get rid of it because that’s the River that was made to carry sin.  It’s a River full of pain itself, pain itself, moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow, you people, slow as this here old red water river around my feet.”

“If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ.  You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life.  Do you want that?”

“Yes,” the child said, and thought I won’t go to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.

“You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said.  “You’ll count.”….

Suddenly the preacher said, “All right, I’m going to Baptize you now,” and without more warning, he tightened his hold and swung him upside down and plunged his head into the water.  He held him under while he said the words of Baptism and then he jerked him up again and looked sternly at the gasping child.

[The child’s] eyes were dark and dilated.  “You count now,” the preacher said.

“You didn’t even count before.”

Flannery O’Connor, The River in A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955)

40 Days of Baptism: 31

Another short reading of baptism, this time from the theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The book Nachfolge, from which today's quotation can be found, was published in German in 1937, in the years of Nazi government of Germany. 

Baptism thus implies a break. Christ invades the realm of Satan and lays hold of those who belong to him thereby creating his church-community. Past and present are torn asunder. The old has passed away, all things have become new. The break does not come about by our breaking our chains out of an unquenchable thirst to see our life and all things ordered in a new and free away. Long ago, Christ himself has already bought about that break. In baptism this break now also takes effect in our own lives.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (SCM, 2015 [1937, ET= 1948]), p.170.

40 Days of Baptism: 30

 Marilynne Robinson is regarded as one of the greatest living novelists, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for her novel Gilead. The novel should be required reading for everyone going into church ministry. Gilead has been followed by two sequels - Home and Lila, which explore the same events of Gilead, but from the perspective of a different character. Gilead tells the story of a congregationalist pastor called John Ames. In this section of the novel, Ames remember when, as a child, he once baptised a litter of cats! (There is another baptism scene in Lila as well.)

 Now, this might seem a trivial thing to mention, considering the gravity of the subject, but I truly don’t feel it is… Once we baptized a litter of cats. They were dusty little barn cats just steady on their legs, the kind of waifish creatures that live their anonymous lives keeping the mice down and have no interest in humans at all, except to avoid them. But the animals all seem to start out sociable, so we were all pleased to find new kittens prowling out of whatever cranny their mother had tried to hide them in, as ready to play as we were… I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula.

Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a great deal. So finally I asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it. He replied that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning, though, and I did no more baptizing until was ordained.

Two or three of that litter were taken home by the girls and made into fairly respectable house cats. Louisa took a yellow one. She still had it when we were married. The others lived out their feral lives, indistinguishable from their kind, whether pagan or Christian no one could ever tell. She called her cat Sparkle, for the white patch on its forehead. It disappeared finally… One of the boys said she should have named it Sprinkle. He was a Baptist, a firm believer in total immersion, which those cats should have been grateful I was not. He told us no effect at all could be achieved by our methods, and we could not prove him wrong…

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time…

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (Virago Press, 2004), pp. 25-27.


40 Days of Baptism: 29

Today's story of baptism is from Robert Webber reflecting on what brought him to baptism. The son of a Baptist pastor, Webber wrote a lot about worship and especially how the worship practices of the past might be important for the church of the future.

At the age of twelve, I was sitting in the kitchen eating a snack when my father pulled up a chair, sat down beside me, and looking me in the eye said, 'Robert, don't you think it is time to be baptised?' I had not given a great deal of thought to being baptised. I was a Christian, to be sure. I grew up in a strict Christian home, and while my faith was the faith of the family, I had not doubt or disbelief. Still, I found my father's question to be haunting, even challenging. for the first time in my life I was asked to affirm the faith that was mine by family environment. The question raised doubt in my mind. Was this a faith I could personally embrace? I was only twelve, so the level of doubt and the quality of my questions were superficial. After a time of personal reflection I said to my father, "I want to be baptised."

I don't remember receiving any training before baptism. I think I saw baptism as my affirmation of my faith. Though baptism was taken seriously, that particular community seemed to have little understanding of how life-changing baptism could really be. So coming to baptism in the Montgomery Baptist Church in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania, was important, but it was not nearly as significant as the Scriptures teach and as ancient Christians practiced when they baptism reveals the daily pattern of the spiritual life.

I do not recall everything surrounding the event. I do remember one very powerful question my father, the pastor, asked me as we stood in the water. "Robert," he said, "do you reject the devil and all his works?" I was only twelve. I did not even know all the works of the devil! Even though my dad had not reviewed this question with me, I knew what my answer was supposed to be, so I said, "I do!" not really knowing what that meant in the full sense. I certainly did not realise that I was renouncing my connection with fallen Adam and the cultures of fallenness and embracing union with Jesus and a pattern of life revealed in his life.

Robert W. Webber, The Divine Embrace: Rediscovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (Baker, 2006), p.183.

Baptists Reflecting again on Same Sex Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

40 Days of Baptism: 28

Today's musing on baptism comes from David Ford, who was until last year Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. The paragraph below comes from his little book The Shape of Living, which was the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent book in 1997.

Baptism is the clearest Christian testimony to the fundamental and inescapable reality of being overwhelmed. It is the basic event of Christian identity. Those of us who are baptized have taken on an identity shaped by the overwhelmings of creation, death, resurrection and the Holy Spirit. We have also entered a community that spans generations and relates us to many who have died, as well as to perhaps two billion people alive today who are identified as Christians. This is being overwhelmed by people; but it does not stop with the Christian community because Jesus Christ faces in love the four billion or so others too.

David F. Ford, The Shape of Living (Canterbury, 2012 [1997]), p.23.

40 Days of Baptism: 27

I love this evocative paragraph from Michael Jinkins, which was sent to me this week by Doug Gay, and so I have found way to include it.

We are soaked to the skin in the death of Christ. Our union with Christ drips from us. We never "get over" this immersion; this drowning in Christ's death marks us daily; it marks us out, "names" us to the world and to one another as "children of God"; we are shipwrecked, run aground on the death of Christ; we trail wet footprints of this drenching wherever we go; we never dry off. Baptism is the continental divide, the absolute division in the topography of Christian existence: "we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" Romans 6.4). And in this way, baptism is set as a seal upon our hearts for a love strong as death, and as the sign of our paradoxical existence in Christ, our lostness to ourselves, which is also our salvation because it consists in our being called to die in Christ.

Michael Jinkins, The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology in a Post-Modern Context (Oxford, 1999), p.23.