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.