Sunday to Sunday, 28 Feb to 7 March
It will take a while to process all that happened last weekend! As most of you know, there was a Special Assembly of the Baptist churches of NSW and ACT to discuss motions that had been brought by five members churches; Campbelltown, Castle Hill, Chatswood, Newtown and Wollongong. The wording of the motions changed in the days leading up to Saturday (and changed again on the day) but what was passed, by roughly 60%, on both motions was the following:
Motion 1: With Regard to Churches
That Assembly affirm in principle that continued support for the basic doctrines, objects and core values of the Association should be an ongoing requirement for Affiliation, and request that the Assembly Council bring to a future Assembly recommendations on:
- Any Constitutional amendments necessary to make that explicit,
- A process for churches to give periodic reaffirmation of the basic doctrines, objects, and core values (no less frequently than 5 yearly), and
- A suitable process to apply Section 17.5 (a) of the Constitution in circumstances where a church no longer meets such requirements.
Motion 2: With Regard to Churches
Assembly affirms that accredited ministers are required to subscribe to the basic doctrines, objects and values of the Association as defined in the Constitution and requests that Assembly Council bring to the next Ordinary Assembly a proposal to require annual confirmation of this as part of Continuing Ministerial Development.
These motions have caused great concern across the Baptist churches (evidenced by those who signed the letter I distributed last week). They are seen as fundamentally changing the identity of the Baptist church; going against liberty of conscience (the right to form and express a view based on the authority of Scripture that differs from that of others) and the autonomy of the local church (the right of each church to act and think independently and make its own decisions without being subject to other authorities). I have included at the bottom of this leader a statement made by the leadership at Ashfield Baptist Church prior to Saturday and they put it this way:
We very strongly believe that we should reject the authoritarian motions that are being presented…. [that] we should thus maintain the status quo in our decision-making, that is, that each local church … is an autonomous unit and not only has the clear right under the direction of the Holy Spirit to exercise its own decision-making power over its functions, but indeed has a clear responsibility under God to do so. When we accept this right of autonomy for the local church, it also informs our on-going relationship with the Association, as one of mutual respect, support and guidance, and not one of authoritarian centralized direction. And that is how we believe it should be.
What will happen now?
No one is entirely certain. Even though these motions have been passed, strong opposition remains. According to the Association, Assembly Council will now progress these matters and there will be more communication during the year – particularly at the September Assembly.
So that we at Canberra Baptist Church can continue to respond thoughtfully and faithfully to any developments, I want to invite you to a monthly conversation on ‘What it means to be Baptist’ (#BeBaptist). The first of these conversations will begin (on Zoom) on Sunday, 14th March. This is the usual ‘Sundays at 6’ discussion night, and seems an appropriate place this important conversation (we will announce a new starting time to accommodate it as well).
Also on the weekend, those of us who gathered for the 4th ‘Sundays at 6’ of the month, The text that changed my life, heard Martin Maneedul Cowling, who attended our church for a number of years, tell his incredibly powerful story of being called to faith and continuing to desire Christian community despite being asked to leave 16 churches (ours was not one of them!) on account of his sexuality. Those of us who were there asked him, if he could, to tell this story again, so we could invite more people to hear it. It is an incredible story of faithful faith.
So please put Sunday 28th in your calendar now (and we may start at a different time for this too) so we can take time to hear Martin’s story (and the story of so many others), to grieve for his rejections by the church and to celebrate the tenacity of his faith.
For that reason, after speaking to Paul Falconer (who is leading worship for us this Sunday), I have included the final words songwriter Shirley Murray wrote for her hymn, For everyone born a place at the table in our final hymn this Sunday. I’ve also included them below, and while I recognise welcoming and affirming LGBTIQ people is a contentious issue, one we have wrestled with it in our church and now across the denomination, I know that in standing against these motions we are responding to the movement of the Spirit of God. We are joining with the early church council in Jerusalem that also had to wrestle with contentious issues, and in the end responded, “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”
For gay and for straight, a place at the table,
a covenant shared, a welcoming space,
a rainbow of race and gender and colour,
for gay and for straight, the chalice of grace,
and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice and joy!
Words by Shirley Murray © 1998 Hope Publishing Company, 380 S Main Pl, Carol Stream, IL 6018
Grace and peace,
PS Please read Ashfield Baptist’s letter below:
Introduction and Background.
Over a year ago, five of our Baptist churches began a process to lock-in a denominational response on the issue of same-sex marriage and there followed a series of conversations among NSW Baptists around the state that is culminating in a special Assembly on Saturday 27 February to consider and vote on a group of motions submitted by those churches in accordance with appropriate procedures. The nature of the proposals, the way in which they have been presented and the implications for us and other Baptist churches have the potential to be both controversial and divisive and so in this statement, we have attempted to summarize what we see as the core issues and how we believe the matter should be addressed by the Assembly…
The five churches have sought to affirm the “Baptist position” of marriage as being only between a man and a woman and, if the motions are adopted, they aim to lock the denomination into that specific position and to expose any church or pastor who publicly contradicts it to sanctions, namely “disassociation” in the case of churches or “de-accreditation” in the case of pastors. Without going into any of the micro-detail, the various motions to be presented to the Assembly on February 27 are aimed to give effect to that process and essentially to make compliance with the “approved position” mandatory for our churches. The key then becomes whether this single issue (or any other single issue) should require the Association to effectively throw out any church or pastor that doesn’t hold to it.
Why we should be concerned. Because the proposed process, complete with sanctions for non-compliance, can be seen as the beginnings of a fundamental change in the way in which we as Baptists deal with any controversial and potentially divisive issues of our day. Today, the debate is being driven by same-sex marriage… but there are many other issues on which we Baptists hold differing views and for the most part, agree to differ with one another respectfully and accommodating of our differences. But tomorrow, or next month, or next year, it could be another issue; the role of women in ministry, creation science and theology, open membership, authenticity of scripture and Biblical interpretations, to name just a few. And the model that is being proposed on 27 February could just as easily be used to force through acceptance of views on these and other issues that may not be universally shared, to enforce conformity and quell any form of dissent or informed discussion. Churches and pastors could find themselves being sanctioned on all kinds of issues for nothing more than expressing a differing but honestly held opinion (freedom of conscience). We do not believe that this is “the Baptist way”, and in itself, this cuts across two other absolutely key principles which have underpinned Baptist ministry down the ages, firstly “the freedom of conscience” and secondly “the autonomy of the local church”. Let’s consider and unpack that a bit further…
The debate this month purports to be about same-sex marriage and the “traditional” Christian view of marriage as being between a man and a woman, but the reality is that the motions go far beyond being simply a referendum of the same-sex marriage issue. The adding of sanctions as a means of enforcing compliance with a particular view takes us right to the heart of the core values of freedom of conscience (the right to form and express a view that differs from your peers) and autonomy of the local church (the right of each church to act and think independently and make its own decisions without being subject to any centralized authority). And by extension beyond that, it calls into question the whole decision-making relationship between local churches and the Association, whether we are a local entity making our own decisions, making our own appointments and managing our resources according to our constitution and the decisions of our members, or just an arm of “head office’, here to toe the party line, being told what we can do and think, when and how.
On the one hand, we have the current and ‘traditional” position that each individual Baptist church is responsible for making its own decisions and policies on how it operates in accordance with its own constitution. In this scenario, the Association serves as a loose grouping of like-minded autonomous entities with a role primarily of mutual help, support and guidance. The Association has no authoritarian role in telling churches what to do or how to think, even less a role in sanctioning those who do not conform to some central policy directive. It is our view that this current situation as it has evolved over time is what has enabled each Baptist church to develop its own unique character and specific values and identity, whilst also recognizing and celebrating the diversity of its membership and their various faith journeys.
However, the proposal before the Assembly takes away this sense of autonomy and replaces it with an alternative scenario where a group of Baptists from one or more churches can persuade or enforce a particular policy or set of policies through the governing processes (the Assembly or General council) quite possibly from a minority position, and having succeeded in having the ruling adopted, can then enforce that particular practice on the denomination as a whole, and potentially against the wishes of other congregations and church leaders. It is a scenario which also by definition encourages conformity, not diversity; legalism not freedom. Furthermore, the promotion of sanctions against churches or pastors for non-compliance then introduces a whole new realm of authoritarianism, potential bullying, and centralized control – all of which flies directly in the face of our historic Baptist principles. There is a very real fear that such a regime will be likely to lead to a considerable increase in the numbers of people, both clergy and lay, female and male, leaving the Baptist denomination for other places where freedoms of conscience are still valued and preserved.
We are not advocating any position on the same-sex marriage issue per se. Individuals will have their own views. But this is really little more than a catalyst to the much bigger issue in play here. We very strongly believe that we should reject the authoritarian motions that are being presented and by voting in the negative, we should thus maintain the status quo in our decision-making, that is, that each local church including Ashfield Baptist is an autonomous unit and not only has the clear right under the direction of the Holy Spirit to exercise its own decision-making power over its functions, but indeed has a clear responsibility under God to do so. When we accept this right of autonomy for the local church, it also informs our on-going relationship with the Association, as one of mutual respect, support and guidance, and not one of authoritarian centralized direction. And that is how we believe it should be.
Leadership Team, Ashfield Baptist Church