I attended the Baptist Assembly this year as a representative of St David’s Uniting Church. The Assembly is a great gathering of Baptists from all parts of Britain. It is the official annual meeting of the Baptist Union, the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS World Mission) and various other Baptist organisations.
This year sees a change in the administration of the Union. The General Secretary, the Rev Jonathan Edwards, is retiring, and the Assembly bade farewell to him and approved the appointment of the Rev Lynn Green as his successor. This will be the first time a woman has held this office.
However, business as such is only a small part of it: it is mainly a kind of convention to inform and inspire us: a time of worship, Bible study, discussions and of course meeting up with friends. Part of the pleasure for me was to meet people from every one of the churches where I have worked as a minister, and to attend the Reunion of the College where I trained – wondering what happened to all the interesting old characters who used to come to these occasions, and realising that I am probably now one of them!
This year’s Assembly was at the Norbreck Castle Hotel in Blackpool. About 2000 people gathered in the great hall for the main sessions and in various other rooms for seminars and informal meetings, and wandered around the numerous exhibition stalls.
The worship in the plenary sessions was very high-tech and lively, if at times a bit loud. I am sure it was appreciated by the many young people who were there and by those from some of the black-led charismatic churches that have recently joined the Baptist Union. However, there was a fair sprinkling of hymns that could be enjoyed by us oldies too. One night we had a great rendering of ‘Here is love vast as the ocean’, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t resist singing it in Welsh!
There were so many things happening that I can’t tell you about all of them. I didn’t have the stamina to go to all of them anyway. I shall just mention a few of the highlights.
Visitors from other countries brought some colour and challenge to the Assembly. Dr Ray Monze, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Zimbabwe, gave a very honest picture of the situation in his country and made us realise how blessed we are in Britain, and the wonderful way in which Christians in Zimbabwe are not only holding onto their faith in the midst of suffering and persecution but living joyfully. The main Bible studies were on Philippians, the letter Paul wrote while in prison, and it added a note of realism to be listening to someone who has so recently shared that experience.
Another visitor was Ben Franklin, an Indian of small stature and incredible energy who told us about how he and his friends were planting hundreds of new churches in Indian villages. At a late evening session he was fairly successful in teaching us a few simple choruses in Bengali.
An important part of the Assembly this year was the attention given to issues around sexuality.
We have all heard about the fierce debates going on in the Anglican Communion. This sort of thing has not happened in the Baptist churches because we are not a centralised or hierarchical church that can, or that needs to, make decisions binding on everybody. We are a union of local churches who govern themselves and each act according to their own conscience. But what this means in practice is that controversial issues are usually not talked about in case of upsetting people. The Baptist Union Council this year made the brave decision to bring the issue to the Assembly. There was a seminar at which a hundred or more people heard the personal stories of gay men, lesbians and others who for various reasons have got involved in the issues around sexuality. Then there was a plenary session in which we were invited to break up into small groups to discuss the Church’s attitude to same-sex relationships.
Naturally there is deep disagreement, and many Baptists struggle with the interpretation of Scripture on this issue, but my experience was that the whole session was marked by a spirit of graciousness and mutual respect, and I was surprised at how many Baptists are moving in the direction of the acceptance of faithful, loving same-sex relationships. There was a particularly strong feeling of how tragic and wrong it is that so many gay and lesbian people feel that there is no place for them in the Christian Church. In true Baptist fashion, no resolution was brought forward for a vote. It’s a case of ‘watch this space’!
contributed by Ray Vincent.