British Baptists take a step foward on sexuality – but need to go a lot further

Ministers in the Baptist Union of Great Britain who bless same-sex partnerships will no longer be disciplined for doing so if they have the support of their local church. I think this is brilliant news.

The news has been misreported in some places, with the decision being overstated as a sudden change of Baptist attitudes to same-sex marriage. However, the Baptist Union’s own spokespeople are downplaying the news, implying that they’ve just made a minor tweak to the regulations. To me, this seems to understate the significance of this development.

To be clear: I’m no expert on the Baptist Union of Great Britain and I’m still struggling to understand just what has happened. The key point to grasp is that Baptists believe strongly in the autonomy of the local church. The Baptist Union is not a church in the same way as the Methodist Church and the Church of England. Rather it is a union of churches.

As Stephen Keyworth, the Union’s team leader for Faith and Society, put it in a recent interview with Adrian Warnock, “The supreme authority in all things is the person of Christ, as revealed in scripture, discerned in community, through the power of the Holy Spirit… each church has liberty to discern that for themselves. This is the basis by which churches belong and function within our union.”

Because a lot of Baptists are passionately committed to this structure, there are Baptists who do not personally endorse same-sex relationships but who believe in the right of each local church to make its own decisions on the matter.

Despite this, many Baptists ministers have until recently feared that they would be disciplined for blessing same-sex partnerships. Some seem to be claiming that the position was unclear and that the Baptist Union was merely clarifying things. I am not convinced by this, as I know of Baptist ministers who have feared for their jobs after effectively blessing same-sex partnerships in secret.

I must thank Adrian Warnock for asking lots of questions to the Baptist Union’s Stephen Keyworth and thus getting some answers about what’s going on.

Keyworth said:

“First I need to correct you, there was no decision made last weekend. What happened was a very small part of a very long, thorough and prayerful journey… We are not a denomination that makes central decisions and policy – we discern the Mind of Christ through the prayerful deliberations of His people gathered together in church meetings.

“On this issue, over the last year or so we have encouraged churches, minsters and associations to engage in conversations through a whole series of approaches, and what was offered last Saturday, was a very simple update from the Baptist Steering group – which in essence said to the wider Baptist Community – this is what we believe to be your view on this matter.  This is what we think we have heard.”

This answer suggests that the Steering Group discerned that most people within the Union wanted ministers and churches to be allowed to follow their differing consciences on the subject and therefore made clear that ministers would not be automatically disciplined for blessing same-sex partnerships. This is fair enough. Nonetheless, there are two ways in which I find the statements of Baptist Union spokespeople to be highly questionable.

Firstly, there is Stephen Keyworth’s insistence that “no decision was made last weekend”. This is not really believable. The steering group may have been responding to what they discerned to be going on within the Union as local churches discerned the mind of Christ. But in doing so, they made a decision. They changed – or at the very least, clarified – the regulations concerning ministerial discipline.

However much they try to play it down this is potentially very significant for Baptist ministers who want to affirm loving same-sex partnerships, as well as for gay and bisexual Baptists who want their relationships to be blessed in their own church.

Of course, it does not go nearly far enough for those of us who wish to see equality in Christian churches.

This leads on to the second problem. At the same time as saying that Baptist ministers would not be disciplined, the Baptist Union reaffirmed “the traditionally accepted biblical understanding of Christian marriage, as a union between a man and a woman, as the continuing foundation of belief in our Baptist Churches”.

I find it hard to see how this could not be contradictory. More worryingly still, the Baptist Union still maintains that its ministers are required to follow guidelines that state that “a sexual relationship outside of Christian marriage (as defined between a man and a woman) is deemed conduct unbecoming for a minister”.

So it seems that ministers can bless same-sex partnerships but not enter such a partnership themselves. This is an incoherent position (reminiscent of the sort of baffling compromises adopted by the Church of England).

Furthermore, it remains very unclear what will happen if a Baptist church wants to go further and carry out a legally recognised same-sex marriage. The legislation allowing same-sex marriages in English and Welsh churches seems to say that the national body of a religious organisation has to apply for permission to hold them. As I pointed out when the legislation was going through Parliament, this would rule out an individual local church applying for permission, even in a denomination such as the Baptists in which authority has always been located in local congregations.

This week’s news does not indicate a sexual revolution in the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It does not mean that Baptist ministers and churches are truly free to make their own decisions about loving sexual relationships. But it is a far more significant step forward than some seem to think. The chance to celebrate your love in the context of worship is not a minor thing, and I’m sorry that anyone should imply that it is.

During his interview, Stephen Keyworth said, “I’m tired of speaking about sexuality and its complexities when what I would like to do is tell the world about Jesus. I’d like us to be known as spirit-filled and spirit-led communities who are able to make a difference in the world living as disciples of Jesus Christ.”

I can understand Keyworth’s frustration. But I’m sure he would agree that following Jesus in our daily lives has a deep effect on our relationships. This includes relationships with friends, colleagues, enemies, and strangers as well as sexual relationships. We can’t avoid talking about them by talking about Jesus. Those of us who believe that Christ has freed us from the law to live by love will keep resisting regulations and structures that prevent this from happening.

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