Last Friday the Council of the Baptist Union of Great Britain released a statement concerning the contentious issue of marriage equality. The statement, initially sent via email to BUGB ministers (although not all received it on the day), was introduced as “a place where we can stand as Baptists Together.” A few days later this article by writer and Baptist minister Mark Woods appeared. Woods offers a precise and fair summary of the issues involved in the formation and presentation of this statement.
Within hours Facebook was alive with argument, opinion and objections in relation to this statement. Many objected to the manner in which the discussion leading to the statement was carried out. Many others objected to the content of the statement, particularly in the following paragraph:
“In the light of this, recognising the costs involved and after careful and prayerful reflection and listening, we humbly urge churches who are considering conducting same-sex marriages to refrain from doing so out of mutual respect. At the same time, we also humbly urge all churches to remain committed to our Union out of mutual respect; trusting that the one who unites us is stronger than what divides us.”
A third group of people seemed to find the content of the statement – reaffirming the “Union’s historic Biblical understanding of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and calls them to live in the light of it” – refreshing and self-explanitory and only found something to object to in the negative responses of other Baptists to the statement.
I have read the statement, dozens if not hundreds of Facebook comments, and Mark Woods’ article linked above. I have heard the view of a member of the BU council and the process by which this statement was formulated including input of information, plenary sessions, discussion and prayer. I have struggled with the conflict within myself and those I care about on this issue, and I continue to be deeply uncomfortable with this statement.
As a Baptist by conviction, I hold strongly to Baptist principles, including freedom of conscience and the priesthood of all believers. These principles clearly uphold the freedom of each believer, in the context of his or her local community of faith, to explore scripture, seek God and discern. It is true that Baptists also deeply value associating with others, and have, in the past grouped around unifying confessions of faith by mutual consent. This includes the current BUGB Declaration of Principle, which was originally worded so as to allow space for both General and Particular Baptists within the BUGB fold. This Declaration is something we hold in common, but it leaves space for each congregation to form their own beliefs in community, with prayer, based on the scriptures. Unfortunately, the statement recently released by BU Council goes beyond the Declaration of Principle, effectively imposing limits of doctrine and practice on BUGB churches and ministers without due process or the consent of all concerned.
Considering all this, I am baffled by this statement which seems to prioritise the unity of the Baptist Union above the freedom of conscience that should be granted to all parties without an imposition of restraint for the sake of that unity. I would have been much more at peace with a statement that affirmed the freedom of those in favour of marriage equality to practice their beliefs and those opposed to marriage equality to withdraw their membership from the Union if they could not reconcile their consciences to being in fellowship with those in favour, couched in terms that reminded both that it is at the core of being Baptist to allow others to discern and hold their own understandings of the message and person of Jesus Christ as revealed in scripture.
I am grieved by the pain suffered by so many people as this issue continues to burden believers. The pain of those opposed, as they feel the truth is being compromised. The pain of those in favour, as they feel their deeply held convictions are not respected. The pain of those individuals about whom we argue who are caught in the middle and de-humanised by the argument itself.
Unity at the cost of conscience is dearly bought. Too dearly in my opinion.