The Baptist Assembly (or The Gathering) was held from Thursday to Saturday this week. As I posted about earlier, the big issue of contention was what we would decide about same-sex marriages. These are a few of my reflections and questions coming out of that. I should say that the rules and regulations can be a bit dizzying at times, so please don’t read this as a technical breakdown. Also, there are still a great deal of thoughts and emotions for me which have yet to completely crystallise. So this may be less clear and concise than usual.
In the end, after heaps of discussion, and so many motions and counter-motions I lost track, (at one point we voted on a motion to stop talking and vote on a motion… it was like Inception), the delegates voted through an amended proposal which turned the stance against pastors officiating same-sex marriages from a statement into a recommendation. We also voted to put together a working party which will explore the issue further and report back in future, potentially with more recommendations.
I tried my best to note down the positions expressed by those who spoke to the proposals, though I gave up after about an hour. While it’s not scientific, I generally felt that about a third who spoke were against the proposal, and in favour of, or open to blessing same-sex marriage. Another third were not in favour of blessing a same-sex marriage, but did not feel it was the Union’s place to make a binding decision, or an issue to divide over. Finally, roughly a third seemed to feel this was an issue to divide over, and that it was a biblical or gospel issue.
As far as the decision to affirm a conservative stance as a recommendation, but not a binding statement, my read was that there was a general feeling that this represented a decent compromise. I supported it of course (as it was the only proposal then under consideration), but people on both sides – apart from a handful of dissenters – seemed relatively happy with the outcome. I personally described myself as “7 out of 10” happy with the outcome to the people that asked!
Having said that, while I think there is much good in this outcome, I also still have questions and concerns. I haven’t landed the plane on some of them, but I’ll try to express them below…
- This is pretty close to a general statement from the majority of Baptist churches in New Zealand that we do not believe God blesses same-sex marriages as part of his design. Of course, because we’re not a monolithic movement, that only goes so far. There are still Baptist churches which ignore the Union’s affirmation of women in ministry, for example. But it does go some way to setting a culture, which is good.
- I felt a real sense of the Baptist family wrestling and coming to a decision together. I wished the proposal had gone further, but I also recognise the need to submit that to the gathered family seeking the Spirit’s leading together.
- The working party that’s to be formed could be extremely helpful, and I look forward to hearing them report back. The discussion is not over, and there’s lots of wrestling ahead… though I do think I’ll need a few weeks to decompress before feeling overly excited about that!
- There was a lot of confusion. My impression leading up the Assembly was that we were talking about potentially de-registering Baptist pastors who marry same-sex couples, as well as potentially challenging their church’s involvement in the Union. But at the meeting itself, we were suddenly talking about a non-binding recommendation (even before the suggested change in wording). It is completely possible that the fault is mine, but the change confused me. When did it happen? It set my – and I think, others – expectations out of whack. It also raised the temperature of the discussion in a way that never need to have been done, if we were always going to simply be talking about a recommendation.
- It was communicated to us that one pastor/church in the Union has already performed a same-sex marriage. Much of what I’ve heard from people on the other side of this issue has been framed from the perspective of the victim (with the Union playing the bully), and has expressed a desire to hit pause and spend time in dialogue. Fine, and if the Union had originally said, “We’re putting together a working party to report back in 2 years, and we’ll make a call then,” I would have thought that that was a very sensible path forward. But, when a church goes ahead anyway, it’s hard not to feel cynical about all of that. It makes me feel like there isn’t a true commitment to working this through as a family, but rather that this is just dissembling. I’d also love to be convinced otherwise, but I do wonder if minds aren’t already made up. Even those who say, “I don’t know,” well, I’ve yet to see someone move from, “I believe God’s intention for marriage is limited to a man and a woman,” to “I don’t know,” and back again. Usually it’s a pit-stop in the other direction.
- Is this a justice issue for those who support the blessing of same-sex marriage? I assume it is. If it is, surely sooner or later these people will have to call out those who hold to a conservative sexual ethic as oppressing others. Could Wilberforce live and let live when it came to slavery? This makes me wonder if what we’ve achieved is really unity, or simply the postponing of a conflict.
- I wonder if the Kiwi psyche which so values independence, can sometimes mix with the autonomous nature of Baptist ecclesiology to create a somewhat toxic stew. If I could sum up the core of the opposition to the Union intervening on this issue, it would be, “That’s not very Baptist.” The truth is – sadly, for me – I spoke to very few who were comfortable with a more confessional kind of unity. Even when they strongly opposed those who would bless same-sex unions, this overrode those convictions like a safety switch. But I wonder, is confessional unity entirely alien to Baptist life? We do, of course, have things like the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith in our history. I would love if New Zealand Baptists explored this part of Baptist tradition more.
- What does unity mean? I love spending time with old friends at the Gathering. It feels a bit like family. Many of these people are brilliant and I would happily have them as my pastor. But beyond a core group, it can too often take discipline to care about being Baptist. The unity is shallow. When I explained to a congregant this morning how we had decided on a “recommendation” she replied, “So, what’s the point?” And she didn’t even really have a dog in the fight. When it comes to sexual ethics, I’m fairly certain I stand with men and women who’ve been faithful to God’s word over 2000 years. I’m just not sure I stand with some other Baptists. That doesn’t inspire me… in fact, it leeches inspiration when it comes to unity.
I want to end all of this unpacking with a few positives.
There are many outstanding people in the Baptist Union. I could start naming you names of Carey Baptist College staff, experienced pastors, and even pastors around my own age, all of whom I walk away from thinking, “God, help me be more like this person.” There are a lot of them. I am proud to associate with them.
I am optimistic and I think we have a chance ahead to wrestle well together with what it means to be Baptist. We may need to carve up some sacred cows. It’s an exciting time to be part of Baptist history in New Zealand.