By continuing your visit to this site, you accept the use of cookies. These ensure the smooth running of our services. Learn more.

Baptist Assembly 1 - More Sensible

So, here’s a first for me – sitting on a train in St Pancras station (London) typing up a few thoughts on this year’s Baptist Assembly. Just don’t tell the deacons I took the church’s laptop with me! Alas, it will have to be ported via my desk top, steam driven beastie to web, but it’s progress of a sort.

I’ve had a good time – have seen loads and loads of people I know and have had some interesting, meaningful and enjoyable conversations on all sorts of topics and none. There have been some special moments and some annoying moments – but that is all part of the crazy, wonderful world of Baptist life.

To those who introduced yourselves to me as readers/lurkers – hello, I hope my thoughts don’t destroy or undermine your positive experiences of Assembly.

Anyway here goes!

Someone once said to me ‘never say never’ and they were right. A week ago I said to someone that I wasn’t political – so why did I suddenly find myself compelled to go forward in the public resolutions session to comment on one of the topics? If there was ever a sense of Holy Spirit compulsion then maybe that was it – having always vowed and declared I’d never speak in a public session, lo, there I was speaking about the realities of extremist political parties in local politics and its impact on my Barbadian church member. Not political? Hmm, I give up!

As I’ve started towards the end, I might as well keep working backwards through the bits that were special (over and above those that always are).

For me the best speakers of the event were Revd Dr Pat Took on the topic A Radical Community? and the BMS speaker who in exactly five minutes said all that needed to be said on mission. Pat’s session was a clever blend of scripture readings, reflections and other readings from the likes of Isaac Watts, Gustavo Gutteriez and Jim Wallis. Many thanks Pat for enabling me to hear God in a way I haven’t for as long time.

Going into a number of Prism sessions was a good experience of a different side of Assembly. Exploring the theme An Inclusive Community we were invited to participate in a ‘views spectrum’ on a number of thorny questions around inclusion/exclusion. The fact that many questions were expressed in negative (and even double negative) seemed to lead to some confusion, but overall what struck me was the incredible diversity of views expressed. One of the ostensible beauties of Baptist Christianity is its embrace of diversity – that we can disagree wildly on issues yet be held together by something as small as our Declaration of Principal. Too often the impression is very narrow and exclusive but – with the caveat that these were views expressed by the 0.5% of Assembly attendees who would opt for Prism – the reality is that we are a complex and diverse set of Christians – and that seems good!

Prism communion was at once a good and a challenging experience. What I loved was the messiness and what I found challenging was the messiness! Rather than a very ritualised ceremony we were invited to share bread and wine/grape juice whilst talking about two questions roughly as follows:

· How are you remembering Jesus? (what we are told to do in this act)
· What does this table say to the world?

I found myself more able to engage with the second than the first. The average Sunday Communion service must look nuts to the outside world (not that that is automatically bad) but is also very exclusive – you have to understand the language and the ritual even if you are in a church that claims to have a truly open table. But what if we actually did sit around and share bread and drink wine and talk about the difference that recalling Jesus made to our lives? What if we did invite those who doubt, those who can’t believe, those who no longer believe to sit around and talk over food? One of my favourite memories of a student placement was the time I sat down with a tiny evening congregation with a large loaf, some butter (that much dry bread is hard going!) a bottle of wine and some grape juice and pretty much did that. Sure, we went off topic, but we shared deeply and it felt authentic. Maybe part of my problem with sacramental theology is its ritualised nature, its sense that God must act and therefore we must do it right. To do what God in Jesus commands us to do as an act of obedient discipleship (my theology of these rites!) gives us freedom to be messy, to muck up the words, to allow people ‘in’ without checking their credentials. Well that’s my heresy and I’m sticking to it…

Vetting and Barring – the new safeguarding scheme may sound like a dull session, but it was excellent and I’m so glad I went. A Home Office expert giving up his Saturday deserved more than the 70 or so who turned up to hear him explain the new scheme with grace, humour and honesty. I have no idea what this man’s religious beliefs were – but I hope he felt welcomed and appreciated by those of us who listened to him explain this complex and vital change in legislative practice. I fear a lot of churches will not grasp that this is a legal requirement and that failure can lead to big fines and custodial sentences for failure to comply.

Grumbles about Assembly are easy and cheap, even when they are justified. Far better to pick up the positives and make constructive suggestions on the negatives. I was pleased to see a far greater variety in the worship styles this year – it was not all upbeat happy-clappy ‘My Jesus, my Boyfriend’ stuff (though here was some). There were some really good old hymns (that would have benefitted an organ to accompany them), some new hymns and songs. There was music from Iona and Hillsong, the ‘world church’ (i.e. South America and Africa) and beyond. The choir on the first night didn’t do it for me and I suspect some of what I loved didn’t do it for others. It was good that rather than monochrome, beige, offend everyone equally stuff, we had good examples of diverse styles and even theologies.

It was good to see a move to an inclusive language Bible translation for the main sessions (alas this didn’t occur everywhere), a shame a little more attention could not have been given to at least the public domain hymns (and the choir de-inclusivised something that was!). Once upon a time this would have seemed petty to me – but ask the younger generation outside the church and you soon discover it’s a real issue. As Lauran Bethall said of herself ‘I am a beloved daughter of God’ not an ‘honorary son’ as I have so often been told. Rant over!

The usual highlights were indeed highlights.

The welcome of ministers who have finished their NAM period (and this year no ban on cheering after all my efforts to do so silently!) is a special moment. Especially poignant this year was the name being read out of a minister who was at that precise moment dying of cancer. I recalled a college colleague was told days before her ordination should have happened that she was terminal with days to live. The inevitable questions arise – why does God call people out to train as ministers and then let them die before they can –as we understand it – fulfil that calling? There are no glib answers, only recognition of their obedience to the call and God’s presence in absence.

In Memoriam, and as usual a long list of, mainly very old, ministers and missionaries with one or two younger ones along the way. I always find myself thinking of the hours of sermon writing, praying, visiting and sitting in annoying meetings that lie behinds those names. That I will one day be a name on a PowerPoint presentation is a strange and humbling thought. To have this act incorporated in the end of Assembly communion was quite a powerful thing. I may not do sacraments, but I do do mysteries… in some mysterious (as in ‘mysterion’ not ‘puzzling’) way we were in communion with these sisters and brothers in Christ, and with those in all times and all places.

So, Assembly is over for another year. My train journey home is well underway – despite the worst efforts of whoever runs the tubes these days deciding to close both the Jubilee and Victoria lines and making me glad I have a reasonable understanding of London topography – and soon I will be back to routine. It has been good. I’m glad I was part of it… and although I still haven’t worked out what it all means, I feel that in some way or other I was genuinely blessed to be there.


  • Hi Catriona,
    I didn't get a chance to introduce myself, but I recognised you as you walked up to the mic up in this morning's session. It's good to see the person you 'follow' is real! Thanks for your contribution.

  • Hi Polly - thanks for your comment and the link to your blog which I can now start following too. Hope you had a good Assembly. And now you know - if you didn't already - the true location of Dibley B C!

  • Well done for being brave enough to get up and speak at assembly. Shame you didn't need the silent cheers though, I was looking forward to seeing them pop up across the auditorium.

  • Hi Tim, not sure it's brave when you find you're half way to the front and have no logical idea why you suddenly leaped up but know you have to.

    Maybe I broke cover too early on the silent cheers and the "authorities" responded by not banning cheering? Certainly it was less "wild" than in some previous years. "Legalise" things and they lose their attraction maybe...?

  • '....sacramental theology is its ritualised nature, its sense that God must act and therefore we must do it right.'
    As you know I am a scaramentalist so I believe God has 'promised' to be there and to act through bread and wine as a means of grace - this is God's divine choice.
    It does not mean that it has to be done in a specific way - for me God had much more chance of acting amongst us in Prism than in the eay we usually do it - we allowed more space for the work of the Spirit.
    Thankfully God is gracious and can and does speak through it however we do - even if we leave little space!

    Thanks for all your efforts to cheer me and others!

  • Hi Julie - I knew that would press your buttons even as I typed it (not that I did it to annoy you, honest) but I have to be true to my heresies. As you say 'thankfully God is gracious' and cope with my heresies - and yours! ;-)

    Sometimes I think language and semantics tie us in all manner of knots and we are all an odd muddle of theology and pragmatism. The New Connexion were into ordinances and God took me to a New Connexion church...

  • Thanks for the posts about the assembly- very useful for those of us who couldn't be there, to get a flavour of what went on!

  • Hi Angela. You'll be pleased to know that the Connexions stand was well staffed - for a while by the wife of the person who was my minister when I lived in Warrington. I think they had a good number of enquiries - including a few from ministers' husbands - the times they are a-changing!

  • Hi Catriona
    Good to catch up last week.
    One of the disappointments about Assembly was the lack of integration between the various parts. For me, Prism was a real highlight - but it seemed to exist in a little bubble all of its own, with no impact on what was going on elsewhere. Nor did there seem to be much connection in Prism with the rest of Assembly.
    Anyway, as promised, we were so inspired by the Real Life Worship seminar that we have finally got Dancing Scarecrow up and running. The blog is at dancingscarecrow.blogspot.com and the main website, with about 60 of our prayers now live on it is a www.dancingscarecrow.org.uk
    We've also spent today recording the Embracing Eleanor paper from the Baptists Doing Theology in Context consultation last year, and I've put that up as a podcast.

    See you soon

  • Hi Tim. I think that maybe the organisers didn't train at Northern - 'connectedness' and 'integration' may not have been in their vocabulary! ;-)

    Dancing Scarecrow looks good - I love the name and appreciate the explanation on the site. I'll follow with interest.

The comments are closed.