It was a good - even a great - BUGB-BMS Assembly in Blackpool. Here are some thoughts that arose from it for me.
The Assembly took 'Shing like Stars in the Universe" as its title, but it seemed to get overtaken by a line in Malcolm Duncan's address (on being risk takers) which used the phrase from Robert Louis Stevenson "punching holes in the darkness" (which was, as it happens the title of the BUS-BMS Assembly in 2009, if memory serves). Then as now, the phrase was grasped and exploited based on what, in my view, is a misunderstanding of the phrase... it does not mean a clenched fist used to break its way through some near impenetrable wall, rather it alludes to a leather punch, or a hole punch, a tool employed purposefully, carefully to create a hole in the fabric for the specific purpose of allowing something (light in this case) to pass through. Perhaps it is semantics, but in a world characterised by violence, I don't like like the idea of Christians thumping our way into anything. At the same time, the idea of carefully identifying the right place purposefully to pierce the dark and then doing so, allowing light to permeate it, is a good image.
Other phrases that gave me pause for thought included the idea that you can only see stars when it is dark... not sure I've quite got to the root of what that says, but it made me think! And it reminded of this little quote printed on the back of the order of service for the funeral I went to last week:
'When it rains, look for rainbows
When it's dark, look for stars'
Perhaps the point is that darkness (or rain) are our inner perceptions, and it is the stars (or rainbows) that carry hope as well as beauty?
Anyway. Enough of that. Thoughts on what I heard.
I chose to attend three seminars/special interest groups - one on the experiences of people with disabilities (led by two ministers, one blind, the other a wheelchair user), one on intergenerational worship (that's all age worship by a fancy name) and one on pastoral support for LGBT people in our churches. Whilst the intergenerational one disappointed me in terms of its content (or my perceived lack thereof) there did seem to be a common thread running through all of them, which is the challenge of what it REALLY means to be inclusive.
It was the blind minister who summed it up when he said (words to the effect) "we are quite good at welcoming people, putting in ramps and toilets, selecting the right colours for PowerPoint, but that is not including people." By way of example, a case was cited of a church where a wheelchair user was excluded from the readers rota because s/he would be unable to mount the three steps to the lectern. These two ministers, well read and graciously passionate also spoke about our use of language, and the way that we can tie ourselves in all sorts of knots trying to get it right. The minister who uses a wheelchair reminded us that, on the whole, people with disabilities will forgive faux pas in language if it is clear the intent is good; they won't mind a 'lash up' ramp as had indeed been the case in the session, because of a late request for an accessible platform to raise him above floor level. It is our intent, our desire to move beyond welcome to inclusion that is key. I have to admit I spent most of Assembly muttering every time we told (not asked or invited) to stand and adding my own "if you can"... it took until Day 4 for this to be heard from the front... If nothing else this will be my legacy to the churches I have served... we INVITE or ASK people IF THEY CAN to ..... (Sorry block caps is ranty... but it's not rocket science peeps!)
A decade ago (or just over) at the first Baptist Assembly I attended, also in Blackpool, human sexuality was a topic on the agenda. It was all very uncomfortable, and the decision by one man to out himself in front of 2000 delegates nothing short of a miracle. This year the topic was once more on the agenda for the final deliberative session. No proposals were to be brought or voted upon, rather we heard a poignant, honest story from a man describing himself as "a husband, a father and a minister." This man has four children, and he has conducted the weddings of three of them. He could not do this for his fourth child, a son, as he was gay. In a moving account of his own struggles to come to terms with his son's disclosure, he admitted to things he had said he wished he hadn't, and also of probing questions or responses his son had offered. His son is happily settled in a CP and with his partner is now moving forward in a process to adopt children. The father still has questions and concerns, but he loves his son, his son's partner and in due course I am sure will love their child/ren.
The small group discussions were far less stressy than their equivalent a decade ago, far more open, far more honest, and overall the word people used was 'gracious'. There was a sense that in that decade things have changed, and whilst many Baptists are still uncertain, there is a desire to engage more seriously with understanding the complexities of the topic (which is much broader than 'just' marriage law). There was even a subtle but significant hint assertion that ministers may express their convictions without fear of censure (even there are still some very clear limits on what we may or may not do).
For many, younger LGBT people, this may seem like its all too slow, all too vague and wishy washy... all I can say is that Affirm (the Baptist network) which includes some younger people seem to be genuinely encouraged by it.
As the conversations drew to a close, a pigeon flew right across the arena... now the fact is there were two or three pigeons nesting there, so there is a totally logic explanation... but the image of the dove (the Greek word can be either pigeon or bird) overflying our conversations was profoundly symbolic... surely God's Spirit was moving in the meeting as conservative and liberal, traditional and radical, certain and confused recognised that we are all in this together.
The appointment of Lynn Green as the new General Secretary was both historic and welcome. Another 'first woman' who will need our prayerful support as she takes her place in helping to guide and shape the BUGB for the yeras ahead.
A long essay! Of course there were aspects of Assembly that disappointed (for me some of the songs were just plain annoying... and I do not get the idea of singing Christmas carols in May!) but these seem as nothing compared to the real sense that God is doing something new, already it is springing up - and we a beginning to perceive it.