Sunday, 4 November 2018

Why This Church? Independence and Interdependence.

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 
4 November 2018

Matthew 16.13-19; 18.18-20
Ephesians 4.1-7
The question of independence and interdependence
            is not merely one of Baptist theology.[1]

We’re coming to it this morning
            as part of our regular communion series, called ‘Why This Church?’,
in which we look at what it means for us,
            as Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
            to be the kind of church that we are;
exploring what makes us different from our good friends over the road
            in the Anglican church, or the Swiss church,
                        or from the Methodists, Quakers, United Reformed,
                        Roman Catholic, or whatever…

And today in our series we come to this question
            of independence and interdependence.

But with Brexit looming large on the horizon,
            and dominating everything from the news headlines to this week’s budget,
            it is not, as I said, merely a question of Baptist theology.

The issue of how human beings relate to one another;
            at local, national, and international levels,
            is a hot topic in wider society as well.

And as I was preparing for today, I found myself thinking,
            in a slightly idealised manner I admit,
about the European Union,
            and the European Economic Community that preceded it.

Specifically, I found myself thinking about the principle of subsidiarity.
            It may be that you’ve not come across this word before,
                        so a brief history lesson may be helpful.

Subsidiarity is defined in European law as
            ‘the sharing of powers between several levels of authority.’[2]

What this means in a federation of states like the European Union,
            is that the wider organisational levels of the Union
                        do not take all the decisions,
            and that power exists at a local level
                        to take localised decisions wherever possible.

The purpose of the wider structure
            is to ensure that the localised decisions in one area
            are in some way connected to the localised decisions of another area.
It’s not to say that all local areas have to decide the same.

Interestingly, this principle of subsidiarity
            found its way into European statute via Christianity,
                        specifically via the Roman Catholic church,
            who have thought and published extensively
                        on the way humans relate to each other
                        at local and wider levels, for the good of all.

Catholic Social Teaching says:

What individuals can accomplish by their own initiative and efforts should not be taken from them by a higher authority.
A greater and higher social institution must not take over the duties of subordinate organizations and deprive it of its competence.
Its purpose, rather, is to intervene in a subsidiary fashion (thus offering help) when individuals or smaller institutions find that a task is beyond them.
            - YOUCAT 323.[3]

This has a lot in common with one of the principles of community organising,
            which is that you should:
            Never do for others what they can do for themselves.’ - Saul Alinsky

That’s a quote from Saul Alinsky,
            who set up the organisation that we know in the UK as Citizens UK,
            and which we’re part of here at Bloomsbury
            through our membership of Westminster Citizens.

The point about Subsidiarity, is that wherever possible
            decisions should be taken at a local level,
and that wider structures do not exist to force one-size-fits-all solutions
            onto all members of the union.

Now, we might have a conversation
            about whether the European Union has departed from this principle,
and your perspective on this may well determine (or be determined by)
            which newspaper you read,
but regrettably this is a conversation for another day.

For now, I want us to notice the similarity
            between the principle of subsidiary as it exists within Catholic Social Teaching,
and the question of independence and interdependence
            within the world of Baptist churches.

The early Baptists were quite fond of writing what they called ‘confessions of faith’,
            which were attempts to put into words
                        the truth that they thought they were discerning together
                        about how they should live as the body of Christ.

They weren’t once-for-all documents,
            but (rather like the European Union Constitution)
could be changed and amended by a process of revision and discernment.

Here’s a couple of quotes for us to chew over,
            from the early years of the Baptists:

The London Confession of 1644 says:

Each congregation or church is ‘a compact and knit citie in itself’.
            - London Confession (1644) Article XLVII

And the 1652 Abingdon Association Founding Minute says:

‘That perticular churches of Christ ought to hold firme communion each with other
            in point of advice in doubtful matters and controversies …
because there is the same relation
            betwixt the perticular churches each towards other
as there is betwixt perticular members of one church.’
            - Abingdon Association (October 1652)

And here, in these two sentences
            from our Baptist ancestors in the middle of the seventeenth century,
we have the problem of independence and inter-dependence in a nutshell.

We are independent insofar as each church is complete in and of itself,
            but we are inter-dependent insofar as congregations need one another
            to discern on matters doubtful or controversial.

This same tension is present in the founding document
            of the Baptist Union of Great Britain,
which came into existence in 1873,
            and with some minor changes remains the basis of the Baptist Union to this day.

The first of its three points is:

1. That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws.[4]

The second point is to do with baptism by immersion,
            and the third is a commitment to bearing witness to Jesus.

The key thing to notice here, I think,
            is that in a document which is designed to set up the terms
                        of the first ever national structure for Baptists in the UK,
            the first point is the independence of the local congregation.

The very document designed to bring about greater inter-dependence,
            begins with a statement of independence.

And this is so important,
            because for Baptists, any relationships we have with other Baptists,
                        beyond those we worship with week-by-week in our local congregation,
            will always be secondary.

The Baptist conviction,
            based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18.20, which we had in our reading earlier,
is that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is present.

This means that the primary unit of the church
            is the gathering of people in the name of Jesus.
Even if you only have two or three people, you can still call yourself church,
            and you can still baptise, and celebrate communion,
                        and ordain people to ministry,
            and do all of the things that the church does.

Those of us who have had experience of other Christian traditions
            will know that this is very different to what is found in, for example,
            our friends over the road at the Anglican church.

There, the ‘church’ is the wider institution.
            It is the Priests who baptise and celebrate communion,
                        and the Bishops who confirm and ordain.

Without the wider institution, the local Anglican congregation is cut loose,
            it is not fully the church.

But for Baptists, if the Baptist Union disappeared in a puff of smoke
            or into a pension deficit sized black hole,
the local congregations that bear the name Baptist could just carry on.

We are independent before we are inter-dependent.
            We are a movement not an institution.

Did you know that it’s technically incorrect
            to even speak of the Baptists as a ‘Denomination’,
because our wider structures are not ‘the church’,
            at least, certainly not in the way
            that they are for many other Christian traditions.

However, does this mean that we don’t need each other?
            Does this mean that we here at Bloomsbury
                        can dispense with the London Baptist Association,
                                    or the Baptist Union and the Baptist Assembly,
                                    or the Baptist Missionary Society,
                        or the European Baptist Federation,
                                    or the Baptist World Alliance?

Sometimes it might feel tempting to answer ‘yes’ to this question,
            particularly when we find ourselves in tension with the wider structures.
And at one level the answer is ‘yes’,
            because if we broke fellowship with the wider Baptist world,
            we could still carry on, on our own.

But the answer you know I’m going to give is ‘no’,
            we can’t just break fellowship with our fellow Baptists.
And the reason I think we can’t, or at least shouldn’t,
            is because we are bound to one another
            by more than pragmatic association.

There was a trend, a few years ago, to refer to Baptist House
            and the various departments that are based there,
            as the ‘national resource’.

This indicated a very functional view of the Baptist Union,
            and came from a view that there are some things
            that it just makes more sense to do together.

So, for example, ecumenical representation,
            or safeguarding, or legal advice on trust matters,
            or holding a list of people appropriately trained for ministry,
these kind of things are much easier to do at scale,
            so we use the ‘national resource’ to do them.

It’s all very pragmatic, and the basis of associating together
            is one of mutual convenience.

Of course, this means that if it’s no longer convenient,
            or less convenient than getting those services elsewhere,
church will just leave and move on,
            which is exactly what has happened, in various waves, over the years,
            as former Baptist churches have left the Union
                        to join the Church Army, or New Frontiers,
                        or the Federation of Independent Evangelical Churches,
                        or whatever.

But the interesting thing to note here,
            is that most of the churches that have left the Baptist Union
                        have done so to join another form of union,
            and often one which has a much higher sense of ‘belonging’
                        than the rather pragmatic basis
            of thinking of the Baptist Union as a ‘national resource’.

This says something profound to me,
            because I think that there is more to the Baptist Union
            than just some convenient departments, and some delegated services.

I certainly don’t believe that the wider Baptist structures
            are over-and-above the local Baptist congregation,
but I’m not sure that they are fully subordinate to us either.

The Baptist Union, and the various geographical Associations
            through which churches belong,
are not merely a service industry for Baptist churches.

You see, if we are serious that the church is present
            whenever two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus,
then the church is present at Baptist Association gatherings,
            and at National Baptist Assemblies.

These are an expression of what it means to be Baptist.
            The local congregation is the primary expression of church,
                        but it is not the only expression of church
                        that can exist in a Baptist context.

The first time this started to make sense to me was when I was 16,
            and attended the Baptist World Youth Congress in Glasgow, in 1988.
For the first time in my life,
            I discovered that the Baptist church existed
            beyond the Vine Baptist Church in Sevenoaks.
And it was amazing.
            It was multi-ethnic, it was multi-voiced,
                        it was inspiring, exciting, challenging.
            It was brilliant,
                        and I believe it was a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God.

As a teenager exploring a call to Baptist Ministry,
            to realise that my Baptist family extended around the world,
                        and related in ways I had never even imagined,
            was truly life-changing.

This is why, every year except this year,
            I’ve always prioritised attending the Baptist Assembly.
And I would have gone this year
            but we had a wedding here which I was taking.
For me, missing these wider gatherings
            is a bit like missing Christmas with my wider family.
It’s possible to do it,
            but I know I’m poorer for having not gone,
            and I believe they are too.

These wider gatherings, you see,
            are expressions of the covenant relationships
                        that bind us together across congregations,
                        not just within them.

The God who reaches out in grace to call us his people,
            calls us to trust him and to trust one another.
It is an invitation to a vertical relationship
            with God in Christ by his Spirit,
and it is an invitation to a horizontal relationship
            with one another both within our local fellowship,
            and between fellowships.

We don’t associate with other Baptist congregations through the wider structures
            so that they can tell us what to do,
            or even so that we can tell them what to do.
We associate together because we are inter-dependent.
            We need one another if we are to more fully be the church.

As I said, the local congregation is the church,
            but it is not the whole church.
The Baptist Union
            is not ‘them’ or ‘it’, it is ‘us’.
The London Baptist Association
            is not ‘them’ or ‘it’, it is ‘us’.
The same is true of the European Baptist Federation,
            the Baptist World Alliance, and the Baptist Missionary Fellowship.
They need us, and we need them.
            And they tell us that they don’t need us at their loss,
            and we tell ourselves that we don’t need them to our loss.

But here’s where it gets difficult:
            Sometimes, it can be very difficult to stay together.

As the European Union have discovered,
            simply having high founding ideals of subsidiarity
doesn’t necessarily mean that people aren’t going to leave.

And when one of our wider structures does something
            that at a local level we find unpalatable or unacceptable,
            we have a difficult choice to make.

We either stay, and remain committed to the covenant of trust,
            or we walk away, break fellowship, and seek new relationships elsewhere.

And sometimes we do find ourselves at odds with our wider structures.
            Sometimes a local congregation will reach a point of discernment on an issue
                        which is not shared by the majority of churches,
                        or which is opposed by powerful voices within the Union.

This is precisely where some Baptist churches have found themselves
            if they have taken the decision
            to register for the solemnisation of same sex marriage.

In the face of opposition, some of it very personal, and some of it more structural,
            do we walk away, or do we stay put?

My argument has been, all along, that we stay put, but not silent.
            Because the wider Union needs our voice,
                        just as much as we need theirs.

But there is a cost to not breaking fellowship,
            and some of that cost will be borne by those
                        who will have to remain in fellowship
                                    with others who disagree with them,
            in fact, more than that,
                                    with others who think that they are sinful, flawed,
                                    or in need of salvation.
That is a difficult thing to bear,
            and those of us whose commitment is to continued relationship
need to know that we are asking the more vulnerable and marginalised among us
            to bear a disproportionate cost.

But also, breaking away will carry its own cost,
            and not just to us, but to those in other fellowships
                        who long for their church to change on this issue,
            and who will be denied our voice and input and challenge
                        if we absent ourselves from the dialogue.

The same argument is to be had about women in ministry:
            What should we do with those churches
                        which will not affirm the ministry of women?
            Should we break fellowship,
                        or continue to walk along the way of trust
            as we continue to discern together,
                        challenging each other to change
                        and to greater attention to scripture,
                        and to the whisper of the Spirit of Christ?

I think for me it comes down to belonging,
            the Baptist family is my family, it is where I belong.
I’m not just a generic Christian who will worship anywhere,
            I do believe that baptism is for believers on profession of faith,
                        and not for infants,
            I do believe that it is all of our responsibility
                        to bear witness to the good news of Jesus,
            I do believe that each church has the liberty
                        to discern the mind of Christ for itself,
            I do believe that wherever two or three are gathered I the name of Jesus,
                        there the church is to be found,
            I do not accept the authority of Bishops,
                        but I am committed to the church universal beyond my small corner.

I am a Baptist,
            and Bloomsbury is a Baptist church.

And as such, it is my conviction that we need one another.
            I need you, and you need me.
We need them, and they need us.

Indeed, it may be that our deep need of each other,
            across the convictions and conventions that might divide us,
can speak powerfully to a world hell-bent on tribalism and fragmentation.

But only if we learn how to live well together,
            because together, we are the one body of Christ,
and we are called to make every effort
            to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph.4.3-4)

[1] Background reading for this sermon included: Stephen Holmes, Baptist Theology, 2012, p.104f; and Haymes, Gouldbourne, and Cross, On Being the Church, 2008, p.195f.