The Open Membership Tradition: My Roots, My Convictions, My Cross
Colin Bond, Minister of Hillhead Baptist Church, Glasgow, Scotland
Baptist Tradition at the crossroad- Ladya has invited us to offer comments on this theme from our own particular context, and, whilst Im mightily relieved by his assurances of the informality of this get-together, I still feel distinctly nervous on two counts, I guess: the first is that I wonder if there is such a thing as Baptist Tradition, as opposed to Traditions (plural), and secondly, the phrase at the crossroad seems to be a highly loaded phrase which might mean a
variety of things to you depending upon which Tradition within the Baptist Traditions you happen to see yourself. Now what Ive chosen to do is to talk to you about the tradition in which I stand, which makes me even more nervous because in my more paranoid moments, I sometimes think Im the only one standing in it. Thankfully, I do know that is not the case
but it does feel like it from time to time. Rightly or probably wrongly, Ive called this the Open Membership Tradition, although what I am really going to do is to talk about where I am at within that tradition rather than the tradition itself.
So first let me clarify for you what this paper is not. It is not a history of the Open Membership Tradition amongst Baptists. Nor is it a survey or assessment of the Open Membership Tradition amongst Baptists. And thirdly, it is not a paper likely to have the imprimatur of official Baptist bodies like the Baptist Union of Scotland, nor even the less conservative body south of the border in England and Wales, the Baptist Union of Great Britain. I am not a historian. Nor am I an academic. I have no great claim to being a Biblical scholar or a theologian. And mercifully, I am not an ecclesiastical bureaucrat who feels compelled to tow the party line. I am, however, a Baptist minister working in the context of a local church. Next month sees the thirtieth anniversary of my ordination and it is out of my experience that I speak, as someone who paradoxically has been deeply involved in and yet perceives himself to be at the margins of denominational life.
So what is this paper about? This paper is about me, my roots, my convictions and my cross. It is, therefore, very personal. It includes my testimony, my spiritual journey and to some extent my pain. But if that were all it was about, it would be of little general interest or value. This paper will take us into deeper issues relating to ministry and mission at the start of the twenty-first century. In England, where I have spent most of my ministry, probably the majority of Baptist churches are open membership. In Scotland, where I now work, open membership churches are very much in the minority. My guess is that the more liberal the theological outlook of any given church or group of Baptists, the more prevalent open membership would be, for example in the US American Baptists might be more open whereas Southern Baptists would be
closed. Having said that, many English Baptist Churches may remain (or be surrendering open membership, I simply do not know) whilst drifting to the theological right and embracing a charismatic ethos. By an open membership church, I mean congregations that are willing to accept into church membership people who are in good standing from other Christian traditions, even traditions who do not observe any form of baptism such as Quakers and Salvation Army. I also mean congregations who have gone even further than that, who have been willing to receive into membership men and women recently converted on profession of faith without insisting on baptism at all if the individual being received in did not wish to be. Straightaway this raises two issues concerning Baptist Principles: first, baptism and second, the church. These two are of course inseparably linked: a church composed of individuals who have undergone believers baptism has often been regarded by Baptists as a regenerate or true church. Sadly many Baptists have therefore drawn the inference that a church which allows into membership the unbaptised must be suspect. However, as I proceed you will realise that I am even more suspect, as I will mean much more by Open Membership than is generally understood by it. My concern is with an inclusive church because I believe that our Lord has entrusted us with an inclusive Gospel.
To understand where it is I am coming from, it is necessary for you to be able to understand my roots.
Im not sure where I first heard about Jesus, but I imagine it was from my mother and her bed-time prayers as an infant. I came from a God-fearing home rather than a church-going one. My parents would have had a nominal affiliation to the Church of England. I was christened in the local parish church as a baby; needless to say, I remember nothing about it. The schools I went to were church schools run by the Church of England and formal Christian Worship, Anglican style, was part of the daily diet. On a Sunday, I attended or more accurately was sent to a Methodist Sunday School. It was when my parents moved from the north to the south of England, that I found myself befriended by other young people who went along to the local Baptist church, and incidentally one of the nearest churches to where I lived. I went too and at the age of 14, I was baptised by immersion. My parents and I in no way thought this odd; we regarded it as confirmation of my faith. I attended the evangelical Christian Union at school and this presented a different theological slant to either the usual school worship or the more ecumenical environment of my home church, which was needless to say open membership. My home church had a thriving teenage youth group and we mixed quite frequently with youngsters from other Christian traditions. These included Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and members of the Salvation Army. When I left school I went to university to read theology for three years and then on to Regents Park College, Oxford for a further two years to train in a university environment for the Baptist ministry. After thirty years of ministry, I am now in my fourth pastorate.
What is the relevance of all this? My roots were to develop my convictions. My active involvement with at least three Christian denominations before the age of 14, the fact that I did not come from a Baptist home, my experience of meeting a variety of Christians in different contexts at such a young age, all meant that I did not and could not identify the Kingdom of
God with either the Baptist denomination or with a specific theological outlook. I have been unable to sit happily in any particular camp whether it be traditionalists or charismatics, conservatives or radicals, evangelicals or ecumaniacs. As a consequence, life has become rather lonely at times as I have perceived Christian groups maintaining truths and turning them into half-truths as other insights have been denied, largely in the cause of ecclesiastical politics. Secondly, and I do not think this is to be underestimated, the opportunity to study theology within a secular institution outside of an ecclesiastical environment challenged, threatened and stimulated my faith and its content in a way that no denominational, ministerial or bible college training would ever have done. It made me realise above all that theologians and church divines have a habit of tackling questions which no one in the real world is actually asking. And as theology and Biblical Study retreats even further from mainstream university life in the UK, the problem of insularity within the churches can only get worse. So thirdly, my roots have made me impatient with the institutional church. To cite but one example, it has been impossible in recent years to sit in any official British Baptist grouping without being harangued on the importance of mission. Whilst it goes without saying that it is a lot easier to spend endless hours talking about mission amongst the converted than it is to engage with the unconverted, an even more serious issue has been that mission has been the focus at the expense of ministry. Implicit in the call for British Baptists to be a mission people has been the arrogant assumptions that we know where we are going and what we are doing, indeed that we know it all and have it all wrapped up, rather than the more humble one that we are there to listen and to serve our neighbour. The notion of minister as servant has been replaced with the notion of minister as leader. The model has come across as those on the outside have all the problems and we on the inside have all the answers. Needless to say, this model will not do, not least because it is manifestly untrue.
It was in my second pastorate, which in foundation was a Baptist and Congregational church and in name a Free Church, that I first began to think seriously about Baptism, Church Membership and the mission we were engaged in. By Trust Deed the baptistry and the font could not be within the sanctuary, but were located in the vestibule and because the baptistry was an open baptistry, every time you walked in the front door you nearly fell in it. The issue of believers baptism was, as a consequence, always in the mind and therefore frequently practiced. This church owed its foundation to the influence of John Bunyan, the author of the famous Pilgrims Progress, who held that the church of Christ hath no warrant to keep out of the communion the Christian that is discovered to be a visible saint. The Bunyan tradition is arguably the earliest example of the Open Membership Tradition amongst independent churches because baptismal controversies were not allowed to get in the way of the more weightier matter of immersion in the grace and love of Gods Spirit. Reflecting on this, I came to realise first of all that the evidence of Gods Spirit at work within someone has more to do with the attitudes and values of Christ within that persons life than it has to do with whether or in what form a person has been baptised. However, I also realised that because Christ-like characters were as much on the fringe of the church than at the heart of it, church membership was primarily a practical organisational issue rather than a theological or spiritual one!
My third pastorate stood in marked contrast to this congregation. Of the churches of which I have been minister, it was by far and away the most Baptist in the sense of its generous financial support for the work of the denomination. The building, however, was cathedral like with the baptistry at the far end of the chancel, out of sight and out of mind. The drama and significance of believers baptism was therefore lost on the congregation. I began to realise the importance and the practical effect of the use of space. The positioning of the baptistry in this church building was particularly unfortunate and believers baptism was relatively rare. The church grew considerably in my time there and many families worshipped with us coming to us from other Christian traditions and none but making the church their spiritual home because they found much love, encouragement, inspiration and support within the fellowship. It was at this time that I seriously began to reflect on the nature of the church. On the one hand there were very practical problems. In what sense can a church be called Baptist when a sizeable chunk of the congregation do not have Baptist roots? What is the significance of the Church Members Roll when some of the most active, committed, gracious and generous people in the congregation are not members and therefore outside the Church Members Meeting? And given our emphasis on the gathered church where in fact was the church gathered? And if as I came to observe it was in the worship and after-fellowship on a Sunday morning, where did this leave a lot our traditional Baptist presuppositions as to who was in and who was out, who belonged and who didnt? On the
other hand, there were very positive spin-offs. I was challenged to re-think priorities. At the end of the day, what is it that really matters? I came to the conclusion that what matters is that individuals are introduced to the friendship and salvation of Jesus Christ. What matters is the establishment of caring, witnessing, serving Christian communities. What matters is a church grappling with the issues of the day with integrity, love and a passion for justice. And what seemed to matter little was the beating of the Baptist drum.
Then I came to my present pastorate at Hillhead in Glasgow, set in the West End of the city. It serves a cosmopolitan and very transient population. There are also those who are highly educated and those who are socially deprived. Before I arrived, the church had embarked upon a policy of Open Doors. In effect this was making effective use of the church premises by enabling a variety of groups within the community to use the premises. The more cynical would see the church as no more than a letting agency. The more enlightened would see the venture as engaging with the work of the Kingdom. So during the course of any given week, the church offers hospitality to those with mental health problems, for self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and for teenagers suffering with or in remission from
cancer. A daily cafe provides opportunity to meet with the general public. There is a nursery for young children. A rent-key scheme run by the West End churches to assist the homeless has its office on the premises. Weekly activities might include anything from a Gospel meeting to Japanese classes, from friendship groups to Lyric Choirs. It sounds wonderful, but it is fraught with difficulty and conflict as the church halls are used all day and every day with a variety of people all with different expectations, yet identifying with the church building as their own. This experience of only 18 months has given me completely new insights as to what it means to be church, what we mean by salvation, and what it is to do mission. Along with many sociologists of religion, I have always believed that creating a sense of belonging precedes credal affirmations. Identity with a group and with a place frequently comes before identity with a living faith. There are many people around us who are hurting and who require a safe place to be, where they can re-construct and rebuild their lives and where recreation, or re-creation, can occur. Salvation, therefore, is something that is earthed in real life needs and opportunities, rather in theological jargon or Biblical constructs. It occurs through self-help and exploration and not least through mutual trust, understanding and love. The mission of the church, therefore, is not paternalistic and patronising but based on partnership with all those who seek justice, hanker after renewal, value and purpose to life, and who require not just help but hope. This scriptural notion is the way of Christ. Those invited by our Lord to follow him were not vetted first for right belief before they were used or involved. Our Lord acknowledged that outsiders could have more faith than those on the inside. Those on the margins were welcomed, received and given dignity and worth.
In the context of this paper, the issue this raises is this: when we talk about open membership, how open is open? Full membership of Hillhead Baptist Church is open to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Whilst in practice that will necessitate in some form a profession of faith and act of commitment, it is interesting that it is not faith that is required by the community so much as love. Throughout the years the church has displayed a spirit of inclusiveness and a tolerance of a variety of theological understanding. In particular, the church makes it clear that it welcomes everyone, regardless of beliefs, background or nationality. Hillhead Baptist Church views itself as an open community and a few years ago devised the following statement:
We acknowledge the pilgrimage nature of the Christian faith as people who are on a journey;
We, because we recognise the limitations of our knowledge and the shortfall of our practices, try to offer each other understanding, encouragement and help;
We welcome and willingly join in relaxed conversations with people of differing lifestyles and experiences who wish to join in the quest for Christian faith;
We are able to present clear Christian convictions, to share and discuss Christian beliefs within a context which acknowledges that we need to be able to search, to question and, before God, perhaps to arrive at different conclusions; and
We are willing to listen to, and to learn from, other viewpoints and experiences of Christian faith, of church life, styles of worship and expressions of spirituality so that we can benefit from the experience of the Church of Christ throughout the ages and throughout the world.
In case it might be felt that this statement reflects any Baptist Church, it is worth pointing out its distinctives. The membership do not regard themselves as having arrived but they themselves are still seeking. There is a humility which recognises failure and weakness, a quality that is often absent from the life of many churches. There is a readiness to listen to and learn from others both within and outside the Christian fold and an appreciation of the fact that the world-wide Church is much richer than our own little expression of it. The statement is evangelical without being cliche-ridden and has a catholicity or ecumenicity about it in the true sense of those words.
The subject for this conference is Baptist Tradition at the Crossroad Analysis of the present situation and the prospect for the future. I was invited to speak to this out of my own context. I am reminded that way back in 1918, J.H.Shakespeare, the then Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, wrote a book entitled The Churches at the Crossroads, in which he shared his ecumenical vision. It was a passionate plea for Christian Unity and a recognition that the future did not lie down the path of denominationalism. In particular, he was concerned that the churches should make God real, establish the Kingdom within the Kingdoms of the world, should take risks in the process, recognising the spirit of the age, tackling societys ills, transcending nationalism and stepping out in courage. Shakespeare came from what I have called the open membership tradition. He was open both to other Christian denominations and open too to the needs of the world. Those of you who know the story will remember that Shakespeare failed to convince others of his radical vision and died a broken man. I do not think the challenge is any different at the beginning of the twenty-first century as it was at the beginning of the twentieth. We are still at the crossroads. In Scotland, the Baptist Union remains outside of ACTS, The Action of Churches Together in Scotland, and the majority of the Baptist churches seem to espouse a doctrine of salvation that is out of the world rather than a doctrine of salvation within it. South of the border in England and Wales there is ecumenical co-operation and a broader outlook, but in recent years the growth of the Charismatic Movement and the rise of the religious right to prominence has meant the marginalisation of those of us who are more open
and free-thinking. Two fundamental issues when it comes to relating to ones fellow Christians and also to the unchurched are the matter of Biblical interpretation (not whether you believe it, but how you believe it) and the question of boundaries (where you draw the line to include or exclude). I dont know if you know the little ditty:
He drew a circle to shut me out
Rebel heretic thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in.
Wherever you draw a circle, you shut people out and create a barrier beyond the circle; on the other hand if you enlarge the circle, you run the risk of watering down your own particular emphasis. When it comes to delineating the church, where do you draw the line? First, I do not believe we must draw lines where God doesnt. Jesus was always enlarging the circle to
bring others in. But secondly we do need to maintain the integrity of the circle that we draw. There are truths and values that must not be compromised. I do not think these two are contradictory, because love is both inclusive and also the very quality that gives integrity to the church. So what we stand for is affirmed when we are inclusive. One thing that has surfaced within the last six months within Scotland which illustrates what I am getting at is the debate about homosexuality. I cannot embark upon a detailed discussion of that here, but if you believe as I do, that Biblical references to homosexuality are totally inadequate in dealing with the complexity of the subject and that the insights of Jesus in dealing with people and the command to love are much weightier scriptures than obscure verses which carry blanket condemnations, then those who have difficulties with their sexual orientation need to be affirmed, listened to and valued as people by Christian congregations rather than damned without a by your leave. I sometimes find being a Baptist and a Baptist minister something of an embarrassment. My colleagues brand me a heretic because I dont appear to affirm what I am expected to affirm, whilst those who are hurting, to whom I can be of some pastoral support, are suspicious of me because they assume, that being who I am, I will automatically damn them. Of fundamental importance to me in all of this, is not just the cross that has to be borne in the pain of the situation, but how far I can actually remain in the Baptist fold when I perceive that the preaching of a cold and often cruel morality has supplanted the warmth of a message of Good News! I am the one at the crossroad.
It will have become clear by now that what I mean by open membership extends far beyond the mechanics of church government and theological debates about Baptism. The issue that concerns me is how open we are as Christians to others. Baptist emphasis on the gathered church has also implied the closed church. Hence, the emphasis in mission-talk recently that the community of faith has to move outwards. But I am saying more than that. Our commitment as Christians is to our community and our society and not just to the church. I am asserting that the old parochial model of the church is a good one, in the sense that it reminds us that our responsibility before God is to the people out there, although in my society the parochial model has broken down too. One quip from my college days has always stayed with me: People Matter
Most. They matter most to God, before ideas, laws, rules, regulations, doctrines, creeds, ritual and whatever. I have become sick and tired of Christians, and Baptist Christians in particular, talking about mission. Mission-talk has become selfish-talk inspired very often because the institution is in trouble. But people matter to God not for the sake of the institution. They matter because they are people whom God loves and for whom Christ died. They matter for their sakes not ours. They need to be ministered to, and it is through accepting them, loving them, receiving them, listening to them, serving them that the spiritual dimension will impact upon their lives. I conclude with a quotation from the Baptist Times (the BUGB weekly newspaper) of the 18th May (Its the other Graham and Steve Show p.5). It reported on Steve Chalkes contribution to the BUGB Annual Assembly in Plymouth: The problem with the concept of the
gathered Church, he said, was that it tended to exclude people unless they opted in, rather than
including people unless they opted out. Too many Christians make the mistake of shoving
Christianity down peoples throat when they should be loving them into the Kingdom. I could not agree more, and I found this quotation interesting because it comes from a Baptist minister who would not originate from the same theological stable as myself. It enables me to end on a note of optimism that our denomination may yet realise that love and not dogma is at the heart of the Christian gospel.