Each year, Whitley College puts on this thing called ‘The School of Ministry’, three days marked by worship, some teaching (via keynote talks and workshops), and eating together. I haven’t been to a lot of these over the years because I’ve been out of the country, but the ones that I have been able to get along to have been very worthwhile. For example, it was at one of these gigs that I first heard Chris Marshall introducing his extraordinary work on restorative justice (published as Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment, a book that was followed up a decade or so later with his Compassionate Justice), and I remember hearing Richard Foster talking about patterns of prayer, and I remember hearing Paul Fiddes speaking about baptism and the creative suffering of God in ways that I didn’t know were even possible.
This year, we welcome again Professor Paul Fiddes to address the theme of Baptist identity. Paul’s is certainly one of the most outstanding theological minds of our time, and a great teacher. I can’t wait to hear him again.
More information about the program and registration can be found here.
Paul Fiddes has written a nice little reflection on the nature of covenant and how it relates to Baptist ecclesiology. Here’s a section:
It is essential to realise that this covenant is not a legal contract. The ‘way’ in which covenant partners walk can only be one of mutual trust. This is where Baptists have given an insight to the universal church which is a true gift. In the local congregation, covenanted together, all the members ‘watch over’ each other, and this ‘oversight’ happens in the church meeting as they seek to find the mind and purpose of Christ for them. At the same time, Baptists have always believed that Christ calls some of these members to exercise ‘oversight’ (or a ‘watching over’) in a spiritual leadership of the congregation. Among Baptists there is no legal provision, no church law, which regulates the relation between these two forms of ‘oversight’, the one corporate and other personal. Congregations must therefore learn to live in the bonds of trust between the people and their ministers. Oversight flows to and fro freely between the whole congregation and its spiritual leaders.
In the same way, oversight flows to and fro between the local congregation and the association of churches. The single congregation lives in a covenant made by Christ, and Christ is present among them to make his purpose known. The congregation is his body, where Christ becomes visible in the world today. This is why the congregation has ‘freedom’ to make decisions about its life and mission, and cannot be coerced or imposed upon by any church authorities outside it. The congregation is not ‘autonomous’, which means ‘making laws for itself’. Christ makes its laws, and the church has the freedom and responsibility to discern his ways. It is free because it is ruled only by Christ.
But Christ also calls local congregations together into covenant, in association. Where churches are assembled through their representatives, there too Christ is present, there he becomes visible to the world in the body of his people, there his mind can be known through the help of the Holy Spirit. Local congregations are thus ‘interdependent’, needing each other’s spiritual gifts and understanding if they are to share in God’s mission in the world.
Yet in the covenant principle there is no legal contract, only the way of trust. In their search for the mind of Christ the local church meeting must listen to what the churches say as they seek to listen to Christ together. It must take with complete seriousness the decisions made at an association level, and will need good reason not to adopt them for itself. But in the end it has freedom to order its own life as a covenant community which stands under the rule of Christ. It needs the insights of other churches to find the mind of Christ, but then it has the freedom to test whether what is claimed to have been found is truly his mind. It might feel called to make a prophetic stand on some issue, and will stand under the judgment only of Christ as it does so.
Other churches may think that this covenantal approach of mutual trust is hopelessly impracticable, and that it would be better to regulate the relation between people and clergy, between churches and diocese or province. Baptists have learned over the years to live with the risks of trust and love. Here there is plenty of opportunity for muddles, mistakes and frustrations, but also room for all to flourish.
A few week’s ago, on the eve of what was anticipated to be a time of conflict and hostility in Melton, one of Melbourne’s western suburbs, the Director of Mission and Ministries for the Baptist Union of Victoria, the Rev Daniel Bullock, sent out a letter to Baptist church leaders inviting them to pray for fellow Baptists in the Melton area. Such a letter was both timely and appropriate.
However, my colleague Terry Falla and I felt that more could have – and ought to have – been said in that letter, and so we sent a brief response to Daniel and to the BUV’s communications department to that effect, hoping that they might be able to find a place to make it public. Unfortunately, Victorian Baptists – Baptists of all people! – have effectively abolished any such avenue for public discourse and discernment. Neither our denominational blog, nor our assemblies (or ‘Gatherings’ as they are now called), nor any other places of which I am aware, offer such opportunities to occur in any meaningful ways. The reasons for this are complex, and do not, as far as I have been able to discern, reflect the desires of either Daniel himself or of the BUV’s communications department. Given this current reality, I have decided to share our letter here instead in the hope that it might encourage further reflection and discussion among my colleagues in ministry:
Your call for prayer for the churches of Melton (20/11/2015) was timely, for there is no doubt that, as incredible as it seems, religious liberty for some minorities in Australia is now under threat. Your invitation has caused us a great deal of soul searching and has given rise to the conviction that, should another town or city be the object of anti-Muslim protests, we as Baptists include those under attack in our call for prayer and find ways of standing in solidarity with them in extremely distressing and stressful days. After all, it is not mostly us Christian churches at this time in our history that are the objects of fear, anger, resentment, and prejudice, but our Muslim sisters and brothers.
Our recommendation is twofold: (i) a call for prayer for those who are the target of discrimination, and (ii) that in our own local contexts some of us meet with Muslim leaders and other Muslims to express our concern for and solidarity with them; to gratefully and graciously receive whatever hospitality might be offered; to share with them how our own faith tradition was itself born of adversity and persecution, and values profoundly the principles of liberty of conscience and freedom of worship for all; and to commit to embark on the journey of learning to celebrate together what Jonathan Sacks calls ‘the dignity of difference’.
We encourage Victorian Baptists to embrace these challenging invitations with the fear-negating love, faith, hope, and courage that characterises followers of the crucified and risen Jesus.
We look forward to hearing from you.
In grace and peace,
Terry Falla & Jason Goroncy
Daniel’s response (published here with his permission) was both gracious and encouraging:
Dear Jason and Terry
Thanks for your correspondence to the Comms Team with proposed posting for our BUV Blog, expressing your concerns and recommendations around our recent call to prayer regarding the events expected in Melton.
We don’t actually have a forum for this type of posting on the website – neither BUV Blog, nor Baptists on Mission provide a forum for ‘letter to the editor’ type pieces. I do take on board your point though, that although we did ask people to pray for the churches, for safety and peace on the streets, and for those charged with maintaining law and order, we didn’t also include prayer for those who are the objects of fear, anger, resentment, and prejudice. This was an oversight, which we will be sure to address on any future occasion. I agree with the points you are making, it’s a helpful and instructive communication, so again, thank you.
Paul Dekar’s book, Community of the Transfiguration: The Journey of a New Monastic Community (Cascade Books, 2008), maps the historical, theological, liturgical and missiological life of Holy Transfiguration Monastery [HTM], or what many of us know better as The Breakwater Community – a Baptist monastic community in Geelong, near Melbourne. HTM was birthed in the early 1970s and bound together by ‘a common calling to contemplative prayer, simplicity, a Eucharistic focus, and the nurture of monastic spirituality’ (p. 33). How this birth happened, and the shape that the life birthed has taken, and is taking, is a focus of this book, but by no means the only focus.
Dekar, who is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism and Mission at Memphis Theological Seminary and (as I understand it) a ‘Companion in identification with HTM as a spiritual home’, locates the story of the Breakwater Community among the wider stories and history of Christian monasticism in both its ancient and contemporary forms: ‘HTM exhibits many generic traits of its monastic forebears and of the new monastic communities. These include the centrality of Jesus Christ, communal life under a rule of life, vital worship, use of the visual arts, care for youth, care for the natural world; and ministries among marginalized persons. In this sense, the life of Community members is neither unique, nor original, perhaps only “newly born … a spirit and an endless trying, changing and beginning again”’ (p. 57). That the members of the Community have sought to explore and live out of traditional monastic spirituality for over thirty-five years has, in Dekar’s words, ‘made the Community somewhat of a working model, or bridge, between past and contemporary forms of monastic religious life’ (pp. 61–2).
Dekar believes that ‘the radical love Community members have extended to lay people, pastors, denominational leaders, critics, and even enemies is perhaps its greatest gift’ (p. xvi). That I can count myself as one among many who has been, on more than one occasion, the recipient of the hospitable love of this extraordinary and permission-giving community (once in the form of home-made lemonade and a pumpkin – food for the journey, so to speak), is but one the reasons that I was so keen to read this book. But from my brief experience and observation as a former pastor in the Baptist Union of Victoria, among the greatest gifts bestowed by the Breakwater Community to the wider Church is the centrality, rhythm and theological maturity afforded to gathered worship, and the attendant invitation to live all of life as an expression of and participation in the One who gives himself in the eucharist. It is, I believe, appropriate, then, that Dekar devotes a significant portion of the book to introducing readers to some of the liturgical resources and prayers authored by the Community, and to outlining the theology and practice of HTM’s worship, the shape that a community in which ‘the nurture of warm, personal intimacy with the Holy Trinity’ (p. 89) lies at the heart of common life.
On occasion, Dekar gets sidetracked from the main story and expends ink on some of his additional interests which, although loosely related to the book’s subject, disrupt its flow. Still, this moving and challenging book records a fascinating and important – albeit small – chapter of the story of Victorian Baptists, and locates that story in both a wider and more grassroots ecumenical and catholic context. Those already familiar with the inspirational life and witness of the Breakwater Community and its relationship with the Baptist family in Victoria, and those interested in hearing a more-detailed account of one community that religion sociologists might locate in a movement known as ‘New Monasticism’, will find much of interest here.
The Australasian Baptist Research Forum, in conjunction with Whitley College, Melbourne, is organising a conference for 27–29 June, 2011 on the theme The Bible and Baptists: Readers, Teachers and Preachers. Here’s the official lowdown:
2011 is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Authorised Version of the Bible. Such an anniversary provides an excellent opportunity for reflection on the place of the Bible among Baptists. How have we and do we interact with the text of the Bible as ‘lay’ readers, professional teachers and preachers? Papers are invited that explore this theme historically, theologically and pastorally, or provide examples of how Baptists are currently undertaking any or all of these tasks. The audience at the Forum will hopefully include not only those engaged in theological study, teaching and ministry, but also thoughtful Christians ready to participate along side the ‘professionals’.
Keynote speakers will be Professor Sean Winter, graduate of Bristol Baptist College and Professor of New Testament at the Uniting Church Theological College, Parkville, Victoria; and Dr George Wieland lecturer in Biblical Studies, Mission and Cross-cultural Field Education at Carey Baptist Theological College, NZ. We are also negotiating to have an academic from Asia present at the Forum. It is proposed that a book of papers from the Forum will be published as the third ABRF publication. Presentations at the Forum will be no more than 20 minutes long with 5 minutes question time. Final papers should be no more than 5000 words including footnotes and written for thoughtful Christians.
A call for papers has also been issued:
Abstracts due: 15 April, 2011
Confirmation of Papers Accepted: 30 April, 2011
Final Papers Due: 3 June, 2011
For further information, or to submit abstracts, please contact Dr Graeme Chatfield (email or +61 02 92627890).