The 06:30 train from Macclesfield on a cold Saturday morning is not normally something to celebrate but it was the first leg of a great day attending the Baptist Assembly. This year held in Oxford.
The day packed a lot into a short timeframe and was a significant improvement on last year. The morning started with worship and an introduction to the day by the excellent Rev Beth Allison-Glenny, followed by a session reviewing the life of the Baptist Union (and the AGM). Included in this were updates on aspects of Baptist life, a little about the vision and values of the Union and a short address by Didi Oprenova from Sofia Baptist Church, Bulgaria and Vice-President of the Baptist World Alliance. Didi was good, sharing some of her experiences as a teenage Christian in Bulgaria and the need to endure; she should be invited back. The rest of the session was OK, it’s always hard to cram lots of things into a limited time but the fact that it sometimes feels disjointed is a flag to us that we haven’t yet sufficiently grappled with a vision for the Union as a whole (which has depth and diversity) nor developed a way of communicating as a movement (which inspires churches yet collaborates with them). Stephen Keyworth was notable for his gracious tone in explaining the recent discussions on SSM where it is blatantly obvious we do not all agree. The AGM part needs some work and some decisions about what needs to be included: for example, if we need to receive accounts people need a decent overview of the numbers and a vote which includes those for, against and abstaining rather than a couple of incomplete and decontextualized powerpoint slides and an opportunity to gesticulate some vague acceptance. Conversely, if we don’t think it is important to receive accounts lets change the system! [And let's not loose sight of the issue that we've not yet found a way of enabling corporate discernment as part of Assembly.]
Lunch time included a variety of options, with a few short seminars (the one I listened to was good) and some ‘Soapbox’ conversations where someone shared for a few minutes on a subject they were passionate about. These conversations were in a hall which had lots of noise making it harder for people to hear – but it was a great idea and should be repeated.
The first afternoon session was the BMS: World Mission update. As always it included some good stories of work being done, this year used to explain and illustrate the updated mission strategy for 2016-2020. The second gave an extended opportunity to think about the current refugee situation and included some examples of how Baptists are involved in trying to provide help and relief. It was right and important that we gave time to this; it is one of the biggest issues facing our continent and our political response as a nation is often shameful – we must to more and we need to support and encourage those who are making a contribution in this area.
The final celebration included moving people to sit among people from the same association (which worked much better than I thought it would). It was great to recognise new ministers and mission personnel and include In Memoriam in fitting ways (though I still think we should have invited back those who missed out last year). Personally I was happy with the corporate worship (I must be getting old because I really don’t need it that loud) but there were a couple of occasions when I wondered if we might do more to recognise the diversity of styles across our Union and there isn’t any excuse for not using inclusive language.
So overall a good day. The teams of people who worked to put it together did a good job and deserve thanks.
And yet as I sat on the train home I reflected that I feel increasingly distant from ‘The Union’. For all the changes in recent years it feels even more that the power is held by a distant group and that I’m not a stakeholder in what is said or done, it is ‘their Union’ and I’m not a part of it nor do I have any meaningful way of being part of it. This might say as much about me as about the Union of course, but if others share my feelings it means that energy which might be devoted to building up Baptist life is being invested elsewhere.