A few weeks back Victorian Baptists had a difficult conversation. It was all to do with marriage, more particularly our response to the possibility of same-sex marriage in Australia. Anticipating future change to the Marriage Act to include same-sex couples, a motion had been tabled to affirm our Baptist commitment to marriage as between a man and a woman; further, to ensure that pastors who marry according to Baptists rites act within that definition no matter what legislative change lies ahead.
Breaking previous records, our attendance at the delegates’ assembly illustrates the importance of the issue. While we may not all agree, when it comes to matters of sexuality we are a zealous bunch. Understandably, our Union leadership struggled with the best way to frame and conduct the conversation. Consequently the possibility for open debate was minimized. Prior to the gathering, two one-page documents were circulated to the churches, one making the case in favour of the motion and the other against. Similarly on the night, one person was asked to speak in support and one opposed. Discussion was then limited to the tables at which delegates were seated after which there was a secret ballot. As expected, the motion passed.
It is no secret where I stand on this. My appointment to Union Council in 2014 drew considerable opposition, and I was also the one who made the case against the motion on the night. Though disappointed by the outcome, I was not surprised. I understand that I hold a minority view on this issue and as much as I personally grieve the implications of the decision, I remain committed to our Baptist community. My purpose here is not to argue the case any further, but to name my concern over the continuing tenor of our conversation.
As much as I would love to simply move on – to conclude that our talk is done and our decision made – this is not an option. Firstly, the conviction of those Baptists who believe marriage equality is a gospel issue is not so easily shelved. When it comes to the gospel, we Baptists are a stubborn lot. And secondly, a steadily growing majority of our neighbours consider this an issue of some urgency. Whether we judge it to be so or not, the strategy of labeling the issue ‘non-core’ or blocking our ears to community views won’t flush. The conversation, internally and externally, has to continue. How it continues is crucial. In a context where sensitivity to issues of perceived discrimination and the violation of human rights is heightened, our neighbours are listening. Indeed, I would go as far to say that how we have the conversation is as important as the conclusions we argue for. In light of that, I reckon there are some things worth holding onto.
We Baptists listen: By conviction, we are a listening people. Without a formal creed or governing council to guide us, we have always had to take the tasks of listening and discerning seriously. We listen in our congregations and communities, and we listen within our wider fellowship of churches. That said, I fear we are losing opportunity for this sort of listening. Forums for rigorous discussion – discussion that takes us beyond one-liners and one-pagers to a more nuanced conversation – have almost disappeared. Our aversion to conflict has whittled away opportunities for real and respectful debate. While I certainly don’t want to return to the ‘good old days’ of denominational trench warfare, the loss of opportunities to listen to perspectives other than our own diminishes us.
We Baptists reflect deeply: Most Baptist would agree that the days of ‘the bible says it and that settles it’ are gone. We have had to wrestle with too many issues, culturally and theologically, to be so naïve. That said, as those who continue to hold to the authority of the Bible, the business of its interpretation is deeply challenging. Early last year a pastor who holds a different view from my own on homosexuality contacted me. He asked is we could meet periodically to talk through our approaches to the Bible on this issue. We have done so now several times and it has been one of the most enriching and challenging disciplines I’ve experienced. Each time we have prayed, read the scriptures and laid our questions on the table. While our differences remain, we have pressed and honed each other along the way and with a common commitment to the gospel. What’s more, neither of us has asked the other to check our critical faculties at the door. I long for more of this in our Baptist community.
We Baptists are sensitive to the power of testimony: The truth is, whenever we talk about these issues, there are those within our own communities – sitting at the same tables, hearing the same arguments, even within our own families – for whom being gay is not an issue for debate but the daily reality of their lives. Some may be open about this while others keep it hidden. Even in that meeting of delegates, there were men and women who could not so easily separate themselves from the issue. Their personal testimonies are deeply entwined. Whatever our view on marriage equality, we do well to remember that our words, inferences and convictions are heard and felt. Indeed, each time we talk about these things we could do worse that imagine a person from the LGBTI community sitting at the table. The question is important: how would this change the tenor of what we say?
We Baptists preference faith over labels: On both sides of this issue we have an unfortunate propensity to label those who oppose our position. Clearly labels make dismissing those in disagreement so much easier. I often cringe at the ease with which those in favour of marriage equality dismiss the opposition as ‘bigoted’ and ‘homophobic’. While I have no doubt that bigotry and fear are alive and well within segments of the church, in my experience the majority of Baptists who oppose same-sex marriage do so out a genuine desire to be faithful to God and to the Scriptures. Similarly among those opposed to same-sex marriage, to speak routinely of ‘gay lobbies’ and ‘liberal agendas’ simply dismisses those who come to their affirmative position out of a genuine desire to follow Jesus. Of course, lobby groups exist on both sides of this issue and agendas run rampant in all corners of the church. But assigning labels does nothing but shut down conversation and push fellow Christians further into their trenches.
We Baptists pray … together: Earlier this year I received a visit from some Christian leaders who had asked to meet with me to discuss issues of concern. I agreed. Once we sat down it was quickly evident that this was an intervention. They were grieved by my public position on the issue of marriage and felt compelled to call me to account. Once I realised where we were headed, I asked if we could begin in prayer. The leader of this group was quick to respond, ‘We cannot pray with you, but we will pray for you.’ With that he led a prayer outlining my errors in dot point and asking for the conviction of the Spirit. On one hand I am pleased that these leaders came to me rather than speak about me from a distance, but I was deeply troubled by their perception that I was not someone they could pray with, as though my perspective on this one issue rendered me spiritually suspect. At its essence, prayer is an act of humility, a means through which all people of faith bow in submission to the presence of God. If we cannot begin there, I wonder if the conversation is really possible.
All this said, we Baptists do need to talk, and keep talking. More important still, we Baptists need to listen, and keep listening. If we are to find ways ahead on this issue that honour God and flow out of our common allegiance to Christ, there really is no other way.