The Declaration of Principle and the Baptist Way of Being Church
The Declaration of Principle (DoP) is the basis of the Baptist Union of Great Britain (BU). It is in large part a description of aspects of the Baptist understanding of the church. Very significantly, it refers to the liberty of member churches to interpret and administer the laws of Christ. This stresses an important aspect of our ecclesiology – the independence or autonomy of the local church. However, it should be noted that our associations and union are the fruit of another aspect of our understanding of the church, one not explicitly mentioned in the declaration. This is our long tradition of working together in relationship. It is sometimes referred to as our commitment to interdependency.
One outcome of this is that there are some things, like home mission and having central specialist teams, that we have collectively agreed are best done nationally; other things, like care of local churches and pastors that we choose to do through regional associations; and many others that we all agree are matters for the local church. Of course, our shared commitment to independence means that it is a matter for each local church to decide the extent to which it will or will not cooperate with those things we do as expressions of our interdependence. If a church does not want to join in with home mission, we can encourage it to think again and try to persuade it to change its mind, but we recognize that we cannot force it to be involved.
Among the many things we have chosen to do nationally is to maintain a list of accredited ministers. We agree collectively the processes (such as ministerial recognition etc.) and criteria (like marks of ministry) that we use to discern which names should be on that list. We also agree the standards of conduct for such ministers, and these are set out in our ministerial rules. The policies of our system of ministerial accreditation are nationally agreed and overseen.
Of course, there are many things that rightly belong to the local church. One of these is the decision about whether churches choose to register their buildings for the conduct of same-sex weddings. When Council considered this issue, it made a clear statement about marriage which stated that it is between a man and a woman. It also urged all our churches, in the light of this, not to register their buildings. However, it also recognized that it could not prevent churches from doing this if they chose.
In all our deliberations about these issues, we need to keep in mind that some decisions are rightly made locally while others are matters for national discernment.
National Accreditation and Same-Sex Marriage (SSM)
In the letter received by the BU requesting a change to the ministerial rules that would enable those in SSMs to be accredited minsters, one of the main arguments put forward is that the fact that churches can register their buildings for same-sex weddings creates a tension with the ministerial rules. There are two things which might be said about this.
- The churches were urged by Council not to register their buildings. Those that have ignored this request have created any tension they experience by their decision to go against the advice of Council.
- More significantly, we should recognize that any tension involved in this is simply a further example of the tensions inherent in the way we do church together. There will always be times when the things some of us do locally and things we do nationally are out of step with one another. This is one of those instances and is not grounds for making a change.
The key point is that we all need to recognize that some matters are for local discernment and some for national. The rules about the accredited list are a matter for our national processes. While the experience of some of our churches is a matter that ought to be considered when looking at the rules, it cannot be regarded as decisive.
It has also been stated that those who do not agree that SSMs are true marriages will not be affected by this rule because they can continue to be ‘non-affirming’. This ignores the fact that our accredited ministers are ministers of the BU as well as being ministers of their local churches or other contexts. Their calling is, through our shared processes, effectively recognized by us all. This position is articulated in the Introduction to Accredited Baptist Ministry recently published by the BU which states
…accreditation identifies those whose calling to spiritual oversight is broader than to just their local congregation. An accredited minister shares in the oversight of the whole network of churches, associations and colleges that make up Baptists Together, even if their own focus is a particular church, project or institution. It follows that their ministry is recognised nationally and that they may be commended to all our churches across England and Wales.
Our accredited ministers are, in one sense, called to the spiritual oversight of our whole network and so we all need to be satisfied that they meet our agreed criteria and live in accordance with our shared expectations. They are therefore quite rightly subject to our rules and disciplinary processes.
Stephen Finamore has been a lawyer, led a community development project in inner London and worked for a rural development project in the Andes of northern Peru. Having trained for ministry and read theology in Oxford, he is currently Principal Emeritus of Bristol Baptist College. He has been elected to serve as President of Baptists Together for 2024–25.
Stephen has written a number of books, and his short commentary on Romans is available free with Bible Reading Fellowship: www.brf.org.uk/product/romans-unwrapped/