One needs to carefully read the whole statement which is attached below to understand fully what they are and are not saying. I did offer the Baptist Union an opportunity to be interviewed, and I published their response the day after I posted this..
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- Steve Chalke says the Bible got it wrong in lots of places
- Steve Chalke and others on Homosexuality
- A spectrum of views on human sexuality
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- Vaughan Roberts admits same-sex attraction
Examining the statement, and some other materials on their site, it seems that the Baptist Union has decided to devolve to local churches some decisions regarding the issue of same sex relationships. This is under-girded by a restatement of what they say has always been their church government structure, which leaves all decisions on doctrine and practice to local churches. In other words, the Baptist Union have effectively announced that as a group they will have no position on this issue.
They appear to have decided that ministers who wish to offer blessings of same sex relationships will be allowed to do so provided both their personal conscience allows, and that their local church body agrees.
What this statement doesn’t address is whether local churches can go a step further and go through the process enshrined in the new legislation to “re-register” so that they would be allowed to conduct same sex marriages on behalf of the state. On the face of the statement below, this would seem unlikely at least initially, as having stated that they will give local freedom, they seem to contradict this somewhat and say thatthey uphold the traditional definition of marriage as a group, and further add that Baptist ministers will not be permitted to be involved in any form of sexual relationship outside of the context of a heterosexual marriage.
The statement does seem a bit confusing, as it appears to allow local churches to consider offering a service of blessing to gay couples who are either living together, or have had a secular gay marriage, but would appear to not allow local churches to consider offering actual gay marriage.
Most Christians see marriage as comprising two elements: the secular legal component before the government, and the spiritual before-God component. In many non-conformist churches in England these two elements are separated with the secular element happening in a registrars office, and the spiritual element happening in church. Unless I have misread this statement, it seems to suggest that local Baptist churches might offer a form of blessing service for gay couples that did not constitute marriage before God, the church, or the World. One of several points that is not clear is whether such a service might also be on offer to heterosexual members of society who had chosen to live together rather than get married.
Clearly the views of many Christian groups on gay marriage are in flux, but in all honesty I do find this latest move a bit confusing, perhaps we will be able to get some more clarity in the coming days.
UPDATE 15th May
Unsurprisingly Premier’s article about this has led to great controversy, and not a little confusion. The Baptist Union of Great Britain were disappointed by the way that Premier reported this event, and they have issued a second statement (also included in full below) in which they say,
Contrary to the headline claim of Premier Radio, no decision has been made that same sex ceremonies can take place in BUGB churches. What has been re-iterated, is that any such decision rests with the local church and not the Union as a whole. This is a response to the requirements of the Government’s Marriage (Same Sex) Bill 2013, which as a Union it was incumbent to make. In doing so, we worked hard to ensure that, in the case of Baptists, the recognised religious authority’ is properly recognised as a local Church Meeting
It is clear that there has been a gradually developing situation at the Baptist Union, and that they feel they have not done anything particularly new or radical. But this paragraph actually seems to go further than the original statement, as it seems to say that any local church which decided they wanted to offer same sex marriages would be able to do so while remaining a member of the Baptist Union. So, from the perspective of Premier Radio one can see why they felt this meant that same sex marriages were to be allowed in the future, while the Baptist Union see a distinction between the body leaving the decision to local churches and actually making the decision themselves.
The Baptist Union has also released to me the script of a brief statement that Stephen Keyworth, their faith and society team leader which was used to introduce what is included below as their “original statement” to their own Assembly. He described the discussions that they have been having for some time now as follows:
Some have not welcomed the conversations because they say that you want us to converse because you want us to change our view…
Others have not welcomed them because they say that they have been talking for ages and nothing has changed…
It’s important to remember that the focus of those conversations has been to try to understand and appreciate why others, who read the same Bible, think differently to me… or you… And to recognize where our shared values lie…
To recognize and appreciate all that is held in common and to celebrate our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ…
These are not issues that can be understood in sound bytes… They are issues that on both sides are too often dealt with in terms of judgment and prejudice…
And they are issues that the media love to stir up and use against us…
I want us to rise above all that…
In terms of the ‘new law’ and the consequences for churches there are details on our website…
We know from ‘the conversations’ that there is a breadth of opinion in our union – There is a breadth of understanding and interpretation when we go to the resources of faith to consider issues of sexuality and faithful relationships…
This up-to-date statement from the web-site ‘Patheos’ in the U.K. relates the situation of an interview with a Baptist Union representative, Steven Keyworth, who talks about the latest outcome of a meeting of delegates to discuss their response to the recent legalisation of Same-Sex Marriage in the U.K.
One had supposed that there probably could not be a more conservative Christian group than the Baptist Union, so that their decision to even consider the possibility of conducting a Same-Sex Marriage in a Baptist Union church would seem to be something unexpected, to say the least. However, after an announcement was made in the first instance, the Union has made this statement:
“Contrary to the headline claim of Premier Radio, no decision has been made that same sex ceremonies can take place in BUGB churches. What has been re-iterated, is that any such decision rests with the local church and not the Union as a whole. This is a response to the requirements of the Government’s Marriage (Same Sex) Bill 2013, which as a Union it was incumbent to make. “
This process seems to have gone quite a bit further than our own Anglican Church in New Zealand (ACANZP) which, at it’s recent General Synod meeting – despite making an apology to LGBT people who have been hurt by the anti-gay attitude of the official Church, and affirming their presence within the Church as fellow worshippers – has only made a decision to allow Same-Sex monogamous relationships to be acknowledged in parishes where both Vestry and Vicar are in favour of doing so, and with the local bishop’s approval.
However, at this time, there can be no Marriage ceremony performed, nor any official service of Blessing of Same-Sex relationships – because there has been no change in the official doctrine of exclusively heterosexual marriage.
What General Synod did decide to do, was to appoint a small working party to explore the Church’s future polity on the theology of Marriage, to see if there could be any way found to accommodate to inclusion of Same-Sex Blessings in the future. This commission will report to General Synod in 2016, and if there is any substantial change to polity, this will then have to be discussed in the Diocesan Synods and then reported back to the following general Synod in 2018 for ratification.
On balance, it would seem that the U.K. Baptist Union has gone much further than ACANZP towards the enablement of Same-Sex Blessings, with the decision that the process will be up to each Church Fellowship to decide for themselves – what to do about this matter – without any interference from ‘Head Office’.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand