KOH2RVA Day 192

disaster-responseLast night the Richmond Baptist Association voted to maintain fellowship with Ginter Park Baptist Church, a church that recently ordained an openly gay man to the ministry.

The vote was close—very close—but it was enough to establish a simple majority and settle the question, at least for last night: Ginter Park can stay in the RBA family. How the churches of the Association will respond to that news remains to be seen.

But here’s what I find myself wanting to say this morning: Baptists and Buddhists can work together if the cause is just and the mission is clear.

When Superstorm Sandy pounded the coast a few months ago, for example, Baptists from Virginia were among those who raced north to provide relief. But they weren’t the only ones. People of different faiths and people of no faith at all were working alongside them to provide food, clothing, and shelter for people whose homes had been lost in the storm.  They didn’t have to agree on every point of doctrine in order to work together; just on that point that insists that people who are hungry and cold need some help.

I remember my own experience with disaster relief after Hurricane Fran hit the North Carolina coast in 1996. I jumped in a car with a few other Baptist men and drove to Wilmington, NC, where I ended up washing out empty food containers after hot meals had been delivered. I worked side by side with a delightful older couple whose views were almost completely opposite of mine. If we had been in a Baptist meeting, we would have voted differently on every issue.

But we weren’t.

We were in a disaster-stricken area trying to provide relief to people who had almost nothing left in the world. We didn’t have to agree on everything to agree that what we were doing was both urgent and important.

I think Sterling Severns helped us see that last night. He said that when he came to Richmond as a pastor nine years ago he asked his new church why they supported the Richmond Baptist Association. “Because of Camp Alkulana,” they said. Because every year the RBA takes busloads of boys and girls from inner city Richmond to spend a week at camp—breathing fresh air; hiking, camping, swimming; and learning about the love of Jesus in a beautiful natural setting. For those kids, for that week, heaven really does come to earth. That’s one of the best reasons why Sterling’s church, and my church, and Ginter Park Baptist Church give money to the Richmond Baptist Association—so those kids can go to camp. We don’t have to agree with each other on everything to agree that that’s a good thing, and something worth doing.

So, in spite of all our discussion about homosexuality last night, and about what the Bible says, and about what we believe, in the end we voted to keep on working together on what we agree is important—those kids who go to Camp Alkulana, for instance. And if the Buddhists decide they want to send us a check?

We’ll take it.

KOH2RVA: Day 67

Can you bring heaven to earth by making a motion at a Baptist meeting?

Well, no, apparently not.

I went to the microphone yesterday during the miscellaneous business portion of the BGAV annual meeting to ask if we could amend a recent decision made by the Executive Committee of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. You see, the BGAV—the Baptist General Association of Virginia—meets only once each year, and when we are not in session the Executive Committee of the VBMB makes our decisions for us. Recently the Executive Committee decided to sever ties with Richmond’s Ginter Park Baptist Church for ordaining an openly gay man.

I know, I know…that’s way outside the “norm” for Baptist churches. But when I stood to make my motion I simply asked if we could appoint a study committee to look into the matter and bring back a report at next year’s annual meeting. I said, “I don’t want to open the floor for a discussion of how we all feel about homosexuality, because we would be here for the rest of the week, maybe the rest of the year. And I don’t want to talk about whether this church had the right to do what it did. Of course it did. Baptist churches are autonomous. No, what’s at stake here is the question of whether or not we can maintain fellowship with a church that has taken such action.”

And that got things started.

Part of what I was hoping for was that our annual meeting would not devolve into a shouting match about homosexuality, and I think my motion accomplished that. While most of the people who spoke to the motion were passionate, there was no shouting, and we mostly stayed on the subject. The subject was whether or not a church that had done such a thing could stay in the BGAV “family.” In the end, the answer was no. My motion was defeated 426-164.

The decision of the Executive Committee stands.

I learned only later that the BGAV, in its 190-year history, has never before severed ties with a church, not for welcoming blacks, not for ordaining women. And while I’m sure the Bible was quoted in those instances, and Scriptural reasons given for why such churches could not remain in the family, they did, and maybe that’s only because our sense of family is strong.

I talked with someone at this meeting who has a gay daughter. She said that the news came as a shock to her when she first heard it, but that there was never any thought of kicking her out of the family. “She’s my daughter!” she said, as if that explained everything.

For many people it does; our sense of family is strong. I’ve told my own daughters there is nothing they can do or say—nothing—that will keep me from loving them. But after yesterday I’m wondering how some of our sons and daughters will feel about their place in the BGAV family, and it’s one of the reasons I made my motion: if we’ve never kicked a church out for any reason, don’t you think we could take some time to consider this one? And even if we did end up in the same place, can’t heaven come to earth through respectful talking and listening?

I wonder.

Why the Baptist Church will never sanction the blessing of same-sex unions

ImageLast night the Episcopal Church in America approved a 3-year trial run of a service it calls “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.”  The service is not considered a marriage ceremony, media affairs representative Nancy Davidge said. 

“We have authorized a blessing, and a blessing is different than a marriage,” she said.  “A blessing is a theological response to a committed, monogamous relationship.”

But I’m guessing some of the members of my brother-in-law’s church back in Waco, Texas, won’t see it that way.  Chuck is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal in that city, a church that is progressive by Texas standards and conservative by almost anyone else’s.  I’m guessing that someone will pull him aside when he gets home from the General Convention and ask, “Did you vote for the gay marriage thing?”

This is not a question anyone will ever ask me when I come home from a Baptist convention, because there is no such thing as “The Baptist Church.”  There is no single body of Baptists that makes decisions for all Baptists everywhere.  We have to make those decisions in our own local churches and when we do every member has a voice and every member has a vote.  So, if your Baptist church decides to vote on whether or not it will bless same-sex unions you will have a chance to speak your mind and vote your conscience.  No priest, no bishop, no general convention will do it for you; you will have to do it on your own. 

It’s a tremendous burden for Baptist churches.  A terrible freedom.  But we’re Baptists, and we love our freedom, and even if we have to make difficult decisions from time to time…

We wouldn’t have it any other way.