Much of the reaction to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s recently released Illumination Project centers on pages 19-22 of the report: the Hiring Policy and Implementation Procedure. But I find my strongest reaction comes to page 23.
On pages 23 and following, 11 quotes are lifted from anonymous “Conversations with Cooperative Baptists” and presented as source material for a range of opinions within CBF. At the top of the list is this perspective: “When I attended the 2016 CBF General Assembly in Greensboro, I was disheartened and visibly shaken to find so many attendees wearing the Rainbow label in support of an unorthodox and unbiblical stance that homosexuality and same-sex marriage are something other than a sin.”
The prominence of this quote from a “CBF supporter and denominational leader” troubled me initially when I heard it raised in the two Illumination Project sessions I attended over the last year. Maybe it’s because I purchased one of the spools of that offending rainbow ribbon and question why someone would mistake an online order from Michael’s for a disruptive threat. More likely it’s related to the fact that the quote neglects entirely the larger context of the moment, as so many sought to communicate deep grief and solidarity as a gathering of Christians just days removed from the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Most of all, my dismay comes because I know that many of us who have expressed our own convictions about inclusion and affirmation, whether polychromatically or otherwise, have never claimed to represent the whole of CBF, or even the majority of CBF. We’ve merely claimed to be a part of CBF.
Through various forms of expression, many of us have insisted that the breadth to which CBF aspires includes space for our convictions, and particularly for the possibility of inclusion of those among us who are LGBTQ+ persons. Many of us would equally grant that this body includes space for the individual conviction of the CBF supporter and denominational leader at the top of page 23. The trouble is, they don’t grant any such space to others. In the featured quote, a personal conviction is combined with disbelief that someone could hold anything other than a traditional, orthodox view on sexuality, along with the shock that CBF — or at least a CBF General Assembly — could include those who see the sexuality and love of LGBTQ persons as “something other than a sin.” The Illumination Project, thus, foregrounds the perspective of one who can’t imagine disagreement about human sexuality. It claims responsibility for this person and their opinion, as though the resulting policy or plan should not cause them to feel too shaken. In other words, it places this perspective at the top of the list, where it’s been for at least 18 years.
Perhaps that’s why the Illumination Project as a whole aims for neutrality and autonomy but misses the mark, drifting somewhere toward exclusion. The newly drafted Hiring Policy portion of the document can rightly claim neutrality and reflection of the Fellowship. By replacing the 2000 policy and its broad exclusion of LGBTQ persons from positions within CBF with a renewed emphasis on theological commitments and compatibility with CBF’s mission, the new policy gives space for any number of inclusive and traditional views alike, depending on the individual conscience or local church practice. However, the added Implementation Procedure advises limits to internal hiring practices of key ministerial and field personnel positions. This moves past neutrality and veers somewhere closer to those, like the “CBF supporter and denominational leader,” who are shocked and dismayed that some in CBF would advocate for inclusion and affirmation.
While this result has been described as “compromise” or celebrated as a “third way,” it’s important to note that the internal hiring practices suggested in the Project, indeed anything short of at least the possibility of complete inclusion, still amounts to exclusion. The Implementation Procedure effectively replaces the 2000 Hiring Policy with a suggested internal practice that reinscribes into CBF’s story elements of the same exclusion that has been such a grave challenge for CBF and its hopeful future.
For some time, I’ve understood CBF to be a movement of function more than conscience, complete with institutional realities and all of the accompanying challenges and opportunities. I accept that. As someone with a love of the local church, a pragmatic impulse, and a sincere sense of call to join together with other Baptist Christians in the work of the gospel, I have valued the breadth that allows us to do so as CBF. Moreover, I am part of one of the churches the report references that “in practice has not called LGBT persons as pastors.” Our church has not called a pastor who is an LGBTQ person, and moreover, while I have preached and shared openly with my congregation of my personal convictions and we have taken steps toward discernment, we do not at this time have a clarified position on affirmation. But that doesn’t make us a church that expects our process of faithful discernment to become grounds for CBF to maintain an internal practice of exclusion for certain positions.
We have much work to do on a local level and are glad to be encouraged toward that by CBF, but rather than accentuating the fact that “in practice very few of our congregations have called pastors who identify as LGBT,” the Illumination Project could have interpreted that same data to mean that “many of our churches are faithfully considering matters of human sexuality” or “many of our churches are taking steps toward discerning inclusion and openness” or even “many of our churches differ on matters of human sexuality and appreciate a denominational home that remains neutral to reflect this range.”
I do not expect a denominational body to reinforce all aspects of my conscience any more than I expect a congregation to match my convictions in every way. I encourage younger ministers that I’ve worked with to seek the same in the places they serve: “Don’t worry about a precise match. Just make sure the church has space for you and wants to grow with you.” I hope for the same from a denominational home. Most don’t expect a perfect match — just space. So I’m not bothered by a conviction that differs from mine. I’m bothered by the centrality given to a conviction that makes no space for mine.
As it is, the Illumination Project does not hold space for all who have called CBF their “home” and “family.” I hope CBF will have the chance in days ahead to recreate that space, through elevation of individual conscience, local church autonomy, and the best of our Baptist principles, which at their fullest and most compelling expression create such wide space for so many. I will be committed to that work. But with the recent report, I’m hearing too many of my friends and colleagues confirm that what CBF has communicated is a lack of space for them, particularly those LGBTQ friends and siblings in faith. I fear that’s because in the end this project was not about them as much as it was about the person at the top of page 23.