Bearing the Baptist name in recent years has been a challenge, to say the least. Especially in the South where only one kind of Baptist is “King.” When I confess that I’m a Baptist minister, people get quiet and ask just what kind of Baptist church would ordain someone who looks like me – a woman! At this point, explanations about how my church and I are not that kind of Baptist ensue, leading us down the dark path of Baptist history, one with many splits over theological and dogmatic debates.
Early this year, when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship released its “Illumination Project” report, I thought Baptists were on the verge of another epic split: those who are welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ persons versus those who are, well, . . . not. (I’m aware that there are also many Baptist Christians who are somewhere on the “undecided” continuum). This imminent split was further solidified in my mind when I read the 43-page Implementation Plan. It includes the statement that CBF will only employ persons for leadership positions who “practice a traditional Christian sexual ethic of celibacy in singleness or faithfulness in marriage between a woman and a man.”
Knowing that I’d be presenting a workshop at this summer’s annual gathering, I believed in my gut that I would be attending the final gathering of the CBF as we knew it. Certainly, there would be good old-fashioned arguing from the floor at the business session, half of the CBF-affiliated churches wouldn’t be represented this year, and the whole energy of the gathering would be negative and hopeless. I’d also lost hope that my friends who identify as LGBTQ would be there.
Arriving in Dallas as one Baptist (SBC) meeting ended and another Baptist (CBF) gathering began, I felt the legacy of Baptist division first hand – being on the receiving end of a sexist joke on my first elevator ride in the hotel – and I knew this would be the year for further division. If JFK could go to Dallas to die, so could CBF. But what met me inside the worship space, gathering spots, workshop rooms and, yes, the hotel bar did not feel like death at all. In fact, it felt like new life.
During my four-day stint at this year’s general assembly, I witnessed Baptists of every make and model affirm that unity is more important than sameness. I attended a breakfast expertly orchestrated by the emerging Affirming Network in a room filled to max capacity. I saw lesbian and gay couples holding hands as they walked through the exhibition hall, as well as LGBTQ clergy speaking on panels as if it was an ordinary happening. I listened to Moderator Shauw Chin Capps and Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter admit – from the mainstage – that clergy sexual misconduct was a problem, that it has permeated Baptist life for too long, and that it has caused women to leave the church and relinquish their callings to vocational ministry. Also, I saw a clear effort to include persons from non-European racial and ethnic backgrounds in leadership roles in worship and workshops, giving credibility to the organization’s global reach and commitment to racial justice.
This is not the CBF I thought I knew. This is a new CBF. One that is brave and bold. This is a Fellowship I might want to be a part of.
At Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, where I have served on the ministerial staff for eight years, we have not been affiliated with CBF – largely because our congregation has been committed to inclusion, welcome and affirmation of people who identify as LGBTQ since before CBF existed. (The church formally adopted an inclusion statement in 2002.) There seemed to be no reason for churches like ours to participate, unless we wanted to show up and constantly have to defend the minority opinion.
But what once felt like the Baptist version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is starting to look and feel different now. Who knows, with CBF’s commitment to New Baptist Covenant, its leadership on racial justice and public statements on racism, participation in the Angela Project and the commemoration next year of the 400th year of black enslavement in America – steps that closely align with our church’s commitment to dismantling white supremacy – there may be hope to see Myers Park Baptist linking arms one day with CBF.
I do still pray and long for the day when CBF makes a bold statement of full inclusion for all people and recognizes that failing to do so is perpetuating the marginalization of people from all sides of the gender spectrum. But in the meantime, this progressive Baptist minister, who one generation earlier would have struggled to find a church to ordain her or a church she’d be willing to serve, sees a glimmer of new life shining from the margins in CBF.