Today was cafe church, when we share in breakfast and conversation as well as prayer and worship. Here is a flavour of what happened...
We set out to spend the morning reflecting on some of the things that make us who we are as a worshipping community, as we prepare to update our constitution. We grounded that in prayer, sharing around our tables something that has been joyful in the past week and something that may be difficult in the coming week, as well as holding the world before God.
We heard Matthew 28:16-20 and Acts 2:42-47, two passages which tell us something of what makes us Church, and reminded ourselves that there are also things that make us specifically Baptist, and other things that make us even more specifically Stoneygate. And so in groups, we discussed the following questions: What makes us Church? What makes us Baptist? What makes us Stoneygate? There was a great flow and hubbub of conversation, and it was great to hear a couple of folk share something from their tables with the whole congregation. We heard that Stoneygate is a place where we seek to accept everyone whatever their journey, and are able to disagree with grace. We also heard that we have been a place of both comfort and challenge, and a place to find family as well as church
Then rather than the usual sermon, I shared a little of my experience of finding my home and my feet in the Baptist tradition: Some of you will know bits of this story already, but I grew up in an Anglican church until the age of sixteen, then spent a few years in a non-denominational but broadly non-conformist church, before moving north with my family at the age of twenty. We would probably still have identified most strongly as Anglican at that point, as that has been the most significant part of our church experience, but the two Anglican churches in the town were High Church or Anglo Catholic, and we had been very much at the other end of the candle, so we found ourselves at the Baptist church, as the feel and the style of the worship was more familiar.
Having found myself in a Baptist church, I wanted to understand what that meant, and so like the nerd I am, I went and looked up the Baptist Union website. I read the Declaration of Principle and the Five Core Values that we explored together last year, and I found that the way of being church that they described felt like the natural fulfilment of the way of being church I had grown up in. I often joke that a little part of me will be forever Anglican, mostly my fondness for liturgical prayer, and I have benefited greatly from my experience of other church traditions, particularly Ignatian Spirituality. And of course I am first and foremost a Christian, because what holds us together at the centre is more important than what pushes us apart at the edges, but in terms of denominational loyalty, I am decidedly and enthusiastically Baptist.
My affinity with the Baptist tradition really centres on the core principles of baptism and membership, and so they are what I want to focus on for the rest of the morning. I was christened as a child, and that was a significant thing for my family, as it was what made us regular churchgoers, so I am still glad of it even as my understanding of baptism has shifted. My church took confirmation very seriously as a profession of faith and an affirmation of the vows previously made by parents and godparents, and I knew from a young age that I wanted to take that step when I was old enough, which in my church was at the age of sixteen. A difficult set of circumstances meant we left the church before that could happen, which was a great sadness to me, and left me with a deep sense of having missed something important.
Landing in the Baptist church and realising that I could not just affirm a baptism that had been chosen for me, but actually choose my baptism for myself, felt incredibly exciting and profoundly right, and so I was baptised by full immersion on the profession of faith at the age of twenty two. It proved to be one of the most significant experiences of my life. I remember feeling overwhelmed by a sense of unworthiness as we sang the last hymn before the baptism itself, and for a moment I wasn't sure if I could go through with it, but this was followed by a soul deep assurance of my absolute worth. And it was through prayers and passages of scripture offered that day that I came to discern a call to ministry. I have been present for numerous other baptisms too, and they have always been joyful and meaningful occasions, and so while I recognise that we take different paths to and through faith, I would encourage anybody to very seriously consider baptism if they haven't already. I think it is one of our distinctives for good reason.
So that’s baptism and now membership. An important thing to know about my childhood church is that our worship was multigenerational and multivocal, with everybody pitching in with everything from preaching to setting out chairs. By the time I was old enough to read a few words off a scrap of paper, I was helping lead prayers, and that was hugely formative for my understanding of what it means to be the church. It was also significant that we were a family church in the fullest sense of the expression. The congregation really felt like one extended family, so that everyone knew everyone else, and as kids we were blessed with an abundance of honorary aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents.
Coming from this background, the Baptist principle of membership, which affirms that everyone has a voice and a gift to offer, and everyone covenants to one another, made perfect sense to me. I recognise that not everyone chooses membership, and we still seek to include and involve people as fully as possible without it, but as with baptism I would encourage folk to think about it if they haven’t already, as I believe that it continues to hold significance for our shared life, not least because members have the right to vote in church meetings. The matter of voting means that the importance of membership is perhaps felt most keenly at the church meeting, and in the exercise of what we call congregational governance. That may not sound like the most exciting phrase you’ve ever heard, but I think we should be excited by it, because it means that we get to decide together who we are and what we do. The Baptist church is a grassroots movement not a hierarchical institution, and that means we have the freedom to be real and responsive and radical. In the same way, the church meeting may not always feel like the most exciting hour of your month, but I am passionate about those opportunities to discuss and make decisions about the life and ministry of the church, and the potential for them to be moments in which we hear from one another and from God, and build a church which is ever more like the kingdom.
Having highlighted baptism and membership, we turned back to our tables to discuss the following questions: What is your own experience or understanding of baptism and membership? How important do you think they are for our shared life? How do we express their importance without making them barriers? As we gathered back together, we were reminded that we have folk who have come from a variety of church traditions and had different experiences of baptism, but are welcomed and loved just the same, and that those who are not members are still invited to take part in and contribute to church meetings, so that their voices can be heard even if they are not able to vote. We then spent a few minutes praying for the life and ministry of the church.
It was a wonderful atmosphere, and so encouraging to not only celebrate some of the things that make Stoneygate Baptist Church such a brilliant community, but also to share them with guests and visitors. If you would like to know more about us, feel free to have a dig around the website or get in touch with our minister at email@example.com or come along any Sunday. And if you want to learn more about the Baptist tradition we are part of, there is a wealth of resources on the Baptists Together website, and you might like to begin with this helpful leaflet.