Faith at the boundaries
Paul Fiddes reports on the latest conversations between the Baptist Union and the Church of England
“With most ecumenical reports you have to guess at the conversations that lay behind them. This one is different. Here you actually get the conversations, the cut and thrust of debate.” This is the way that the book about the new series of conversations between the Baptist Union and the Church of England was introduced at a special launch-meeting held during the recent General Synod of the Church of England in York.
The book is called Sharing the Faith at the Boundaries of Unity, and it claims to be as unusual on the ecumenical scene as the report of the first series of conversations, called Pushing at the Boundaries of Unity (launched 2005).
While there has been no intention of working towards any formal union between the two confessions, those participating have believed they have come to a common vision that needs to be shared and tested out among their churches. They have felt that they are indeed ‘pushing at the boundaries’ of what seems possible in their relations, that they are breaking fresh ground; they believe that careful and prayerful attention to the reports can take Baptists and Anglicans a long way on the path of shared discipleship, worship and mission.
In the first series there were no formal recommendations such as one usually has in reports, but the participants offered probing questions of each other’s churches about baptism, pastoral oversight, and what it means to be ‘apostolic’. They wanted readers to face up to the questions they were posing together.
Were they willing, the questions asked, to trust each other in these areas? Were Anglicans and Baptists willing, for example, to recognise not a common baptism, but a common process of initiation, a whole journey of beginning in Christ in which baptism was an essential part but not the whole. Were they able to see each other sharing in such a journey?
This first report is still available, and can be downloaded for free from the Baptists Together website, together with a popular study guide for use in church groups.
Now in a second series of conversations the motif of ‘boundaries’ continues. This time it’s about the way we share and declare the faith at the boundaries of unity. Just as the first report broke the mould in its questioning approach, this one breaks it again presenting conversations. Named people offer their contribution, invite a response, respond to it in turn, and then allow the conversation of the whole group to shape and influence what they had first said. Readers are are invited to add their voice to the ongoing conversation. They can do this, for example, by using the popular study guide available for small church groups.
The report begins by asking how we know what the faith is. What part do the bible, tradition, creeds, historic formulas and many forms of church teaching play in telling us what it means to have faith today in the God revealed in Christ through the power of the Spirit? How can we know what truth of the Gospel is in a late-modern world? Do we as Baptists and Anglicans have different ways of knowing what the faith is? Can we learn from each other in our different emphases? These big theological questions are handled in the first part of the report.
But as the Anglican co-chairman, the Bishop of Peterborough points out, you might like to pass quickly over these 60 pages and get to the second part, which asks practical questions that flow out of the theological depths. It explores the way that Baptists and Anglicans answer these questions in practical situations, sharing ‘on the ground’ experiences, and it seeks a common mind. There are three of these questions.
First, how do we receive and grow in the faith? Are there different forms of Christian nurture in our churches?
Second, how do we celebrate the faith in worship? Is the difference between Anglicans and Baptists really between form and freedom, between liturgy and spontaneity? What can we give to each other in communicating the faith through our worship of the triune God?
And third, how do we share the faith beyond the walls of the church? Might we have something to give to each other in the ways we do mission, and what can we learn from each other about the role of church in state and society?
The Baptists and Anglicans involved are sharing the faith at the boundaries, and the cover picture of the book illustrates this boundary situation. The modern East Window of St Martin in the Fields is an interface between the worship of the church inside and the busy life of Trafalgar Square outside. Its presentation of the cross in broken lines and swirling circles evokes many interpretations in the minds of churchgoers and those who come from beyond the walls of the church; it reminds us that we live with incomplete and fragmented knowledge, at the frontiers of unity in church and world.
The audience gathered for the launch of Sharing the Faith at the Boundaries of Unity were a mixed group of Anglican delegates to Synod and ecumenical representatives from the Catholic, Methodist, United Reformed, Presbyterian, Church of Scotland, Orthodox and Moravian churches. Its launch was greeted with much interest, and all the copies of the book and study guide were sold out. It seems that conversation-partners are indeed willing to stand at the boundaries of unity, to push them hard, and to share the faith.
Sharing the Faith at the Boundaries of Unity can be downloaded free from the Baptists Together website, together with a popular study guide for use in church groups. A printed copy, expanded with extra essays of reflection, can be ordered for £10.00 plus postage from the website of Regent’s Park College, Oxford (click on ‘Centre for Baptist History and Heritage’ and ‘Publications’.)
The Revd Professor Paul S Fiddes is Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Oxford and Director of Research, Regent’s Park College. He edited Sharing the Faith at the Boundaries of Unity