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Baptist Union Council: October 2020 

Justice issues were at the heart of the first ever Baptist Union Council to take place solely using video conferencing technology. 

More than 80 participants gathered on Zoom across two days (21-22 October) for this autumn’s gathering, which was also the first Council to be signed in BSL.

The online technology enabled the use of chat boxes, breakout rooms and digital voting for feedback, discussion and decisions. Council last met in November 2019 after the March gathering was cancelled amid growing coronavirus restrictions.
Council members approved six new measures relating to justice, as well as issuing a wider call.

Virtual church members’ meetings and discerning fairer ways of distributing ultimate trust monies from closed churches were among the other items on the agenda.

BU Council October2020

Scroll down for the following reports:

  • Justice
  • Virtual church members’ meetings
  • Property Ultimate Trusts 
  • Finance  
  • Pensions update 
  • Funding for Training Working Group 
  • Key Roles Nominations
  • Sharing stories


More than half the gathering was devoted to discerning what God is saying to us on justice issues, and resulted in Council members voting to support six recommendations that seek to embed justice concerns at the heart of our movement. Council seeks to discern the broad strategic direction of our Union, and these recommendations will be taken to the Core Leadership Team to implement.
The initial justice session on Wednesday sought to gain a picture of where we are as a movement. A section of the Listening to God, Listening to each other film featuring Gale Richards, minister of Zion Baptist Church in Cambridge, was shown. Gale said movements with secular roots such as Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter and #metoo are hearing the cries of the oppressed - while there are aspects of these movements that are hugely problematic, is the church hearing these cries, or walking on by like the priest in the story of the Good Samaritan?
There was a sense that the killing of George Floyd has served as a catalyst to bring many justice issues to the fore, said Diane Watts, the recently appointed permanent Faith and Society Team Leader. She acknowledged there is much pain in both our movement and our communities. She shared a picture of what it would mean for our Baptist family to take off our shoes and wash the feet of others, as Jesus did. While there is lots going on, many churches are asking for tools to help them listen and respond. Diane asked: what’s happening to help our family listen and serve?
Diane highlighted what she had been seeing in her role, including that of our national justice working groups: Jane Day, Centenary Enabler, is involved in a lot of work around gender and gender justice. Wale Hudson-Roberts, our Justice Enabler, had been holding a lot of people’s pain and stories in the last few months. The Joint Public Issues Team were hearing the voices of those overwhelmingly marginalised in difficult economic circumstances. BUEN – the Baptist Union Environmental Network – had launched this autumn, and there was also the work of the Disability Justice Working Group. Alongside this, Associations were building up their own justice hubs, while we are aware of many churches working to promote justice in their communities.
Dion-Marie White highlighted some of the activities of the Hebe Foundation in working with young people, explaining there has been an increase in mental health issues, and how we all have a responsibility to let young people know we are there for them.
Hayley Young introduced a video she had curated, in which different Baptists explained why justice is an important part of God’s mission in their context. Council members then broke into breakout rooms to discuss what they had heard, and how we embrace the fact that mission and justice go hand in hand. There was then an opportunity to feedback to the whole gathering.

On Thursday Diane outlined some of the threads that had emerged.
  • She reiterated how much pain there is – in the room, in the movement, and in our communities.
  • Now is the time for action; there are wider calls for justice in society, and people are exhausted by talk without change – the time is now
  • How do we reflect theologically on range of justice issues facing us?
  • How do we raise awareness in both churches and ministerial training so we can become people of justice in our communities?
  • We need to be proactively investing in structural change; for this we need both research and to be measuring it
  • How careful listening is essential to building diversity
  • How do we address the disconnect in many churches that justice is not mission?
  • Finally, it’s about walking with, not doing to 

Council members were then invited into breakout rooms to discuss what’s stopping us making concrete progress on these issues. What are our anxieties?
Some of the barriers highlighted in the shared feedback included the imbalance between unity and reputational risk; the fear of being categorised as too political in tackling an issue, there was still a hang up of social gospel versus the 'real' gospel; and a strong inertia against change.
Members were then invited to vote on six measures that will take us forward. In introducing the measures, Diane acknowledged that there remains a sense ‘there is a long way to go’, but it is hoped that each can help embed a culture of justice across our movement for the medium and long-term, as well as result in action now.   
These measures are:

  • Council calls for a day of prayer focused on justice issues in which lament plays a significant role
  • Council commits to an ongoing culture of listening, including the development of a listening programme
  • Council asks CLT / Trustees to resource research across Baptists Together to enable ongoing listening, discussion, and to further our justice work
  • Council asks CLT / Trustees to provide the resources needed to create/distribute resources to help churches discern their own responses to justice issues
  • Council agrees to look at ‘bench strength’ in more detail at the March 2021 Council (succession planning and encouraging a diversity of leaders to develop)
  • Council commits to having an annual diversity audit of Council, using the diversity figures given in the Futures Report as a baseline for measuring 

In agreeing to these measures, Council felt that it would be helpful to offer an additional call. While lamenting that Council hadn’t reached the diversity figures as encouraged in the Futures report, there is a recognition there needs to be a greater diversity in leadership across the movement as a whole, and that everyone should be encouraged to reflect on this issue.  
The call is as follows:
Council, in the light of the racial injustice seen so painfully and clearly over recent months, and lamenting our own lack of diversity, calls all of the churches, Colleges, Associations and Specialist Teams in our Baptist movement to join us in actively and immediately working for more diverse leadership.

Virtual church members’ meetings
Members' meetingsCouncil members were invited to discern whether virtual, online church members’ meetings are an acceptable reflection of our Baptist ecclesiology - and therefore whether it would be appropriate to hold them beyond the restrictions of the pandemic.
With churches drawing upon and appreciating the value of online resources, said Caroline Sanderson, Legal Services Manager, the question is now being asked of our Legal & Operations Team as we look forward to a time when the Covid19 restrictions are lifted in full.
The current advice to our churches has been to reflect that of the Charity Commission and to be 'as pragmatic and flexible as possible', she explained: meetings can take place virtually, with the understanding that decisions taken using electronic means would be subject to challenge unless ratified at a later meeting of members in person.
Additionally, in response to the pandemic, new legislation has been passed which has temporarily allowed corporate charities (which includes church CIOs) to hold members’ meetings virtually. This legislation expires on 30 December.
Currently neither of our two Approved Governing Documents for churches makes any provision for church members’ meetings to be held electronically. Case law on the matter is unclear.
Caroline said it has been a long-established Baptist principle and central to Baptist ecclesiology that church members’ meetings should allow for members to gather together in person, to pray and discern the mind of Christ, which requires their full participation.
With this in mind the Legal & Operations Team sought advice from Council on whether online church members’ meetings are a Baptist way of gathering.
While some concern was expressed at what is lost in an online-only meeting, the overwhelming consensus among Council members was that churches should be free to discern for themselves, as online life has become increasingly normalised, and many churches have actually experienced higher attendance than normal for an online meeting. One member explained that we expect the Holy Spirit to be present in our online services; it should be no different for online meetings.
Therefore, when members were invited initially to vote on whether it is ‘an acceptable reflection of Baptist ecclesiology for church members' meetings to be conducted by electronic means’, the result was 97 per cent in favour.
They were then invited to recommend whether ‘churches should hold virtual church members’ meetings in exceptional circumstances only’; or whether ‘churches should be free to discern for themselves if virtual church members’ meetings should be held in exceptional circumstances or can be convened this way generally.’ They voted in favour of the latter by 92 per cent to 8 per cent. Suggested template clauses were also approved.
The Legal & Operations Team will now update its guidance about church meetings and add the template clauses to our guideline leaflets. This will allow church leadership teams to consider whether to suggest such an amendment to their constitution to the members (any decision to amend would require the approval of church members in a special church members’ meeting.)
Property Ultimate Trusts 
Council agreed to the appointment of a working group to explore fairer ways to distribute ultimate trust monies that come to the Baptist Union from closed churches. Ultimate Trusts are usually set out in the foundation deeds of a church and state how funds from the church are to be used following closure.
The proposal was introduced by treasurer John Levick, who explained that most church property deeds include a clause directing who should be the beneficiary should the church close. In many cases this is the Baptist Union, and Baptist Union Council agreed many years ago that ultimate trust funds coming to the Baptist Union would be shared with the Association where the closed church was located. The current split is 50:50 or 60:40. 
John explained that while the majority of ultimate trusts state a Baptist organisation as the beneficiary, there are others who can be beneficiaries.  Some deeds, particularly for older churches, specify the Particular Baptist Fund, others state The Baptist Building Fund, a separate charity, established in the early 19th century to fund the building of churches. (the BBF is usually the beneficiary of church buildings it helped to fund). Until the recent past the BBF has shared some ultimate trust funds with Associations, but a change of policy has resulted in this stopping, though the funds can come back to the Baptist family through a new series of grants for building projects in smaller churches as well as its usual provision of loans for building work.  
Some trusts state an Association as the beneficiary - this usually reflects where the Association has, or has had, its own Trust Company. Other Associations which have never had a Trust Company are reliant on their share from the Baptist Union when their churches close, and these tend to have fewer financial resources than the others. Church closures do not occur evenly across the country so Associations benefit differently.
In recent years, some Associations have asked that closed church buildings where the BU is the ultimate trust beneficiary be available for use by local church plants. While the Council directive is that funds are split in the appropriate proportions, some flexibility has been exercised, "but this has not been consistent and needs clarity", and is not in line with previous decisions by Council.  
Associations have been free to determine the use of any funds they receive. 
Trust money going to the Baptist Union has in recent years been put into the Pension Reserve and used to help fund the pension deficit in various ways, including the Family Solution. 
John explained that the working group will address the following issues:  

  1. To consider whether there is a way to distribute ultimate trust monies from closed churches which is a fairer reflection of need. 
  2. To determine on what basis closed churches or proceeds from closed churches can be reused for planting/replanting in the locality. 
  3. Whether account should be taken of closed church funds going direct to local Associations when allocating BU closed church monies. 
  4. Should there be a different percentage split between BU and Associations? 
  5. When the Pension Reserve does not need additional funds what should the BU share be used for? The Funding for Ministerial Training is an example of additional funding which will be needed in future and could come from ultimate trust monies.  

The group will comprise:  

  • Baptist Union Treasurer 
  • A representative from an Association which has or had a Trust Company 
  • A representative from an Association without a Trust Company 
  • A representative from the Mission Forum/ Pioneer Network 
  • A specialist Team Leader 
  • Up to two others 

It will report back to Council next autumn with proposals for the way forward. 
Richard Wilson, Support Services Team Leader, gave a finance update. Home Mission giving experienced a steep drop in April, but recovered in May and June, and has subsequently continued as normal; though 'normal' is not ‘a fantastic place’ said Richard, and continues the trend of a gradual decline. We are anticipating a shortfall in Home Mission of around £100k, which would be in line with the 2019 result in cash terms. Nevertheless in the context of the year, ‘this is a good outcome and considerably ahead of where we feared we might be in the spring,' said Richard. Legacies are a 'significant point of concern' as they are tracking well behind budget.  
The Specialist Teams are currently anticipating day-to-day spending being below budget by around £100k, due to reductions in travelling and committee expenditure and projects that cannot proceed due to the current circumstances. This will offset some of the likely shortfall in income. 
A provisional budget has been outlined for 2021, which will be signed off by Trustees in December. The allocation for Associations and Specialist Teams is slightly down. The budget has been based on the pre-existing formula for distribution of funds, which dates back to around 2013. Richard explained that a fuller review of this formula is overdue, and plans are being put together for this to take place in 2021, subject being able to hold the required meetings.
Pensions update 
There was some good news regarding pensions, said Richard Wilson. He told Council members that the deficit in the defined benefit scheme was £18m in the valuation at the end of 2019, down from £93m three years before and has since reduced to around £14m. This is a result of the Family Solution and the continuing contributions from churches as well as movements in financial markets. The scheme also benefited from buying an insurance policy to pay the benefits of those already drawing a pension from the scheme which reduced the risk in the scheme and generated a gain of around £20m.
A revised deficit recovery plan was implemented earlier this year which has reduced church contributions by 50 per cent for the second half of the year; it has also shortened the recovery plan by 30 months, meaning it is now due to end in 2026, not 2028. 
Funding for Training Working Group 
The pandemic has halted progress of a new working group established to examine the challenging issue of funding for the training of future Baptist ministers. 
The group has been created following discussion at Baptist Union Council in November 2019

Steve Holmes of St Andrews University had been appointed moderator for the group earlier this year. However, Steve has resigned from this position as he is now unable to give it the time required.  Ian Bunce, minister of Romford Baptist Church, who had been appointed as deputy moderator, has accepted an invitation from BUGB Trustees (after consultation with CLT) to take on the leadership of the group going forward.
Key Roles Nominations Team
Rupert Lazar, moderator of the Key Roles Nominations Team, brought a number of recommendations to Council, all of which were supported.

  • Phil Jump, NWBA Regional Minister Team Leader, to serve another three year term as a trustee.
  • Marjorie Allan of The Well, Sheffield, to serve another three year term as part of the Accompanying Group.
  • The Revds Gemma Dunning and Mark Hirst to serve further three year terms on Council.
  • The Revd Pamela Davis to serve as Co-optee on Council for three years.
  • A one-year extension to John Levick’s term as treasurer until May 2023 (the extension is recommended to provide continuity for the Union as we approach our next Pension Triennial Evaluation in 2022.) 

Rupert also reported that Alastair Mitchell Baker will come to the end of his three year term as moderator of Baptist Union of Great Britain trustees in August 2021. ‘We acknowledge the sterling work Alastair has given to this role,’ said Rupert, ‘and now have the task of finding a successor.’
Sharing stories

Each session began with a short video. Three of these films featured reflections from ministers on the last six months; a further three were taken from the Listening to God, Listening to each other film series running through the autumn. 
The ministers featured were Claire Blatchford, Cranham Baptist Church, Upminster; Dave Tubby, Heaton Baptist Church, Newcastle upon Tyne; and Heather Marsden, Rushmere Baptist Church in Ipswich.
The Listening to God films shown featured Gale Richards; Simon Jay and Ben Lucas.



Baptist Times, 26/10/2020
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