Friday, April 23, 2010

Theological Reflections on Re-imagining

The Baptist Union of Victoria is presently undertaking a phase of ‘re-imagining’, which provided the foundation for a time of theological reflection in a session earlier this week. Principal of Whitley College, Frank Rees, was invited to present a paper, which he has published on his blog. Carolyn Francis, Jeff Pugh, and Alan Marr offered responses. I found it difficult to find the appropriate point of connection to the conversation, partly because of the “so what” question which lingered in the back of my mind, and partly because of the confusion about whether the focus is on the denominational office, or on the Union of Churches themselves. Frank identified this important distinction. Frank’s starting point, however, was one which is worth underlining:
“Frankly it is deeply concerning that so little of our decision-making seems to be guided by any overt theological consideration at all.”
What sort of theological reflection do we need? Two aspects of our theological reflection are perhaps on more solid foundations than the other. We need an historical theological reflection: one which looks back to the scriptural foundations, both the text of scripture and the life and teaching of Christ. While this apparently rests on a sure foundation, there are issues to be addressed not only in relation to the way that particular texts are interpreted, but also to the particular texts we choose to interpret. Keeping the entire corpus in the conversation and reflection is more of a challenge than we like to admit. Certain texts often are chosen as interpretive grids through which all other aspects are filtered. There are uncomfortable tensions within scripture that we need to keep alive. These must also find consistency with the teaching, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, through whom our understanding of God and his work in the world is ultimately shaped.

But our historical theological reflection must also embrace our own Baptist history, looking back to its foundations and its journey through the centuries. As long as we claim to be re-imagining the future of the Baptist church in Victoria, we must be clear about what we imagined it to be in the first place. Again, this is not as simple as it sounds. Not only do we need to hear our founders’ call to liberty of conscience, even to the point of protecting those who choose not to believe, we must hear also the calls of our Victorian founders, whose unusual step to seek government regulation of our constitution sits oddly with the commitment to separation of church and state. And still more recently we must grapple with the source of the unique diversity which our denominational ties represent, forged on the anvil of some difficult debates in Assemblies, but arguably given a mere nod in the present.

Historical theological reflection is important to our understanding of the present. We cannot hope to understand where we are without examining the journey to this point.

The second aspect of theological reflection which perhaps rests on more solid foundations is that of the future. The eschatological hope which calls us forward. At the core this is clear – the reign of Christ and the restoration of God’s order. We believe that God’s future is clearly established in the just reign of Christ. It is hope which shapes our action in the present. It gives us something to work towards, even if we do believe that the end interrupts rather than fulfils the directions of creation. Our task and call is to work consistently with God’s purposes, which are spelled out for us. But again, this is more complex than initially apparent. Interpretations about the way the end will come cloud the apparent consistencies we uphold about what that future might look like – at least in terms of the internal values it represents: justice, peace, grace. Eschatology asks us to articulate what we believe God is calling us to become. This is grounded in scripture, and in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, which if it confirms anything tells us that the purposes of God are stronger and more sure than any systems which earth can array against them.

The third aspect of theological reflections is somewhat more contentions: reflection on what God is doing in the world today. It is a tenet of mission: to find where God is working and partner with it. How are we to do this? It is important that we undertake the first two aspects of theological reflection before entering this phase. We cannot know where we are without understanding where we have come from (how we got where we are), and where we are going. Any interpretation of the present must find its orientation between these two points. And it must be done in partnership with some form of sociological reflection: an understanding of what is happening in the world around us. Jesus once rebuked his hearers for not being able to read the signs of the times. The temptation is to paint this picture in two colours, rather than to engage the nuances of God’s work in the world today. The world is both getting worse and getting better. This curious admixture of good and evil is ever the challenge for the church to negotiate. For the purposes of our own denominational journey, we must constrain our focus at some point to reflection within the churches which make up the BUV, and the denominational office itself. (As much as I support Frank’s contention that the denomination is the churches, we must recognise and articulate the disconnect and individuality of identity. It is the only way we can work to realign them.)

I hesitate at this point to offer some pithy insights which such a reflection might bring, as the complexity of the task is one which requires more than one person. I will, however, make some observations.

First, there is no such beast as “value-free action.” We wonder whether the BUV should lead the churches. It does. The actions it has taken have always conveyed a message to its member churches. One of the best ways to identify the values of anyone or anything is to evaluate its actions. The statement about intentions should always be measured against the actions which are undertaken, and vice versa. Are we doing today that which reinforces the values we espouse? the calling we confess? On Tuesday night I found myself pondering this when the statement was made by someone that smaller churches seem to be grappling most and coming up with the most creative responses to the present missional challenges, and considered the parallel denominational discussions about the viability of small churches. The disconsonant ring between these two points echoed in my ear. Similarly we speak of the BUV as the union of churches, yet our new governance structure seems to reflect a governance model which moves away from empowering churches in this regard.

Second, I had some difficulty understanding whether the focus on re-imagining is about new ways of being church, new ways of being a denomination, or new ways of structuring the denominational office and function. The conversation on Tuesday night left me in somewhat of a quandary here. Perhaps the issue relates to articulating the primary purpose of our churches and structuring our denominational office so that churches can achieve that. Arguably the greatest challenge to be faced is how we build the bridge between our scriptural and denominational heritage and our present setting. With Frank, I believe that our Baptist heritage leaves us well-placed to engage the public realm. Many tenets of Western belief systems are found within our own: liberty of conscience, commitments to freedoms, and to just action. Losing grasp of our denominational heritage has hampered us somewhat here.

The third comment emerges from what appears to be an elephant in the room. Not one conversation picked up on Frank’s observation that “churches in general, including Baptists, will continue to experience significant decline in numbers, finances and viability.” If any piece of information should cause us to pause and reflect, surely this is one. This is a challenge of imagination as much as anything else, something which perhaps requires a paradigmatic shift in our thinking about church properties and denominational assets. Currently about half of our denominational office is funded from a source whose original charter proscribed its use for such a purpose. This has the dual impact of reducing funds available to churches for the original purpose of the fund, and covers up a question related to the longer-term viability of our collective ministry through the denominational office.

This is an important conversation, and a welcome initiative from the BUV leadership. Getting one’s head about its complexity perhaps requires that we be less focussed on the immediate structural responses and more about articulating the correct questions to be asking. I thank those who presented their reflections on Tuesday night, and who engaged in response. I would say, however, that the demographic in the room also gave some pause for reflection…

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