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Welcome to the archive of Beyond 400 - an innovative collaborative project of BUGB Baptists re-imagining life after the first 400 years.  You can still read and comment on the first 40 Baptist Voices that were published in the early months of 2012 and other voices that were added afterwards at Go Fly a Kite. The book of the 40 voices is no longer for sale.

Thanks to the many who submitted articles and joined in the ensuing online conversations which are archived here.
Peter Dominey, Juliet Kilpin, Neil Brighton, Andy Goodliff, Simon Jones, Chris Duffet.

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The first baptist church in Britain met in Spitalfields, London, still known as a tolerant place which harbours dissenters, artists, anarchists and free-thinkers who want to challenge injustice and unfairness.

Words such as these were used frequently to describe early baptists, a group of Jesus-followers beginning to be joined together by a shared commitment to the priesthood of all believers, God’s Word, sharing God’s story with others, freedom of religion and absence of coercion, the pursuit of justice, social action and mutuality.  Whether regarded as heralding from the controversial Anabaptists or Puritans these early baptists faced persecution for their stance and even 50 years after their foundation were still being sentenced to death.

We who choose to draw our nutrients from the rich soil of this tradition have much to be thankful for and a great deal to inspire us as we work out what it means to be faithful Jesus-followers in a society where tolerance is still sometimes as hard to find as fairness and justice.  As someone who grew up in a family with few church roots I will forever be grateful for the baptist people who nurtured my faith, taught, envisioned, equipped and affirmed me.

A decade ago my mate Darrell Jackson wrote a paper with the provocative title ‘Does the future have a denomination?’ I thought it pretty prescient and nicked it for the conclusion to my book Building a Better Body, where I asked it of the church.

I was working for BMS World Mission at the time and we were revamping our entire communications strategy to take account of the growing non-denominationalism of an increasing number of our supporting churches. They supported us because of what we were doing overseas, not because we or they were Baptist. Our focus was shifting from associations to individual churches and even individuals within those churches, who were being signed up as supporters. The centralising and slimming down of the co-ordinator team (of which I had been a part) seems a logical development of this.

Darrell’s paper and the BMS’ action were the result of trends within our churches where denominational awareness was decaying. People chose to attend Baptist churches because they were local, evangelical, charismatic, socially engaged, where my mum and dad worshipped (or any combination of those factors). Few confessed to being Baptists.

Even fewer had any awareness of the association of which their Baptist church was part or what the Union was. What mattered was that their church provided what they were looking for; if it came with a Baptist label that was ok, but inconsequential.

In eight years back in local church ministry, I’ve not seen anything that suggests this trend is being reversed. One member out of 300 lamented the passing of the Baptist Times, before commenting that he hadn’t read it for years; few go to association gatherings and only a couple show any interest in the Assembly – despite the fact that I was involved in putting together one strand of it for the first five years of my time here. They’re not alone: attendance at the annual jamboree has all-but halved in the last decade.

Tagged in: History

I have a confession. Even though I have been married for 19 years, I’m in love with another’s bride. She’s beautiful, powerful, inspiring, she makes my heart leap, the very idea of what she might become thrills me. I might want to shape her, guide her, want her to fall in love with me too, but alas she is betrothed to another. I may want to provide for her, comfort and protect her, but I know the one who has her heart is infinitely more wise, strong, capable and loving than I am, even on a good day (and I can have some really good days, honest).

I want to share my wisdom with her, but I know that when she pauses to think, when she listens hard, when she gives attention to her own thoughts, and those of her lover, she comes to a place of more wisdom that I could ever imagine.

Sometimes she confuses me though. Sometimes, she seems to want to stop listening, or appears to have forgotten that she is so good at it, and sometimes she wants others to do this thinking and listening for her.

"Tracing Baptist theological Foot Prints"

As we look beyond 400 years of Baptist life in England, I want to trace five theological footprints which marked early Baptist communities which might still be important as we ‘look beyond the horizon’ and ask what our vision might be.

Reading the Bible

There is a challenge to help churches to engage in reading the Bible. We may have colluded too much with a pulpit-orientated form of church life on the one hand, and an individualistic piety on the other. There are possibilities for imaginative ways of reading the Bible together. In looking at the role of the Bible for Baptists, I suggest that what has been distinctive for Baptists has not been a doctrine of biblical authority but rather a particular way of using the Bible. It is remarkable that in his ‘Short Confession of Faith’ of 1609 John Smyth does not include a clause about scripture. This might have been due to the fact that the document was written in a hurry. Even so, the omission suggests that a doctrinal formulation on the Bible was not at the forefront of Smyth’s mind. What did concern him deeply was how the Bible functioned in practice.

Living the Life

There is an emphasis in Baptist thought, as in Anabaptism, on the new way of life that is to be lived, but what is striking is the strongly Christ-centred framework in which this set. On the question of ‘living the life’, one of my own interests is in how biography can be used to shape our Christian stories today. There is much to explore here.

Tagged in: History

We are talking primarily about the future of a Union of Baptist churches, not the future of churches themselves.

In other denominations, the national or regional body is the church; for us, the local congregation is the essential ecclesial reality, and regional and national organisations are derivative. Thus the question we face is different, and perhaps less urgent, than a similar problem faced by a different Christian community.

This is not to say that national and regional organisations are unimportant. Classically, we look to the statement of the Abingdon association in 1652, which asserts that ‘there is the same relation betwixt the perticular churches each towards other as there is betwixt perticular members of one church.’ This, in Baptist understanding, is an astonishingly strong claim: churches are called to share their lives to such an extent that they stand or fall together.

As our history developed we chose to exercise this corporate responsibility towards one another by delegating it to paid officers, both in local congregations and in regional/national organisations. In the local church, the work of ‘watching over’ each other - pastoral care, encouragement in ministry and discipleship, and church discipline - was placed largely in the hands of the pastor, and/or an elders’ court; locally and nationally we appointed superintendents, association officers, and regional ministers to offer the beneficial external support spoken of by the Abingdon churches.

Tagged in: associating History

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