Whither the Non-Southern Baptists?

Concerning the just-concluded New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta (Jan.3-Feb.1), mostly the brain-child of former presidents Carter and Clinton, Bruce Gourley, interim director of The Center for Baptist Studies and online editor of Baptists Today, wondered in his blog of 01 February if the event was the beginning of a Baptist World Movement. At least 16,000 Baptists registered for the convention, though this number was probably enhanced greatly by the fact that the NBCC began on the same day that the Joint Midwinter Board Meeting (Jan. 28-30) of the four high-profile African-American Baptist denominations (millions of members) ended its meeting in the same building.

Along with the plenary sessions that were addressed by such prominent political notables as Carter, Clinton, Al Gore (speech at luncheon in his honor), and Senator Chuck Grassley, as well as high-profile Baptist preachers/speakers, there were adjunct meetings covering many other subjects having to do with both church and community. Held just days before the "Super-Tuesday" primaries and featuring high-profile mostly democrat-politicians, the NBCC has been criticized by some as more political than religious but, while that may be true on the part of some of the leaders (Clinton the final speaker, whose wife is appealing for the Georgia/black vote on Tuesday), it certainly was not the case for the rank-and-file Baptists, who attended for the worthy, advertised reasons from all over the country.

The Baptist World Alliance is a worldwide fellowship of 214 Baptist conventions and unions comprising a membership of 36 million baptized believers and a community of 105 million. Baptist World Aid is the compassionate arm of the Baptist World Alliance, supporting those in need irrespective of tribe, caste, color or religion, in four areas of ministry: relief, development, fellowship assistance and Connection. It's safe to say that most of the NBCC participating denominations (some 30 of them) are also member-bodies of the BWA.

This being the case, one wonders what Gourley, an important personage in moderate/liberal Baptist circles, meant by his "Baptist World Movement" term. Notably absent from the NBCC was the Southern Baptist Convention of some 17.1 million members, according to the 2007 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, the largest non-Catholic denomination in the United States. The SBC pulled out of the BWA a short while back, many SBC-critics figuring the action signified that the SBC, probably the largest contributor, felt it didn't get to "call the shots," perhaps by virtue of the size of its support.

Others think – probably more correctly – that the conservative-to-fundamentalist SBC felt the BWA was embracing doctrines that run counter to scripture, especially concerning social matters such as homosexual marriages, ordinations, behavior, etc. Indeed, the SBC, once a moderate-to-conservative denomination, was taken over by arch conservatives, fearing wholesale liberalizing of beliefs, during roughly 1979-2000 largely by denominational politicking…not pretty but very effective, especially since the movers-shakers announced early on what they intended to do, and how.

Former president Carter, once an active moderate/liberal Southern Baptist who favors state sanctioning of civil unions for homosexual couples, disagreed with the power-brokers, who ignored him, whereupon he left the denomination back in the 90s. He has not been timid in his denunciation of the SBC, reckoning it publicly to present a "negative" image of Baptists to the nation, notwithstanding that it supports 10,000 missionaries and their ministries of education and benevolence. This, of course, makes one wonder as to his primary cause for instituting the NBCC – spite? Hopefully, no! He has consistently ripped President Bush both at home and abroad, giving rise to thoughts of a possible political agenda as at least part of his motivation for the recent convocation, never mind that Bush plans to be in Texas this time next year.

So, where does this leave the NBCC? Will it become the groundwork for some sort of super-denomination made up primarily of non-Southern Baptists (and largely controlled by octogenarian Carter or his surrogate[s]) but not confined to just this country? Or, was Gourley just indulging a bit of hyperbole? If not, with respect to the Baptist World Alliance he could be treading dangerous waters and introducing more potential for schism, not to mention denominational financial disruptions. The odds in this corner are that he meant quite well but was just overcome with hyperbole.

Unity of various kinds and inclusiveness were the key-words of the gathering, and yet another attempt at closing a chasm between black and white Baptists that exists mostly in the imaginations of a small group of leaders in both camps meant little or nothing, as usual, mainly because the two groups are quite different in their approaches to things such as worship, rights, etc., and don't suffer at all for that. Interestingly, the small Baptist denominations that "normalize" homosexuality were not invited officially to the NBCC. So much for inclusiveness!

It will be interesting to see what the follow-up to the convention will be. This spring, the convocation leadership group will reconvene in Atlanta to consider hundreds of suggestions and discuss how to follow up, according to Carter, who asserted that people had mentioned to him that they wanted the effort to be a movement, not a moment, according to Texas Baptist newsmagazine Baptist Standard editor Marv Knox.