Anatomy of a Schism

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Anatomy of a Schism: How Clergywomen’s Narratives Reinterpret the Fracturing of the Southern Baptist Convention (April 2016, University of Tennessee Press)

by Eileen R. Campbell-Reed

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“Campbell-Reed’s book is unique. No other book that I am aware of takes on the study of historical events in the life of an ecclesiastical body and wrests meaning from them, privileging the voices of a silenced group, in such careful fashion.” —Mary Clark Moschella, Yale Divinity School

From 1979 to 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was mired in conflict, with the biblicist and autonomist parties fighting openly for control. This highly polarizing struggle ended in a schism that created major changes within the SBC and also resulted in the formation of several new Baptist groups. Discussions of the schism, academic and otherwise, generally ignore the church’s clergywomen for the roles they played and the contributions they made to the fracturing of the largest Protestant group in the United States. Ordained women are typically treated as a contentious issue between the parties. Only recently are scholars beginning to take seriously these women’s contributions and interpretations as active participants in the struggle.

Anatomy of a Schism is the first book on the Southern Baptist split to place ordained women’s narratives at the center of interpretation. Author Eileen Campbell-Reed brings her unique perspective as a pastoral theologian in conducting qualitative interviews with five Baptist clergywomen and allowing their narratives to focus attention on both psychological and theological issues of the split. The stories she uncovers offer a compelling new structure for understanding the path of Southern Baptists at the close of the twentieth century. The narratives of Anna, Martha, Joanna, Rebecca, and Chloe reframe the story of Southern Baptists and reinterpret the rupture and realignment in broad and significant ways. Together they offer an understanding of the schism from three interdisciplinary perspectives—gendered, psychological, and theological—not previously available together. In conversation with other historical events and documents, the women’s narratives collaborate to provide specific perspectives with universal implications for understanding changes in Baptist life over the last four decades.

The schism’s outcomes held profound consequences for Baptist individuals and communities. Anatomy of Schism is an illuminating ethnographic and qualitative study sure to be indispensable to scholars of theology, history, and women’s studies alike.

 

Eileen R. Campbell-Reed is associate professor of practical theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, in Nashville, Tennessee, and co-director of the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project, a longitudinal study of ministry. She is the author of Being Baptist: A Resource for Individual and Group Study and numerous articles about women in ministry.

 

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Author’s Overview

From 1979 to 2000 leaders of the Biblicist and Autonomist Parties fought for control of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The struggle polarized Baptists ending in a schism which produced major changes in the SBC and several new Baptist groups. As the story has been told, clergywomen have been largely ignored for roles played and contributions made to the largest Protestant group in the U.S., raising the question: How do Baptist clergywomen’s narratives reinterpret the schism in the SBC?

The fracturing of the SBC has been inadequately understood in both academic and partisan accounts as primarily a theological battle about the Bible or a political struggle over social and institutional issues. Three related problems plague these interpretations: 1) they have not taken seriously enough the roles played by women or the dynamics of gender as a shaping force the schism; 2) no one has attempted a psychological analysis of the fracture; 3) theological interpretations have not appreciated the depths of struggle which were at stake in the schism over what it means to be fully human.

My ethnographic interviews with eight Baptist clergywomen offer ‘paradigm cases’ which show how Southern Baptist schism was not only a battle for the Bible or struggle for political power. The clergywomen’s narratives reinterpret the period as a gendered psychological struggle, waged in Baptist imaginations, relationships, and social structures. At its deepest psychological point the struggle is an effort to undo the paradigm of submission and domination that supports a complementarity culture. At the same time it was an equally powerful struggle to maintain a gendered status quo of complementarity. More unsettling than the explicit polarization between Autonomists and Biblicists over a host of issues, is the reality that both parties also reproduced a culture of complementarity by degrees.

Clergywomen’s narratives also reinterpret the Southern Baptist context not only as a culture of hostility and conflict but also a potential space in which Baptist piety and other convictions like feminism could meet and reshape Baptist identity. Finally the stories tell how some clergywomen and their Autonomist supporters were trying to undo a culture of complementarity and practice a new relational, vulnerable and embodied way of being human and Baptist. This effort was met with a range of responses from joy and bewilderment, to reluctance and outright hostility. At its most significant theological point, the SBC schism was part of a struggle for redemption from the sins of submission and domination, and a sustained effort to reimagine Baptist identity and assert a more authentic humanity.