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Quotables from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

The last four days I spent my time in Charlotte, North Carolina with a couple thousand friends who are part of  the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). Of course I don’t know all of them, but I do know quite a few. And my most favorite part of the meeting is seeing (in person not just on facebook) friends that I only see every two or three years. Although the crowd was large, it felt – as it usually does – like some combination of family reunion, summer camp, and street festival. And for me anyway, it has a feeling of connection and belonging that skips over the angst of high school reunions, the pressure of tent revival altar calls, and the tension of denominational politics. Although, admittedly we skirt close to those feelings on occasion.

This was the 19th time I’ve attended the CBF General Assembly. So I suppose I’ve earned the staying power to make some observations. Mainly my observations in this blog will be to share a few highlights from the meeting . . . the big moments. I will also be sending a letter to the leaders and staff with other reflections, a practice I started last  year.

It has yet to disappoint me to see Bill Leonard or hear him say something about Baptists. He was a member of my dissertation committee, and so I feel a special bond of admiration and affection for him. He absolutely hit a home run with his speech on Thursday evening. Here’s a quote:

“Tonight let’s stop worrying about our name and start reclaiming our witness; let’s quit fretting over the loss of culture dominance and turn loose our consciences. Let’s go out as children of God, born again, and again and again in one of the church’s dysfunctional, grace-filled families; children of God in the water and at the table, in the word and in the world; children of God knit together by grace.”

On Friday evening in worship, we heard from popular Christian writer and assistant professor of spirituality at Duke Divinity School, Lauren Winner. She is trained also as a historian, and took well her task of talking to us about the past and future of Mainline churches, a denominational category more fitting for CBF than most. She was both funny and insightful.  Here is a quote:

“Really, we really are not powerless,” Winner said. “Remember we are working from the power of God. Also, we’re working from the power of institutions that haven’t, in fact, yet crumbled into uselessness. After all, it is God’s church, and we can’t kill it.”

Another big moment for the Assembly was the inclusion this year of a workshop entitled: “A Family Conversation about Same-Sex Orientation.”

Dave Odom hosted the meeting and led it in the spirit of worshipful work and discernment. It was in reality a conversation between Dave and two pastors who spoke from their own experience of discerning. The other 400 or so of us gathered for the workshop could send in questions on cards, but actual dialog and exchange was limited to the halls afterward. This frustrated some folks. I understand how both anxiety and a sincere hope that we might be able to return to this conversation again next time we gather motivated the decision to structure it in this way.

For most of the people I talked to the most frustrating aspect of the workshop was that both pastors, George Mason and Joy Yee were in such similar places of beginning discernment and careful consideration. There was not another genuinely different perspective offered. In other words no perspective was available from a pastor whose church which has decided clearly to be welcoming and affirming, or NOT to be. And of course no perspective was offered from anyone who is not apparently straight or a clearly defined ally. Frustrating. But again the choice to proceed in this way was likely motivated by a hope  that we might return again to the discussion. Possibly the greatest concern about the conversation to me was the continued use of language in terms of “us and them.” However, it was not absolute, and I’m hoping for my own patience. I’m trying to remember how long it took others (myself included) to come to a clear and public place of support and advocacy for welcoming and affirming all God’s children in congregations and communities of faith.

And here are some of the gifts of what George and Joy said. I am grateful for their willingness to share their stories and thoughts so openly.

* Each pastor is highly respected and admired in the Fellowship. They have earned trust and credibility over the years, so they could speak and be heard without pre-judgement by many hearers.

* They were each exceptionally vulnerable in their comments and spoke in ways that genuinely demonstrated both how they have changed, and even how their thinking continues to evolve in the very moment.

* Here are two of the hopeful and helpful comments:  “Maybe churches which have more clarity will have to teach the rest of us how to proceed.” And: “We have to deal with not only biblical passages that condemn homosexuality but also passages that condemn condemnation.”

One way to imagine what we did in this meeting was to look out into a vast lake of anxiety and dread about one of the most pressing issues of our day (how we will face honestly differences in sexuality and gender) and took two tiny baby steps into that lake, but at least CBF is not still standing on the shore wringing its hands.

NOTE: I will be taking July and part of August away from blogging, facebook and most email in order to devote more energy to completing my book manuscript, but will be back blogging two times a week after August 15.