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American Baptists Observe Centennial, Baptist Unity at Quiet Biennial Meeting


July 3, 2007 | bpfna

American Baptists observe centennial, Baptist unity at quiet biennial meeting
By Robert Marus, Robert Dilday and Marv Knox
Associated Baptist Press
Published July 3, 2007 

WASHINGTON (ABP) -- American Baptists both observed and made history during an otherwise-quiet biennial meeting June 28-July 2 in Washington.

Delegates and guests of the American Baptist Churches USA’s largest national gathering celebrated their centennial as a denomination and observed their kinship with other Baptist groups during the meeting.

The gathering began with a special joint communion service, held in conjunction with participants at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly.

“This is an awesome God moment,” ABC General Secretary Roy Medley told a crowd of almost 4,000 participants, divided almost evenly between representatives of both groups. “It gladdens the heart of God. It makes God happy to see us working together. … What an awesome moment. It gladdens our hearts too.”

The service at the Washington Convention Center marked the end of the Fellowship’s annual general assembly and the beginning of ABC’s 100th anniversary celebration. Program organizers noted the joint ABC/Fellowship session had been five years in planning. Actually, it was 162 years in the making.

Baptists in the United States first united to support missions in 1814, but they divided acrimoniously in 1845. Baptists in the North, who later reorganized as the predecessor to the American Baptist Churches in 1907, opposed slavery. The Southern Baptist Convention split from them because of their support for slavery. The Fellowship formed out of the SBC in 1991 after more than a decade of conflict between moderates and fundamentalists in the SBC. Although some Fellowship churches still relate to the SBC and some do not, almost all of them trace their roots to the Southern convention.

However, increasing partnerships between ABC and CBF in recent years -- on both the local-church and institutional levels -- have reflected the groups’ growing like-mindedness. For example, CBF and ABC appointed two jointly funded international missionary couples during the service.

“God draws us together,” observed Rob Nash, CBF’s global missions coordinator.

“God does surprise and bless us,” added Reid Trulson, mission administration team leader for the American Baptists.

A large presence of members of the Progressive National Baptist Convention -- a historically African-American denomination with which many ABC churches are dually aligned -- added to the atmosphere of unity.

Such unity was more present than at the 2005 ABC Biennial, where a potential split over homosexuality loomed. Some delegates from conservative churches and ABC regional groups disagreed with the way the denomination, with approximately 1.5 million members in more than 5,800 churches, relates to gay-friendly ministers and congregations. Even though American Baptist leaders approved a 1992 resolution opposing homosexual conduct, some ABC conservatives have asserted the wording and the enforcement of the motion on denominational agencies and personnel are not strong enough.

Progressive and centrist American Baptists, meanwhile, have tried to defend what they see as traditional Baptist stances on congregational autonomy and individual conscience in opposing the ouster of pro-gay churches and leaders.

One region -- the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest -- ultimately left the denomination in 2006. But many of the region’s approximately 250 churches have chosen to stay in the ABC and form a new regional body.

There was little controversy during the 2007 meeting, however. Delegates passed mildly-worded “statements of concern” -- the ABC equivalent of resolutions -- on the denomination’s polity and identity and on “Democracy in America.”

The polity statement cited the classic Christian doctrines to which American Baptists adhere as well as the particular doctrines -- such as the priesthood of believers and separation of church and state -- that have distinguished the Baptist tradition.

The statement noted that the delegates “are concerned that with so many Baptist denominations existing in the United States our members will be confused as to what makes us distinctively American Baptists.”

It also registered concerns that some ABC churches “are hiring pastors and other leaders who do not come from American Baptist … backgrounds and who have not received education and training in the history and polity” of the denomination. It continued, “We are concerned that our members may be confusing theological convictions with the role our polity plays in making us distinctly American Baptists.”

The “Democracy in America” statement registered concerns over the “tyranny of terrorism and the consequent actions of the federal government [that] have dramatically curtailed some of the freedoms that have defined our collective lives for generations, such as dissent, peaceful assembly and the right to privacy.”

However, the Statements of Concern Committee declined to report on two other statements submitted by delegates. One was a call for American Baptists to confess their “sinful complicity” in the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq. It also called for American Baptists to “engage in nonviolent acts of witness, resistance and hope” to bring about a rapid end to the war.

A group of nearly 200 delegates signed a petition to have the statement read on the floor anyway. ABC bylaws prevented the full body from voting to approve it, but it -- along with the debate it inspired -- will be forwarded to the denomination’s General Board for further consideration.

“I hope that all of you would wholeheartedly support this statement because of the words of Jesus: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’” one Massachusetts delegate said, in support of the statement. “Jesus is the truth of the way of preemptive grace, not preemptive war.”

But a Nebraska delegate who opposed the statement said it did not present the war “with a fair and balanced voice.” He called his delegates to “not forget that this is a dangerous world. Radical Islam is something that cannot be ignored.”

He continued: “What would be the result of just withdrawing our forces? What would be the impact on the people of Iraq?”

Delegates also forced a similar reading of a statement calling for Congress and President Bush to approve legislation that would give the District of Columbia its first-ever voting seat in Congress.

“D.C. has over 550,000 United States citizens,” said delegate Alice Green of Illinois, in support of the statement. “These citizens pay federal taxes, they serve on federal juries, they go to wars decided on the federal government, but they have no one to vote on their behalf.”

Approximately 2,500 delegates celebrated the denomination’s 100th anniversary on June 30 with a worship service and group photograph. They met only two blocks from the location -- Washington’s Calvary Baptist Church -- where the Northern Baptist Convention was formed a century before. It later changed its name to the current ABCUSA designation.

In other business, delegates elected Mary Hulst, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Denver, as president. They elected civil engineer Frank Christine Jr., a member of Second Baptist Church of Los Angeles, as vice president. Delegates also elected retired professor James Ratliff as budget review officer. He had already been serving in the role on an acting basis.

The next ABC Biennial is set for June 25-29, 2009, in Pasadena, Calif.

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