Baptists gather for 100th birthday, but miss Southern conservatives

02 November 2006

THE ABSENCE of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was regretted by more than one speaker at the Baptist World Centenary Congress in Birmingham last week, but failed to dampen the mood of the 12,000 delegates.

The tornado that struck the city on the Thursday similarly failed to daunt those who had gathered, though it did force the evacuation of a church hall where 20 delegates from the Congo were gathered. One child was taken to hospital with a minor injury, but there were no other casualties among the delegates.

The 17-million-strong SBC, which withdrew from the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), having accused it of theological liberalism ( News, 16 July 2004), was castigated by the former US President Jimmy Carter in a Bible study he led on Sunday morning. His choice of Galatians as a theme made for an impassioned attack on authoritarian extremism. It was characterised, he said, by rigidity, domination, and exclusion. When he announced: "We ought to hope and pray that in the not too distant future we will be completely reunited with the SBC," the congregation applauded.

The Congress was attended by a broad range of representatives from the developed and the developing world. There was a substantial presence from the latter, particularly from South Korea: a 400-strong delegation had come from there in support of the retiring BWA president, the Revd Dr Billy Kim.

In a sermon on Saturday, Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, said that the Church in these areas would increase in prominence, and would increasingly send missionaries to the US and Europe.

The Revd David Coffey, the general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, after his induction as president of the Alliance in succession to Dr Kim, referred to the state of religion in Europe. Speaking of the bloodshed of the 20th and early 21st century, he said: "In spiritual terms, there is a great need for the re-evangelisation of Europe. The great question is: how do we live with our deepest differences? Some of them are alive and well in Europe."

Mr Coffey's new role as BWA president, an honorary one that he will hold alongside his current post, will involve him in representing Baptists worldwide. His appointment was welcomed in a statement issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said: "David is an outstanding pastor and theologian, who has been a deeply valued colleague. The BWA may feel completely confident in his presidency."

The BWA has 211 member bodies encompassing 34 million church members, and representing a worshipping congregation of many more. A British Baptist, the Revd Tony Peck, is general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, one of the Alliance's member bodies.

The Congress focused on human rights and religious liberty, which are felt to be particular concerns of Baptists throughout the world.

The experience of persecution, both in the movement's 17th-century beginnings and in many countries today, is part of Baptist self-understanding.

In line with this, the Congress saw the presentation of the BWA Human Rights Award. First given in 1995, when the recipient was Jimmy Carter, the award went this year to the Revd Lauran Bethell, an American Baptist, for her work among prostitutes in Thailand. Ms Bethell has worked to counter sex slavery and human trafficking for many years.

One of the features of the Congress was its music programme, "The Festival of the Nations". On a stage in Centenary Square, outside the International Convention Centre in Birmingham, acts from many of the nations represented at the congress were performed each afternoon.

Children and young people were catered for in separate streams by programmes run by Scripture Union and the Baptist Union of Great Britain. Bible studies in various languages were held each morning, and groups in the afternoon studied issues such as poverty, persecution, religious freedom, and the Christian response to HIV/ AIDS.

A 100th-birthday party was held in Victoria Square in the city centre; it was intended as an outreach event for passers-by on the closing day. It chimed with the Baptist emphasis on evangelism, which was much in evidence throughout the Congress.

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