It’s impossible not to sense a deep angst behind the report. Those who have compiled it have worked hard at listening to as many voices in the Baptist Family as possible and they have done their work against a backdrop of falling finances and dwindling denominational allegiance. Having read the press releases from Council and the Baptist Times write-ups I confess I’m still looking for a ‘big idea’ in the Futures Report. For all that I hope and pray its recommendations will be helpful to the churches which make up our Union.
Alongside this development has been the re-emphasis, made by senior staff at Baptist House, that churches should become more committed to ‘clustering’.
Now that, I know, isn’t always easy. In theory you might think Christians would enjoy meeting up with other Christians from neighbouring Baptist churches – but the gap between theory and practice here is enormous. I was once minister of a church with a three sided gallery and there was an element of truth in the myth that the folk who sat in it really didn’t know the names of many who worshipped below them on the ground floor! If that was true then meeting up with fellow Christians from the church down the road was about as counter-intuitive to them as being in a relationship with Baptists on Mars!
Actually I'm not even convinced that clustering has a water-tight biblical foundation either. In Paul’s day it’s hard to imagine that congregations could realistically meet up together for fellowship or worked alongside each other regularly in mission. I suspect that Christians in Corinth, Rome or Ephesus were just as parochial as us.
So if clustering isn’t the most natural or instinctive of behaviours and if its biblical justification is fragile and unconvincing – why do we keep advocating that it’s a good thing; and what are we to make of the mantra that Baptist ecclesiology is essentially about inter-dependence rather than absolute independence?
Well this is where we have to not only read about a good idea but experience it. On paper getting to know about the other churches in a cluster, praying for them and even working alongside them looks burdensome and unrealistic. However, when we actually meet up with sisters and brothers from the church down the road – our Baptist or ecumenical partners – I think there is a possibility we might see it differently.
Today I did a fair amount of clustering – perhaps I’d better unpack that! At lunchtime I had a meal with a colleague from a rural Baptist Church near Taunton. It was great to share time together in supportive fellowship. Come the evening and I was off to a meeting of our local East Wessex Cluster at Crewkerne. For some reason I’ve always loved these meetings – even on a cold winter’s night - or a chilly summer's evening for that matter, they have been moments of inspiration. Over the coffee we share news of our congregations and through the years a degree of trust has built up which makes this more than superficial. We then pray together – and it is deeply touching to hear someone pray for your church with such warmth and sincerity. Ironically it’s often the smallest church in the cluster which sends the most people!
I’m not sure what to make of the ‘Futures’ report but I do know there can be something very precious about meeting up with brothers and sisters from other churches in fellowship and prayer – it's a treasure - and during my time in Somerset these gatherings of our local cluster have been a real highlight.
With best wishes,