The Alliance of Baptists moved its April 1-3 convocation from First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C., to Furman University, because some members of the church objected to an openly lesbian minister preaching in the opening session.
According to a report in the Baptist Peacemaker, controversy arose in January when some in the Greenville congregation wanted to move the Friday night service away from the church, because of preacher April Baker’s sexual orientation.
The Tennessee Baptist Convention withdrew membership from Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville for hiring Baker as associate pastor in 2002. In February she was installed as co-pastor of the church, along with Amy Mears.
First Baptist Greenville did not withdraw as official host for the Alliance convocation, but meeting planners refused to relocate a single session. The venue was moved after nearby Furman opened its doors to the entire event on campus.
According to the Alliance Web site, the 2005 convocation set a record in registration with more than 350 in attendance.
In his 16th annual “state of the Alliance” address, Stan Hastey, the group’s executive director, said relocating the meeting “is the latest yet hardly the first evidence of the price we have paid for seeking to be a genuinely inclusive movement and ecclesial body.”
Ten years ago, in accepting a ground-breaking report of a special task force on human sexuality, Hastey said, “We essentially declared ourselves a welcoming and affirming group as to sexual orientation.”
In the First Baptist Church newsletter, Pastor Jeff Rogers applauded Furman’s commitment to “freedom of expression.”
“We have found common ground at Furman, which has yet again proven its commitment to free intellectual exchange and unfettered religious discourse,” Rogers said.
The Alliance has twice before held its convocation at First Baptist in Greenville. It was there in 1989 the Alliance voted to establish a theological seminary in Richmond, Va., later named Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
The Alliance also met at the church in 1994, the year leaders got their first look at a draft of Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Resource for Congregations in Dialogue on Sexual Orientation, prompting a local newspaper headline declaring the group as on record in support of homosexuals.
“Affiliation with the Alliance does not mean an affiliated church or individual endorses Alliance statements,” Duncan McArthur, a church member active in the Alliance who teaches at Furman, said in the church newsletter. “Of course, this doesn’t prevent distress among some about some statements. I would argue, though, that we should all be grateful for any religious body that is willing to confront controversial issues with the teachings of Jesus as guide. Ideally, a serious conversation begins, and understanding and improvement may result.”
Learning of the news that some members of the Greenville church had reservations about opening their pulpit to a lesbian, Glendale sent an open letter to the church saying “we were of course disheartened and sad,” but on further consideration, “We imagined that surely there must be more at stake than we could see on the face of it.”
“We trust that your actions were not intended toward her in any personal way, but rather were the consequence of your struggle as a congregation as you wrestled with large and very complex issues,” the letter said.
According to the Baptist Peacemaker, Baker said the controversy put her “in a place that is not unfamiliar, but it is uncomfortable.”
“It’s that place of being face and symbol for something that is not about me, really,” she said. “It’s about a question that the church universal is struggling with.”
Baker also released a statement, calling on Alliance members to “show by our relentless love for one another that folks with differing feelings and convictions about sexual orientation really can stay in community, even in faith community.”
In his address Hastey said the Alliance’s identity as an inclusive organization is one of the principle reasons it has remained a small group. “In my judgment, it is a price well worth paying,” he said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.