Despite the residue of sand left in the corners of my suitcase, it is difficult to get my head round the fact that during the first weekend of July I had the privilege of attending the Baptist International Conference on Theological Education.
The conference was titled “TogetHER: Re-imagining, Re-reading HERstory in the Church” and took place in Nassau, The Bahamas.
One might argue this was a luxurious location for a conference, and probably quite rightly so.
However, while there was time for a wander or two along the pale cream sandy beach and a swim in the inviting turquoise blue of the Caribbean Sea, this was balanced by the fact that the conference meetings took place in the basement of the hotel complex with no sight of the beautiful vistas to distract the delegates from the enriching theological papers that were presented.
The perspectives offered on a number of different topics were thoroughly engaging and stimulating as critique, comment and challenge were presented by a panel of eminent global theologians.
The participants and delegates curated a rich space for profound theological thinking and reflection.
However, I attended neither as a delegate, nor a presenter or responder. I was at the conference at the invitation of Trisha Miller Manarin, a leader of the Baptist World Alliance team who brought the conference into being.
I first met Trisha at the “Celebrating, Surviving, Thriving” conference in June 2018, celebrating the centenary of the ordination of women in Baptist ministry in the United Kingdom.
I shared that I created paper mosaics based on Bible verses and following the conference I sent her a copy of one of my art pieces titled “Dance.”
Suddenly, at the beginning of June, Trisha got in touch with me, not only asking if “Dance” could be used for the conference but also inviting me to create a newly commissioned work as the conference unfolded.
Trisha and I liaised on a preliminary design based on Acts 2:17 “…and your daughters shall prophesy.”
I then packed up my suitcase with the tools of my trade – a whole host of brightly colored magazine pages and a bottle of PVA glue, along with my trusty scissors and favorite brush for gluing.
I managed to squeeze in a summer dress or two then set off from my hometown of Stevenage, England, to a tiny island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.
The very first pieces of the design were laid down as delegates registered. I continued to cut and stick as the diverse and challenging program of papers were presented.
As I created the figure, we heard about the unique contribution of Baptist women in ministry and how cultural context can influence spiritual practices, sometimes in unhelpful ways.
I intentionally chose to give the figure a violet colored top in deference to Violet Hedger, the first Baptist woman to be college trained for ordination.
In the design, the female figure stands upon a closed book, as historically so much has prevented the stories of women in the Bible being fully told.
So, it seemed particularly poignant to be creating this part of the artwork as we heard about the negative effect that Bible translations have had on the engagement of women in the church.
Nevertheless, the figure stands on the truth, her feet bare, for this is truly holy ground. For now, she is able to open the book to preach, to prophesy and to proclaim.
As a strong case for the place of women in a Baptist theology of ministry was made, work then began on the drapes that represent the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Then, as I continued to craft these, a paper was presented on how oppression has affected Baptist women and continues to shape them today.
The drapes are also intended to suggest something of the way in which the Holy Spirit is pulling back barriers that have prevented women fulfilling their God-given calling.
It was clear from the presentations that for some women in our Baptist family such obstacles continue to exist.
The opinions presented elicited some strong emotions, but however difficult this was to hear, the truth remains that if we do not recognize that such constraints exist and pray for the Holy Spirit to continue to pull back barriers, then the oppression of women in Baptist churches will continue unabated and unchallenged and will remain a sticking point against a fully embodied ministry of both women and men in the life of our global Baptist family.
As the final plenary session closed, the last piece of the mosaic was adhered in place, and I breathed a sigh of welcome relief and whispered a prayer of grateful thanks.
I’ve never had to produce a mosaic in such a short amount of time, but it was a joy and a privilege to create my artwork in such surroundings – to take my place with eminent theologians and to have the forum to share and to meet with so many members of our worldwide Baptist family.
The finished mosaic, titled “Prophesy,” was presented to the conference in the closing devotions along with a poem I was inspired to write to accompany the piece titled “HER story.”
This is HER story:
She confounded the enemy
She stood up to kings
She released the captives
She brought good news
This is her story
No longer shrouded by the stories of others
No longer to be constrained by archaic thinking
No longer a fight, but a right
No longer to be held back
But released into the fullness of all that God calls her to be
So too now
She confounds the enemy
She stands up to kings
She releases the captives
She brings good news
This is HER story
This is OUR story
The fullness of God
Through the seal of the Holy Spirit
Birthed in each woman
Who stands on the truth
That we are all called to be
Free to speak
Free to lead
Free to prophesy
Free to confound the enemy
Free to pray
Free to learn
Free to bless
Free to anoint
Free to release captives
Free to bring good news
HER story is OUR story
And OUR story is God’s story
May HER story, and our story
No longer be silenced
But be told!”
(©Ali Taylor, 2019)
As a female Baptist minister, it was a joy and a privilege to be a part of such a challenging and inspiring conference.
In a way, women serving in ministry is only a sticking point for me in that I wouldn’t have been able to complete my artwork without glue. However, it is no joking matter that, due to their gender, there are women in our Baptist family who are still unable to serve God fully in the church.
The challenge is for us who have the freedom, women and men together, to continue to fight for the right for all to serve God according to their God-given talents, not just here in the United Kingdom, but also across the world.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times, the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission. The design is available here. A percentage of the profits from the sale of this piece will be donated, with grateful thanks, to the Baptist World Alliance.