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Cooperation and cobelligerence between NSW Baptists and other faith communities

A paper presented by Rod Benson to an ICOBS/ABRF Conference on the theme “Interfaces: Baptists and others,” Whitley College, Melbourne, 17 July 2009.

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At the beginning of their discussion of Christian responses to other faiths in Modern Christian Thought, James C. Livingston and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza observe that

[s]cholars who study modernity appear to agree that the most disorienting cultural change facing individuals and communities today is the realization that we are living in a radically pluralistic world of competing beliefs and values.  And that while the long-term implications of this cultural and religious pluralism are uncertain, they are full of both promise and foreboding.[1]

NSW Baptists have typically focused on the foreboding.  They have sought to forge a distinctive Baptist identity through difference rather than through relationship.  Toward other Christian churches they are generally separatist, sometimes exclusivist; toward other religions they are resolutely exclusivist.  Far from constituting a unifying force that contributes to social well-being, NSW Baptists have, on the whole, applied religion as a dividing force isolating light from darkness, separating sheep from goats, delivering winners and losers.

There have been many opportunities for NSW Baptists to engage with individuals and groups of different religious persuasion.  How they have responded to such opportunities not only gives indications of their theological and ecclesial heritage, but how well they are placed to face the significant religious challenges of the 21st century.

In 1967 Mervyn Himbury wrote an essay on “The prospects for Christianity in Australia,” in which he suggested that “The New South Wales churches are ‘evangelical’ in outlook and tend toward separatism, while Victorian attitudes tend towards the ecumenical and catholic points of view.”[2]  That judgment holds true today among NSW Baptist churches, especially in Sydney, with few exceptions.  Indeed the strong evangelical consensus among Baptists in NSW tends toward conservatism rather than liberalism, even at times generating tension between the churches and the state Union, the Baptist Union of Australia, and the Baptist World Alliance.

How then have NSW Baptists fared with respect to inter-church and ecumenical activities?  I want to comment very briefly on ten activities.  First, at a congregational and community level, there are many opportunities for interface with other Christians (e.g. school-based religious education, various forms of chaplaincy, the local ministers’ fraternal/association, and seasonal events such as Christmas, Anzac Day, and to a lesser extent Easter and Pentecost).  Ecumenical work of this kind may be more common in regional and remote communities where there are fewer options and fewer resources.  However, in metropolitan areas a Baptist church may have stronger connections with nearby churches of another denomination than with nearly Baptist churches.

Second, large public events draw churches together in common work.  Ironically this is particularly true for evangelistic events such as the 1979 Billy Graham crusade, the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and the 2009 “Jesus All About Life” campaign, where Baptist, Anglican, Uniting, Catholic and other believers may collaborate for the purpose of evangelisation.  Somewhat similar, but with a more centripetal focus, is the annual Baptist pilgrimage to the Pentecostal Hillsong Conference each July.

Third, there is a great deal of inter-church cooperation in mission, especially through networks of denominational and parachurch agencies, and on the ground in international and “outback” Australian fields.  Usually the strongest connections are among Protestants; the experience of NSW Baptist missionaries over six decades in (Papua) New Guinea offers an excellent illustration of the opportunities and challenges of united missionary endeavour.  Comity agreements, whereby various denominations avoid competition in a mission field by agreeing to work only in assigned geographical areas, led to separate development, but also to forms of inter-church cooperation which may have been difficult to achieve in the sending communities.  There has also been also longstanding cooperation between NSW Baptists and the Bible Society, the Christian Television Association, and other interdenominational agencies fostering aspects of Christian mission.

Fourth, various forms of occasional combined worship events are held, such as some state funerals, memorial services following tragedy, and the recent World Youth Day convened by the Catholic Church and held in Sydney.  NSW Baptists are reserved in their enthusiasm for such events.  For example, formal invitations were issued to Baptist leaders to attend mass, and to have a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI in the crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney last July, but it is my understanding that no NSW Baptist attended.  The Sydney Anglicans, on the other hand, have elaborate protocols for such things, enabling their bishops to exit before their consciences are seared.

Fifth, the demands of social responsibility and community service provide opportunities for interface with other Christians.  Churches or church agencies which otherwise might have little in common will engage in cobelligerence in order to seek changes on a wide range of public issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, gambling, political asylum, foreign aid, and climate change.[3]  In this regard the peak religious lobby, the Australian Christian Lobby, currently headed by a Baptist who happens to be a retired SAS Commander, provides a strong rallying point for evangelicals, but works with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and other church and parachurch agencies to effect public policy reform at federal, state and local levels.  NSW Baptists have also given strong support to the work of the Temperance Alliance, the Drug Awareness Council, and ecumenical action on gambling reform.

Sixth, there is some cooperation on theological education.  It is common in Australia for denominational and non-denominational colleges to form consortiums to strengthen academic standards and provide better state accreditation, and for other purposes.  Morling College, the Sydney sister college of Whitley College, currently has over 600 students, many of whom are not from Baptist churches and do not intend to pursue ministry in Baptist churches.  Morling College is a member college of the Australian College of Theology, a conservative institution with Sydney Anglican origins.  For a short time in the 1980s Morling College was associated with the Sydney College of Divinity, which included Uniting Church and Catholic faculty, and the wounds from the resulting denominational catfight are yet to heal.[4]

Seventh, for some years there was a small catalyst for closer relations between Australian Baptists and other churches, known as the Baptist Ecumenical Fellowship.  Convened in 1997 by Revd Thorwald Lorenzen and led by the late Revd Seton Arndell, its purpose was “to encourage open relationships between Baptists and the whole church of Jesus Christ.”  The initiative was wound up within a decade for lack of interest.  There was also some misunderstanding over the purpose and program of the fellowship: some saw the name as logically contradictory, and the aim as missionally counter-productive.

Eighth, from time to time there arise opportunities for formal conversations or dialogue with leaders of other denominations.  These are usually initiated by the non-Baptist participants, and are convened in Melbourne.  Australian Baptists have made important contributions to formal international conversations with other Christian churches, but these have rarely included NSW Baptists.  It should also be noted that there is a very long tradition of discussions between Baptists and Churches of Christ in Australia, with a view to possible union, but the theological and practical difficulties have so far proved insurmountable.

Ninth, there are formal conciliar arrangements involving NSW Baptists to some degree.  NSW Baptists were founding members of the Council of Churches in NSW in the 1920s, and its nineteenth-century predecessor, both of which organisations had a primary concern for evangelical social responsibility.  NSW Baptists have significant leadership roles on this Council, in its public policy work, and in its broadcasting responsibilities with radio station 2CH, although the number of Anglican delegates outnumbers Baptists 17 to 5.  Much more could be said about NSW Baptist involvement with the NSW Council of Churches, which comprises seven evangelical denominations (Anglican, Baptist, Churches of Christ, Congregational, Presbyterian, Christian Reformed Churches, and the Salvation Army).

More recently the NSW Ecumenical Council was established, on which NSW Baptists have observer status.  The same is true for the National Council of Churches in Australia.  I serve as the Baptist observer on both councils, and led the worship at the March NCCA meeting.  There is no prospect of closer relations between NSW Baptists and these two ecumenical councils due to entrenched opposition from exclusivist activists who fear that cooperation of this type would be tantamount to a denial of the evangelical faith.

Finally, in relation to the previous point, it should be noted that NSW Baptists convened two Special Assemblies, in 1950 and 1961, to debate whether the Baptist Union of Australia should become a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC).  The votes on both occasions were overwhelmingly negative.  I have documented the many reasons advanced by both sides elsewhere.[5]  The essential reasons why NSW has never favoured association with the World Council are:

(a)   a fear of the surrender of biblical authority to church creeds and theological liberalism;

(b)   a fear of the surrender of Baptist convictions about the nature of the church, the priesthood of all believers, the autonomy and polity of the local church, and religious liberty in the interests of uniformity;

(c)   a fear of the surrender of Protestant identity in the event that the Catholic Church became a member of the WCC;

(d)   a fear that WCC affiliation may implicate the denomination in structural and spiritual evil and thereby avert divine blessing.

These debates, and the fears they articulated, indicate key elements of mid-twentieth-century NSW Baptist identity.  Moreover, as Ken Manley has observed, they provide “a striking demonstration of the differences among Australian Baptists and how one point of tension can lead to others.”[6]

It should also be noted, however, that the Baptist World Alliance, in which the Baptist Union of NSW participates through the Baptist Union of Australia (now known as Australian Baptist Ministries) has taken a more active interest in ecumenical dialogue, especially since 1975 when a new BWA constitution and by-laws were adopted including an objective to “promote understanding and unity among Baptists and with fellow Christians.”[7]

I conclude my comments on inter-church activities with three quotes.  The first is from Mervyn Himbury again, in 1967:

The religious situation in Australia cries out for the fullest possible co-operation between the churches.  The vast size of the country, the increasingly diversified nature of the population due to recent migration and the traditional indifference of the Australian worker to the faith, create problems which defy the efforts of any single denomination.  In spite of considerable efforts by church leaders this full co-operation is far from realization.[8]

Forty two years later, one could list many more socio-cultural factors and problems requiring church cooperation and cobelligerence, but Himbury’s judgment arguably still applies.

The second quote is drawn from the Presidential address given by Rev Geoff Parrish at the 1965 NSW Baptist Annual Assembly, which succinctly expresses the characteristic posture of Baptists in NSW regarding cooperation, fellowship and union with other Christian faith communities:

There are forces within our world whose aim is to conquer the world, and in that sense restore the kingdom to themselves.  The forces of Communism have this aim.  There are forces within the Church whose aim is a great world Church where everybody is welcome, even without the necessity of the new birth.  We need to take cognisance of the ecumenical movement, but our main task is that of witnessing and winning men and women to Christ.  Baptists need to be convinced of their calling, and to be certain that we are entitled to a separate existence within the purposes of God, apart from other communions.[9]

My third quote is from British Baptist Nigel G. Wright who, in The Radical Evangelical, observes that

‘Error’ has come to be regarded by some evangelicals as an almost contagious condition with a consequent suspicion both of ecumenical conversations and inter-faith dialogue.  The implication is that theological integrity is maintained by keeping at a distance from any group which could be considered heterodox.  The result of this is that evangelicals easily live in a bounded world which is maintained by the constant repetition of stereotypes.  This must be contrasted with the far healthier if more costly enterprise of face-to-face encounter with those of other viewpoints.  Without such contact it is only ever possible to talk past people, to risk misrepresenting their position and to cast them in the role of opponent.[10]

Wright’s view is closest to my own view on the purpose and efficacy of relations between Baptists and other Christian faith communities.  We lose nothing, and gain much, from a willingness to engage in informed dialogue and thoughtful cooperation.

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It remains for me to comment briefly on NSW Baptist relations with the other world faiths.  The first thing to note is that the denomination has no established structures or processes for formal engagement with other faiths; whereas mainline denominations (Anglican, Catholic, and Uniting Church) have permanent commissions or committees to manage interfaith work.  It is also true to say that representatives of other faiths rarely, if ever, approach NSW Baptists seeking interfaith dialogue or cooperation on particular issues.  When such a request is made, it is normally passed on to me, as the denominational “ethicist and public theologian,” for deliberation, advice and action.  In this way, in addition to my observer roles on ecumenical councils, I have become involved in various capacities, representing NSW Baptists, in the following six arenas.

First, I have participated as a speaker and audience member in meetings of the Council of Christians and Jews, which meets regularly at the Great Synagogue in Sydney to discuss matters of current academic and social interest.  Relations are always cordial and the atmosphere liberal, but I am not aware that any other Baptists attend.  Yet good personal relationships are the foundation of constructive dialogue and mutual understanding which are essential for peaceful coexistence.

Second, as a result of a visit I made along with other Australian church leaders to Palestine and Israel in 2007, and public statements made on our return to Australia, I have engaged in a series of dialogues between representatives of the Heads of Churches and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, and related bodies, over the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Attempts to include Australian Muslim representatives have so far failed.  It was felt that it was important to include a representative of the free churches in these meetings, although the context is explicitly ecumenical and interfaith, and the issues at stake are driven by political as well as religious considerations.

Third, I have represented NSW Baptists at meetings of the Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations (APRO), established in 2003 by the federal government as a “peak-of-peak” body to manage religious diversity in Australia, particularly in view of tensions arising in Australia in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001.  APRO is billed as “a new partnership of religious communities,” both ethnically  and religiously conceived, and it remains to be seen how manageable and effective such a diverse group will be.

Fourth, through my interest in ecotheology and advocacy of responsible climate change action by Baptists, in 2008 I was involved in the establishment of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC), a multi-faith lobbying and advocacy group sponsored by the Climate Institute.[11]  This offers a good example of cobelligerence at grass-roots level, and brings me into contact, as a Baptist, with a wide range of religious beliefs and approaches to ecological sustainability.  I am the only evangelical Christian on the management committee, and the only Baptist involved in the work of ARRCC.  It is fair to say that NSW Baptists are far from agreed on the existence of human-induced climate change, let alone what to do about it.

Fifth, there are opportunities for Baptists to be involved in the Parliament of the World’s Religions to be held in Melbourne in December 2009.  My suggestion to the Baptist Union of NSW and the Baptist Union of Australia to discuss possible Baptist contributions has been met with silence.  It may be that Victorian Baptists or others are planning some involvement, either officially or in collaboration with other groups.  Failure by Baptists to meaningfully engage with such a significant international religious event held in Australia would seem to indicate that we are inadequately prepared for some of the most important global challenges for mission in the 21st century.

On the other hand, in the wake of early Australian government policy responses following the terrorist attacks on U.S. targets on September 11, 2001, a group of concerned evangelical Arabic pastors established a lobby group, the Dealing with Diversity Conference, to advise federal government ministers and other Australian leaders on issues of concern to Arabic Christians.  NSW Baptist leaders, including the President, Secretary of the Union and myself, were actively involved in this ad hoc group from the beginning, and it was initially chaired by a Baptist layperson.  I have since ceased my involvement as in my opinion the group has been unduly influenced by conservative political and personal agendas.

Three other initiatives relating to interfaith relations deserve mention, although not specifically instances of cooperation or cobelligerence.  First, at Sydney’s Morling College in 2005 and 2006, Rev John Smulo, then Director of the School of Apologetics, established a popular series of interfaith dialogues called “Listen and Learn.”  On one occasion Keysar Trad, chief spokesman for Sydney Imam Sheikh Hilali, outlined the essential elements of Islam and took questions from the audience.  I vividly recall a Sydney Baptist pastor repeatedly challenging Mr Trad on whether he believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.  Other questions were more reflective and respectful.  Another enlightening dialogue was held with wiccans.  These have now ceased.

On another front, concerns about the potential negative impact of misunderstandings between faith communities, especially with respect to liturgical practices and protocols, led the NSW Council of Churches to develop a policy on relations with other religions.  As Public Affairs Director for the Council, I was responsible for drafting the document (which benefited from editorial comments by Baptist leaders in several states), and it has been well received by many Baptists and other evangelicals as the basis for their own discussions and decisions on specific matters relating to interfaith relations.[12]

Third, we should also note the important document, “A Common Word” (an open letter published by “Islamic authorities and scholars from around the world” in October 2007), and formal responses to it by Christian leaders and academics.  Of particular note is an official Christian response, “Loving God and neighbour together,” and the official response by the Baptist World Alliance affirming the Muslim statement.[13]  While the publication of “A Common Word” may have generated informal discussion in Baptist academic circles in Australia, it precipitated no responsive statement by the Baptist Union of NSW or Morling College, nor indeed by the Baptist Union of Australia.

I close with some wise words from veteran religion-watcher Martin E. Marty:

While I have been involved in Christian ecumenical and then inter-religious events for a half century, I have never considered myself a type that its critics call ‘interfaithy.’ Like many of those critics, I was not moved by inter-religious events whose sponsors and ethos suggested that in our various faith communities we are all one and the same, but with different names and superficial markings. A score of years on the inter-religious conflict front has taught me how deeply grounded most people of faith are, and how little satisfied or motivated they can be when the call is to sameness, superficiality, and the ‘we are all in different boats heading for the same shore’ ethos.[14]

Many NSW Baptists would agree.  But they might add that they can see the true shore, and that theirs is the best boat.


[1] James C. Livingston and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, Modern Christian Thought: The Twentieth Century (vol. 2 of 2; second edition; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), p. 469.

[2] D. Mervyn Himbury, “The prospects for Christianity in Australia,” in L. G. Champion (ed.), Outlook for Christianity (London: Lutterworth Press, 1967), p. 171.

[3] By cobelligerence I mean a pragmatic partnership between two or more otherwise non-aligned parties acting against a common enemy.  Paul Fiddes counsels against use of military terminology in reference to mission, but the term ‘cobelligerence’ accurately describes the arrangement which often pertains between NSW Baptists and others on certain public issues.  See Paul S. Fiddes, Tracks and Traces: Baptist Identity in Church and Theology (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2007).

[4] For more details see Ken R. Manley, From Woolloomooloo to Eternity: A History of Australian Baptists (vol. 2 of 2; Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2006), pp. 752-757.

[5] Rod Benson, “Dawn of a new era or recipe for disaster? The rise and demise of Edward Roberts-Thomson as Principal of the Baptist Theological College of New South wales,” The Baptist Recorder 87, 2004, pp. 5-21.

[6] Manley, From Woolloomooloo to Eternity, pp. 579f.

[7] Ken Manley, The Baptist World Alliance and Inter-Church Relationships (Falls Creek, VA: Baptist World Alliance, 2003).  See also Glenn A. Ingleheart, “Why Baptists dialogue with others,” unpublished paper presented to the Study Commission on Baptist Doctrine and Interchurch Cooperation, Baptist World Alliance World Congress, Los Angeles, July 1985; and Thorwald Lorenzen, “Baptists and the challenge of religious pluralism,” Review and Expositor 89, Winter 1992, pp. 49-69.

[8] Himbury, “The prospects for Christianity in Australia,” p. 169.

[9] Geoff Parriah, “Power for the task,” Baptist Union of NSW Year Book 1965-66, p. 51.

[10] Nigel G. Wright, The Radical Evangelical: Seeking a Place to Stand (London: SPCK, 1996), p. 124.

[11] The formation of ARRCC came in part as a result of an initiative by the Climate Institute to invite Australian Baptists and other faith communities to contribute to a booklet on climate change and faith, which was published as Common Belief in December 2006.  See http://www.arrcc.org.au/images/stories/webpages/Common_Belief.pdf

[13] For the original statement see http://www.acommonword.com/index.php?lang=en&page=option1; for the response by Rev David Coffey, President of the Baptist World Alliance, see http://www.acommonword.com/index.php?page=responses&item=32; and for an extended response by Baptist theologians representing the BWA see http://www.acommonword.com/ACommonWord-Baptist-World-Alliance-Response.pdf

[14] Martin E. Marty, “Interfaith excursions,” Sightings, November 14, 2005, available at http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/sightings/archive_2005/1114.shtml

Categories: articles

Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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