This is an edited extract from an email from Joy Connor to Rod Benson received on 1 November 2010, responding to an invitation to make observations about the Social Issues Committee of the Baptist Union of New South Wales, its work, and the challenges it faced during her time as a committee member (1983-2000).
As Chairperson of the Social Issues Committee I came to realise that, although Baptists were small in number, they were perceived as both very conservative and very committed to what they believed. If the Baptist Union of NSW expressed a view about a matter it was listened to, and could actually change public policy. For example, Baptist support for the protection of old growth forests led Prime Minister Paul Keating to say publicly, “If the Baptists are against logging old growth forests, then everyone must be concerned.”
The understanding that the public stance of Baptists could actually affect public policy out of all proportion to their size was something that did invigorate the work we did on poverty and justice issues. It also meant that our committee spent a lot of its time trying to educate and inform the churches not just on the issues of the day but on the biblical reasons for our involvement as Christians.
The periodical Social Issues Bulletin, edited for many years by Alice Monk, was a notable force in this area. We also tried to have people on the committee who represented people in the churches. Having older ladies like Joyce Morling and Alice Monk as part of the team meant we had people who could inform us about how Baptists were thinking and how different messages were getting across.
The Social Issues committee had several quite notable impacts on public policy. Working with Indigenous people to begin the National Baptist Aboriginal body [the Aboriginal and Islander Baptist Council of Australia, chaired by Rev Graham Paulson] took enormous amounts of work. Although this body did not last as long as had been envisioned, it had an impact on Baptist Union Policy on Aboriginal affairs and healed a lot of hurt amongst Aboriginal leaders.
We also had a few inputs into international affairs. Some were not mentioned in the minutes as they involved sensitive friendship networks. In 1999 Australians were appalled at the Indonesian reaction to the independence poll in East Timor. The US was against sending in any peace keeping troops and was blocking United Nations attempts to have a presence there. We knew that a prominent NSW Baptist had a strong friendship with President Clinton’s chaplain so we organised for videos and information to be passed on to the chaplain and then to the president. The USA stopped opposing the sending of a UN peace keeping force and Australians and then UN forces went into East Timor to restore peace.
In the mid 1990s France was conducting nuclear tests in the Pacific. We wrote to the French Baptist Union about our concerns particularly about the effect on the people of the area. We had the letter translated into French and asked the French Baptist Union to present it to the president of France. Although they are a group not committed to social action they did this and replied to us in French. We felt this action contributed to the cessation of tests.
The challenge that the Social Issues Committee faced in my time was basically one of theology:
- the belief that Christ came to save souls and that people’s social situation was not a Christian’s primary concern;
- the belief that heaven is our home and we need to evangelise so that more people could be saved from hell;
- a deep distrust of a “social gospel.”
Supplement to my paper on the history of the Social Issues Committee of the Baptist Union of NSW.
Image source: RNZ