Page last updated at 16:38 GMT, Friday, 1 May 2009 17:38 UK

Baptists mark 400th anniversary

By John McManus
BBC News

Poster outside Westminster Baptist Church, London
Baptists are part of an evangelising Christian tradition

Members of the Baptist Union are gathering in Bournemouth to celebrate their 400th anniversary - the first Baptist congregation was founded in 1609. With four centuries of growth behind them, what are the challenges facing believers in the next 100 years?

Baptists first emerged after the Reformation swept Europe, causing upheaval throughout Christian communities.

Martin Luther's Protestant movement had gained ground in northern Europe, and Henry VIII had broken with Rome and established the Church of England as the country's national church, with him as its spiritual head.

Today Baptists are the fifth largest Christian church in the world, with 40 million members, and Baptists in England and Wales say that national numbers are stable, unlike many Christian denominations.

The sins of the bankers contributed to the mess, but so have all of us
The Reverend Jonathan Edwards

But away from the pews, there are practical issues that Baptists are having to grapple with as their Union looks towards the future, many of them familiar to members of other religions.

In 2004 the wealthy Southern Baptist Convention of the USA split from the Baptist World Alliance, citing an increasing trend towards liberalism as the reason.

Closing rift

The theology of the Southern Baptists has been described by one English Baptist as right-wing and fundamentalist, with serious differences over the role of women in ministry and creation theology.

Revd Jonathan Edwards, General Secretary of the Baptist Union
Jonathan Edwards blames churchgoers as well as bankers for the current financial crisis

The general secretary of the Baptist Union, the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, says that although the split was an unhappy one, he maintains close relations with the American Baptists and does not think it is necessarily permanent.

"I would be very surprised if the rift were to last for many years," he says.

Mr Edwards leads an administrative staff of 150 at the Union's headquarters in Oxfordshire, but the Baptists are not a top-down hierarchical church.

Individual congregations are self-funding and self-regulating, and even decide themselves what form their services of worship will take.

Mr Edwards cites this ability to respond to local preferences as the reason why congregations are not dropping, and in some places are even rising.

"Our churches are quite light on their feet. I'm not there telling them what they can and can't do."

Despite this, the Union is persisting in efforts to persuade congregations to be more diverse, a theme that will be continued at this weekend's assembly.

Supporting families

Although the first female ministers began preaching in the 1920s, only 10% of current ministers are women, a statistic the Union wants to change.

However, although ministers can be from either sex, they must be either celibate or in a heterosexual marriage.

Baptist Timeline
1609: first Baptist congregation founded in the Netherlands by John Smyth
1832: Baptist Union formed
1922: Violet Hedger becomes first female minister
2004: Southern Baptist Convention splits from World Alliance

"I believe the norm that God intends for us is hetero-relationships" says Mr Edwards.

"In these times especially, we should be supporting families."

Baptists have always been an evangelising religion, believing that they can help knit together communities by becoming practically involved in them, such as becoming school governors or running children's playgroups.

But their ambitions do not extend to wanting to replace the Anglicans as the national Church, and unlike, for example, some British Roman Catholics, they are not keen on pulling up a chair at the table of government.

Instead, they preach for the disestablishment of Church and state, though for different reasons to secularists.

Mark Woods, the editor of the Baptist Times, explains that politics and religion can be a heady mix.

"The model of one denomination of one religion acting as sort of spiritual broker for the rest of the country - however benevolent and co-operative they are - is no longer appropriate, if it ever was.

Hannah Bloxham baptised at Chase Cross Baptist Church, Essex.
Baptists undergo full submersion in water when they join the Church

"That's not to say that religion should be excluded from public life, but we need a better system in which other traditions are represented as well."

Baptists believe that prophetic ministry - warning and advising on the issues of the day - is compromised if a Church is too close to government, so they are keen to stay outside the fold.

And as if to illustrate this, Mr Edwards delivers an uncompromising evaluation of the current financial crisis.

"We're pointing the finger at ourselves.

"We in the Churches have been tied into the selfishness and materialism just like everybody else. This is an opportunity for a radical rethink.

"The sins of the bankers contributed to the mess, but so have all of us."

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