Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Back in the religion-beat Good Old Days — roughly 1985-95 or hereabouts — religion-beat professionals in most American newsrooms could count on getting travel-budget money to cover at least two major events every year.

That would be the annual summer meeting of the national Southern Baptist Convention — prime years in the denomination’s civil-war era — and a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, where some progressives were wrestling with Pope St. John Paul II and there were rumblings about a massive sexual-abuse scandal among priests and bishops.

Along with meetings of the Religion Newswriters Association, these were the dates on the calendars when the pros could get together and talk shop over a few modest meals/drinks on the company dime.

Well, those meetings roll on, of course, and continue to make news. A few reporters get to attend these major events, since they represent newsrooms that are (a) still quite large, (b) led by wise editors or (c) both. Lots of others scribes (speaking for a friend) catch key moments via streaming video, smartphone connections and transcripts of major speeches and debates.

With that in mind, here is a double-dose of weekend think-piece material linked to these two events which will take place in the next week or so in Birmingham, Ala., and Baltimore. Some people get barbecue and some get crab cakes.

First up, an essay by a key SBC voice, the Rev. Russell Moore of Beltway land, entitled: “10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Southern Baptists.” There are some important topics early on (“Westboro Baptist Church isn’t one of us” and “There are some things in our past we’re ashamed of”) but the most important info comes near the end, in terms of topics currently in the news. For example:

#8. We’re more ethnically diverse than you might think.

Among the fastest growing demographics in the Southern Baptist life are African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American congregations. The most vibrant of our churches often include many languages and ethnic groups.

Though positive steps have happened, it’s not good enough for many of us, since we believe the church is designed to be a preview of the coming kingdom of God, a kingdom that is made up of those from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language. Most of the Body of Christ, on earth as well is in heaven, isn’t white and has never spoken English.

We celebrate our growing diversity, including seminary programs intentionally training the next generation of ethnic minority leadership, even as we note that we have far yet to go. With every year that passes, we have more and more salsa at our church potlucks, and we like it that way.

Here’s another top that is dominating headlines (hello David French) at the moment:

#9. We believe in religious liberty for everyone, not just ourselves.

Baptists began as a persecuted people, hunted from our homes in England and later colonial America because of our convictions. Many of our heroes were in prison for preaching the gospel.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is there because of the persistent agitation of those such as Virginia Baptist preacher John Leland, who demanded full religious liberty for everyone — believers and unbelievers.

Because of what we believe about the gospel, we don’t think a state-coerced faith is a genuine faith. And because we believe that each person must give an account, personally, before the Judgment Seat of Christ, we don’t support any king, dictator, legislature, or bureaucrat inhibiting anyone’s free exercise of religion. Jesus taught us to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s — and the conscience doesn’t belong to Caesar.

But here is the one that will affect discussions of #ChurchToo and clergy sexual-abuse issues. The SBC will strive to make a response, but it’s hard to respond at the national level when there is no unified denominational structure that can handle it (especially in terms of insurance policies to respond to valid complaints by victims in independent local churches).

This “free church” polity issue is, of course, a matter of theological as well as law.

#10. Authority goes to autonomous churches governed by Christ, not a hierarchy.

Some churches and denominations have decisions made at the top — by bishops or other leaders — and these decisions filter down to the churches. Our decisions go the other way. We think every church — no matter where or what its size — is governed by Jesus through his Word and by his gifts and is free from dictation by any other church or by some religious bureaucracy.

This commitment to what we call “the autonomy of the local church” shows up even in our annual meeting. Any “messenger” — someone sent from our churches — can make any motion or come to a microphone and say anything. This leads to unpredictability because our meetings aren’t scripted and choreographed in some “headquarters.”

That’s why the SBC was able to turn around from its direction toward theological liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s toward orthodox, evangelical conviction. The people had the final say.

Second, let me point readers and Godbeat pros to this interesting essay by Catholic News Agency editor J.D. Flynn, demonstrating that doctrinal conservatives, as well as progressives, are quite upset about recent news events in their church. I’m thinking, at the moment, about those bombshell reports at The Washington Post about a major disciple of Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick.

The headline on Flynn’s CNA commentary: “Bp. Bransfield, the USCCB, and the Holy Spirit.” Read this, for starters:

In light of the Bransfield report, Catholics are now asking whether there is any evidence that an apparent culture of clubby loyalties cultivated through “personal gifts” has actually come to an end. …

What now seems clear is that in a culture in which large cash gifts are distributed with some regularity, the appearance of impropriety is everywhere, and the probability of cover-ups and corruption is quite high. Such a culture, many Catholics are likely to conclude, is, at the very least, systemically deficient at preventing a kind of laissez faire tolerance for malfeasance.

For that reason, the Bransfield report does further damage to the credibility of the U.S. bishops, at a moment when, for many practicing Catholics, their credit is already running quite low.

It is especially worth noting that the credibility of bishops is not suffering only among the usual crowd of doctrinal dissenters and social libertines. While it is clear that this crisis has been exploited by some for political or person gain, for profit, and to advance ideological agendas, U.S. bishops would be mistaken to underestimate the despondence the crisis has occasioned among their most ardent supporters, and their most orthodox parishioners.

Expect lots of debate, in Baltimore, about the role of the laity in policing the shepherds who don’t want to play by the rules (or church doctrines).

The bottom line: There has been progress made on some scandalous issues, but not others.

So what can Catholics in the pews pray for and strive to see come to pass?

Few would dispute that the policies advanced after the abuse crisis of 2002 have fostered a cultural change in the U.S. Church on the issue of child and youth protection. Many argue that over time, they’ve made the Catholic Church one of the safest places for children in America. But they are wonky, technical, bureaucratic, and the cultural shift they foster takes time.

But angry and discouraged American Catholics have not spent the last year calling for policies. They’ve called for dramatic symbols of contrition and resolution for change. They’ve called for prophetic voices, and maligned their bishops for not seeming to measure up.

Catholics of all backgrounds, viewpoints, and perspectives have demanded a sign that things in the U.S. Church really will be different, and they don’t feel they’ve been heard.

The issue is that the bishops are working toward reform, while most of the Church is calling for renewal.

Reform comes often through new disciplines, policies, processes, and agreements. Renewal rushes in like fire, bringing new energy and vitality, bringing new freedom and hope. Both are important, and both are needed now.

The U.S. bishops can’t make a renewal happen. At least not in their committee meetings and floor debates.

Here comes Pentecost?

Lots to read. Lots to think about. Stay tuned.

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