Senior British Baptists have issued a call for denominational unity in the face of challenges posed by the issue of human sexuality.
Signed by pastors, academics and the general director of BMS World Mission, the denomination's overseas mission agency, the document entitled The Courage to be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality is billed as "a call to Baptist churches to face our present disagreements over same-sex marriage by being faithful to a Baptist way of being church".
Some signatories hold a traditional view of marriage and sexuality, while others affirm the theological validity of same-sex relationships.
The Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB) has previously urged its member churches not to register to conduct same-sex marriages, though it has acknowledged it cannot prevent them doing so if they wish. It has also said its ministers have the freedom to conduct such marriages, though they are prohibited from entering into same-sex marriages themselves.
While most Baptist churches are theologically conservative on the issue, the question of how inclusive the denomination can be has caused debate in recent years.
The BUGB is not a centrally organised or heirarchical denomination and the principle of congregational independence is central to its identity. The first of the three clauses in its "Declaration of Principle" says that "our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws".
An introduction on The Courage to be Baptist website says: "This Baptist way of being church allows us to maintain unity even when we disagree about certain issues. We believe this is a gift of God, allowing us to witness to our true unity in Christ even when we disagree about serious matters."
Among the signatories are Rev Dr Ruth Gouldbourne, minister of Bloomsbury Baptist Church, Rev Dr Steve Holmes, senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of St Andrews, and BMS general director Rev David Kerrigan.
The statement acknowledges that every Western Christian denomination is struggling with ethical questions about human sexuality. However, it notes that British Baptists have "united around a minimal statement of shared principles and so modelled living together in unity and love despite differences". Among these, it suggests, are the ministry of women and the remarriage of divorcees. It rejects the idea of seeking unity by "imposing uniformity, tying the body of Christ to a procrustean bed to distort and dismember it".
The statement calls for local churches to engage together "much more deeply and honestly than before" and for a "serious, open-ended and respectful conversation". It says: "We call for shared trust and good faith, a commitment to believe that those churches with whom we disagree take their positions out of a desire to shape life according to the gospel, and to follow faithfully the laws of Christ disclosed in Scripture."
Among those commending the statement is Rev Dr Nigel Wright, a former principal of Spurgeon's College, who says: "Were it up to me I would wish our denomination to hold fast fearlessly, publicly and with a good conscience to a traditional understanding of marriage and sexual relations. I hope it will go on doing so. However, respect for the freedom of informed (and sometimes dissenting) consciences is a high priority for any Baptist, a proven way of holding together when there are deeply-felt disagreements, and a moral strength. This statement offers a thoughtful and compassionate rationale for such an approach and as such is to be commended."
Principal emeritus of Regent's Park College, Rev Dr Paul Fiddes, says: "Since its authors differ on the issue of same-sex relations, their writing models, in an extraordinarily helpful way, the love and unity that should be possible among Baptists at this critical moment in their story. Read widely, this statement could transform attitudes and strengthen Baptists to share in the mission of God."