By Gerard Flanagan, news writer/photographer/social media, Office of University Communications
CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. – Throughout its more than 400-year history, Baptists have not always been viewed as ecumenical, according to Dr. Steve Harmon, professor of historical theology at the Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity.
However, during Campbellsville University’s Baptist Heritage Lecture, Harmon discussed several ecumenical Baptist individuals and organizations in a Zoom presentation titled “Baptist Ecumenical Trailblazers.”
Harmon defined ecumenism as “the movement within the visibly divided church to overcome divisions and seek more visible forms of Christian unity.”
In 1609, John Smith founded the earliest identifiable Baptist congregation in Amsterdam.
Due to differing views over baptism, a small group led by Thomas Helwys broke away after Smith united his congregation with the Mennonites.
“Baptists, ever since, especially in the United States, have tended to follow this precedent for dividing from one another in local congregations, associations and national denominational organizations and international Baptist bodies,” Harmon said.
“Beyond their internal divisions, there are significant trajectories in the Baptist tradition that don’t seem to end at ecumenical ends.”
John Howard Shakespeare, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain from 1898 to 1924, released a book titled, “The Churches at the Crossroads” in late 1918.
“As it became clear Shakespeare’s ecumenical hope was not merely mutual respect and cooperation, but the reunion of the divided churches, he began to encounter strong and organized opposition from his fellow Baptists,” Harmon said.
While preaching in the Uppsala Cathedral in Sweden, Shakespeare said, “Warring churches cannot speak convincingly to a warring world.”
“I’ve given much attention to Shakespeare because his story sets the stage for the work of the subsequent Baptist ecumenical trailblazers I’ll highlight.”
Harmon highlighted Helen Barrett Montgomery, who became the first female president of the Northern Baptist Convention (now Baptist Churches USA). She was also the first woman to serve as president of any Christian denomination in the United States.
“Her work for the political advancement of women, motivated by their Christian faith, had a trans-denominational character,” Harmon said.
Ernest Alexander Payne served as general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain from 1951 until 1967. According to Harmon, Payne’s ecumenical beliefs were shaped by Shakespeare’s book, “The Church of the Crossroads.”
Payne served as president of World Council of Churches from 1968 until 1975. He was also vice president of the British Council of Churches and vice chair of the World Council of Churches Central Committee, among other positions.
Harmon said of Payne, “No one Baptist has held such prominent positions in the institutional instruments of the modern ecumenical movement, all while remaining an earnest advocate of the distinctive convictions and practices of the Baptist movement and of the larger free church tradition.”
Claude Broach served as pastor of St. Johns Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., from 1944 until 1974.
“As a Southern Baptist pastor, Broach made influential contributions to Christian unity at the grassroots,” Harmon said.
While running for president, John F. Kennedy faced strong anti-Catholic sentiment. On Aug. 11, 1960, just before the presidential election, approximately 40 Baptist ministers, including Broach, attended a meeting in Gastonia, N.C., whose stated goal was the “distributing information about the alien dogmas of the Catholic Church.”
In response, Broach wrote the following to his church and in an opinion piece in the Charlotte Observer: “There is no reason to assume he is unworthy merely because of his religion. In short, this is no time to engage in a campaign against the Catholic Church.”
While Broach received criticism, including calls to resign as St. Johns’ pastor, his stand against anti-Catholicism won him respect from the Catholic community.
In 1965, Pope John XXIII invited Broach to attend the Second Vatican Council, also called Vatican II. Though the Baptist World Council declined an official invitation to attend the session after a heated session of its executive committee, Broach received an invitation to the council as an accredited visiting theologian.
St. Johns Baptist Church takes pride in Broach’s work at Vatican II, according to Harmon.
“That they do is an indication of Broach’s success in the ecumenical formation of the membership of his congregation, which today describes itself in its congregational branding as an ecumenical church,” Harmon said.
Broach attended the fourth assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1968.
Broach, also a trustee at Wake Forest University, convinced James Ralph Scales, president of Wake Forest University, to form an ecumenical institute at the university.
The institute, launched on March 1, 1968, had Brooks Hays, former Democratic congressman from Arkansas and the last lay person to serve as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, as its first director.
The institute entered a period of decline in the early 1990s as a series of Wake Forest theology faculty members provided part-time direction.
“The institute sought to honor and capitalize on the legacy of Claude Broach by adding members of St. Johns Baptist Church to the board and instituting a Broach lecture on ecumenism,” Harmon said.
Though the institute has never officially been disbanded, it’s done little work since 2012. The institute’s decline is evidence of “larger challenges faced by the ecumenical movement over the recent years,” Harmon said.
James McClendon Jr., another Baptist ecumenical trailblazer, wrote a three-volume series on systematic theology that achieved four things: spelling out the theological perspectives of the free-church movement, encouraging cooperation among churches, outlining a Baptist ecumenical structure that makes anywhere a starting point for ecumenical convergence and providing possible solutions for ecumenical problems.
McClendon established a partnership between the College Theology Society, an organization of predominantly Catholic university professor of theological and religious studies, and the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion in 1996.
Keith Clements, a more recent Baptist ecumenist, served as coordinating secretary for the International Affair of the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland from 1990 until 1997 and as general secretary of the Conference for European Churches from 1997 until 2005.
“Clements’ ecumenical interests resonate especially with the life and works stream of the modern ecumenical movement, seeking unity among the churches, especially for the purpose of engaging the social order in a transformative way,” Harmon said.
Paul S. Fiddes is the most prominent contemporary Baptist ecumenical trailblazer, according to Harmon.
“As a Baptist theologian, he’s given much attention to articulating a Baptist ecclesiology that is especially concerned with the connections of Baptists to the whole church and that looks to the whole church for the resources that Baptist congregations need for practicing theology locally,” Harmon said.
Neville Callam served as general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance from 2007 until 2017. Jamaican Baptists influenced Callam heavily, Harmon said. Callam also served as a member of the WCC Commission on Faith and Order.
“Callam encouraged and expanded the ecumenical engagement of global Baptists and called them to think through the implications of their connections to the whole church and to act accordingly,” Harmon said.
Harmon said ecumenical dialogue between denominations is only as good as the degree to which it’s put into practice.
“If the remarkable convergences they’ve been able to forge remain in documents that sit on library shelves unconsulted or languish in seldom-searched silos of the internet but do not impact relationships between churches and their members in actual communities and embodied relationships, they’ve accomplished little,” Harmon said.
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