The Order for Baptist Ministry: ten years old
'We wanted to strengthen the life of those called to serve the church as pastors, so they in turn might strengthen the discipleship of their fellow church members'
Founding member Paul Goodliff on a decade of the Order for Baptist Ministry
It is now over ten years ago that four friends met in the shadow of Christ Church in Oxford, all Baptist ministers who had trained at Spurgeon's College at the same time, and who had continued to meet regularly over the years in mutual support of one another. Martin Taylor was a hospital chaplain in London, Colin Norris was minister at Westbury-on-Trym in Bristol (and soon-to-be Regional Minister in Southern Counties), Geoff Colmer is Regional Minister Team Leader for the Central Baptist Association (he is retiring later this year), and I was Head of Ministry for the Baptist Union.
We had all experienced in differing ways the challenges faced by ministers in keeping faithful to their calling, especially as we supported our ministerial colleagues in tough times, and I had recently had a fascinating conversation with John Colwell, tutor in theology at Spurgeon's College. As John had taught a class on the Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas, the conversation had turned to The Order of Preachers, the official name of the Dominicans. "If the Catholics can have an Order of Preachers, why can't Baptists?", asked those students from "The Preacher's College" (as Spurgeon's is nicknamed). It was a question that stayed with John Colwell, and he and I had mulled it over late one evening. It was that idea that I took to my friends in Christ Church meadows in Oxford, half expecting to be on the end of some quizzical looks and suggestions I seek some professional help!
But they took it seriously, and so we arranged to meet with John Colwell over lunch some weeks later, and from that conversation an idea began to emerge about something uniquely Baptist, but drawing upon the great Western theological and spiritual tradition out of which Baptists emerged in the 17th century. Sure, there were alternatives to establishing a new community — Baptist minister Roy Searle had formed the Northumbria Community decades earlier, and many Baptist ministers were associated with it, but that was not specifically Baptist, and drew upon another tradition, that of Celtic Christianity. That was not where our spiritual journey had taken us, owing more to the contemplative spiritual tradition and we all had Baptist principles and patterns indelibly imprinted upon our experience.
One or two of our fellow Baptist ministers had found an identity with the Third Order Franciscans or with the Benedictines, but that was insufficiently Baptist for us. There was a gap, and perhaps we might fill it. As Geoff Colmer has written, 'Over a meal at Brown’s, the Oxford bistro, a glass of red wine was raised to what we felt might be an extraordinary venture, and the Order for Baptist Ministry was seeded. A key aspiration was the desire for Baptist ministers to be in accountable, reflective relationships that enable them to flourish in, sustain, and remain true to their calling.'
Each of the five of us invited someone who we thought might be sympathetic to the concept to join us for 24 hours of discernment in Warminster, and also invited Ruth Bottoms to facilitate that conversation. On 11-12 March 2010, those 11 women and men gathered at Ivy House Retreat Centre. Over 24 hours, the group shared together and sought to discern what God might be saying.
Out of this emerged a strong conviction that has taken expression in a statement called ‘The Dream’. What emerged was a commitment to first pray a shared Daily Office — a form of structured daily prayer and reading of Scripture that was specifically aligned to our Baptist identity, using contemporary language, but which drew upon a contemplative spirituality; second, to meet regularly for mutual accountability in cells through the use of a series of probing questions about our personal discipleship, prayer and ministry, which we adapted from the Jesuit idea of examen; and thirdly, to gather annually as a community in Convocation (being 'called together', literally).
Those three practices were supported by a commitment to whatever else might keep us faithful to the way of life we had begun at our baptism as disciples of Jesus, and at our ordination as ministers of the gospel — which might mean taking time for a retreat or seeking the help of a spiritual director. At that consultation at Ivy Lodge we also made the decision to hold a wider consultation at the beginning of 2011, followed by a three-day Convocation in the Autumn of 2011.
In Milton Keynes in 2011, 52 people gathered to hear of this idea. It seemed good to us, but would others think us crazy, heretical, or just plain weird? The answer was none of those, and we began to believe that we had been led by the Holy Spirit to establish something fruitful for the life of our Baptist family of churches, members and ministers.
An early question was whether this was available for every Baptist Christian, or if it should be restricted to those who are ministers or pastors? That conversation was hard, but at that first Convocation in October 2011 held at All Saints Pastoral Centre in London Colney, Hertfordshire (we were the last group to use its facilities before it ceased to be a Catholic retreat centre) we were assisted by a former Baptist minister, now Anglican Franciscan (and fellow Spurgeon's student) Fr. John Hemmings, who joined us there.
He suggested a priority was to discern our 'charism' (or our calling) and we could not get away from the conviction that what we were attempting was something that would be specifically helpful to ministers, and with the conviction that when ministry goes wrong, it is often the whole congregation that suffers, and when ministry flourishes, the church does too. We wanted to strengthen the life of those called to serve the church as pastors, so they in turn might strengthen the discipleship of their fellow church members. That was — and is — our charism.
More than ten years on, where has that journey taken the Order? We have over a dozen cells meeting, each one every five weeks or so, for a couple of hours of shared prayer (we say the Daily Office together) and then an examination of an aspect of our lives, asking the questions that not many church members would dream of asking their minister, or that other ministers might ask of one another. That accountability is the genius of the cell, and we use a series of questions that regularly places the more searching ones before us, and help us avoid simply talking about the church, rather than about our lives. There is a place for honest conversations about the life of ministry and the life of our churches, and Ministers' meetings organised by Associations are the most familiar, but that can be a way of avoiding the honest reflection upon our own joys and sorrows, strengths and weaknesses. In cells we seek to be faithful to that.
OBM member Andrew Mumford writes, 'It’s true to say that cells vary in their approach but usually it involves saying the office together, and then a time of spiritual review, using the ‘review questions’ which cover various areas of our life and ministry in particular our ministry vows and pitfalls, baptism vows, personal discipleship and spiritual resources. .... The review questions and the dream are to me tremendously helpful aids as we think about what we are actually doing and being as Baptist ministers.'
From the start we began to write our own Daily Offices, aware that those who are members of the Northumbria Community use the same one every day. To be frank, we wanted some variety! So, there is a different office for every day of the week, and each reflects upon a part of the liturgical year — for instance, Mondays' Office draws from Pentecost, Wednesdays' from Christmas, Fridays from Lent and Passiontide, and Sunday's from Easter.
During those seasons of the Church Year, we use the appropriate Office every day, so while we normally say the Tuesday Office each Tuesday (in what is called 'ordinary time), we also use it every day in the season of Advent, for that is the focus of the Tuesday Office. To supplement the Office during those seasons like Advent, or Lent, we have developed a sequence of Alternative Daily Offices for each day of the week, and also a series of Shorter Offices. At their heart is this prayer, said every day, summing up what we aspire to be,
Living God, enable us this day
to be pilgrims and companions:
committed to the way of Christ,
faithful to the call of Christ,
discerning the mind of Christ,
offering the welcome of Christ,
growing in the likeness of Christ,
engaging in the mission of Christ,
in the world that belongs to Christ.
To those 21 different Offices we have added some for particular feast days, such as the Annunciation, Ascension and All Saints. Additionally, we have developed a similar set of short mid-day prayers and some for use at the close of the day, reflecting in a small way the daily rhythm of monastic prayer. All these have been made readily available for anyone to download from our website, and we know that these have been used far beyond the members of the Order, and see it as a gift to the wider Baptist family. Why not take a look!
Convocations have taken place every year since 2011, the years 2020 and 2021 online because of the pandemic and its restrictions upon gathering in person. There we share in the life of the Order, say the Offices together, share in Communion, are inspired by those who we invite to address us, and importantly, welcome those who are making a commitment to the Order. Many of us are familiar with vows made at our baptism, and for ministers, those made at ordination and renewed at induction services. Those who are married make vows of fidelity and love, of course. Becoming a member involves a time of discernment through the cell group, and then a commitment adopted through vows made at Convocation — always a joyous but serious moment.
Convocation appoints a small group called The Core Group to oversee the life of the Order, organise and administrate Convocation and approve new Daily Offices. Some of us are founding members, but others have joined in the intervening years, and we aim for a balance in gender and long for some younger ministers to join! Currently, I am the Convenor for the Core Group, and represent the Order more widely.
Some have suggested that we are simply playing with being Catholic Baptists, and for sure, we have drawn from those wells of wisdom that are now two thousand years old. But there are members who are charismatic, evangelical, and contemporary — in other words very typical Baptists — as well as those who have contemplative spirituality at the heart of their way of being a follower of Jesus. Andrew Mumford writes, 'Over the years, I have been asked if it is just for ‘high’ or liturgical Baptists, and I do not think this is necessarily the case: different types of BU pastors are OBM members or attenders at cells. But it is for those who might find such a way of relating helpful for a number of reasons, not least accountability and support. With its unique charism it very much stands among other Baptist groupings, and is there to help ministers.'
More recently the Ministries Team at Baptists Together has recognised the value of the Order in meeting CMD requirements, and the way it provides for a next step after the mentoring for Newly Accredited Ministers (NAMs) that has been such a 'ministry-saver' for so many over the past 20 years. But ministers-in-training would benefit, as well as NAMS, and really anyone whose life is now oriented to ministry through leadership of a church, or chaplaincy, or other roles of regional or national leadership.
For the past four years I have been General Secretary of Churches Together in England, the national ecumenical instrument, and I have found that being a member of my local Baptist church, as well as being a member of the Order for Baptist Ministry has grounded me in my own tradition, even as I have sought to lead the ecumenical work in England, appreciating traditions from Pentecostal to Orthodox, Free Church to Catholic. Orchard Baptist Church and the Order have provided me with the ways of rooting this broad ecumenism in my own Baptist experience, even as, for the first time in 40 years of ministry, I have not been primarily serving Baptist churches, associations or the Union.
However, most of the members of the Order are working local pastors, and perhaps it is for them and the churches they serve, that the Order has most value. Once described as 'the best kept secret in the Baptist Union', there has never been any desire for secrecy, but simply an openness to those whom the Spirit leads our way and who stumble across us, rather than making a 'big performance' about who we are. If you are one of those for whom the Order might be helpful, then contact us through our website at orderforbaptistministry.co.uk.
The Revd Dr Paul Goodliff, Orchard Baptist Church, Bicester
Convenor, The Order for Baptist Ministry
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