Baptist Historical Society Centenary Conference: Bill Leonard Lecture

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So, WiFi at IBTS is very good, so it gives me a chance to blog some of the interesting aspects of this conference.  Tonight’s (Wednesday’s) opening public lecture was given by Dr Bill Leonard, who is Dean and Professor of Church History at the Divinity School at Wake Forest: ‘Conscience and Dissent in a Believers’ Church: Renewing a Baptist Glbal Identity’.

It was an excellent lecture to start off the conference (the theme of which is Baptists and the World: Renewing the Vision).  Leonard sought to articulate those aspects of the Baptist heritage (whether British or American) that he views as of vital significance for Baptist identity in the future. He argued that the vision bequeathed to us by our history has at its centre ‘the importance of un-coerced faith, grounded in the power of conscience, and resulting in inevitable dissent’.  This key idea was then explored with reference to a number of 17th century sources, but the paper moved on to consider the implications of taking this central focus seriously in the future.  It might suggest, Leonard argued, at least 5 distinctive areas of exploration:
1.  Baptist churches might seek to become a ‘shelter for persons of distressed conscience’ (Roger Williams’ phrase relating to Providence, I think).
2.  In a pluralist context, can Baptists today discern and expose forms of religio-political establishment where these still occur?
3.  Baptists must preserve a ‘radical concern for “voice”‘ whereby everyone is enabled to speak, no matter how significant the differences between them.
4.  However such debate and willingness to hear the voice of the other is not the same as being polite to each other.  Can we learn to ‘attack ideas without attacking character?’ (Leonard admitted that his experiences in North American Baptist life made him pessimistic about this).
5.  We must strive to find the boundaries of authentic dissent in the midst of mass culture and globalization.  Where can Baptists assume ‘the responsibility of the minority’ to uphold basic principles of civil rights on the basis of their own ‘Christ-arrested consciences’?
He ended by noting that Baptists tend not to do well with privilege, and that their reputation for being a disputatious people reveals something of the core values.

It was good lecture, lively and not too long, and it generated signficant discussion.  The main concern expressed was whether Leonard’s presentation emphasized the individual conscience to the detriment of the communal conscience and thereby inevitably generated schism.  For those in the room of more catholic sensibilities there was some concern over the idea that Baptist identity was too closely identified with notions of individual freedom, not least because this leads to the downplaying of central ecclesiological ideas such as covenant etc.  I was also acutely aware that Dr Leonard’s take on all this is shaped by the context of current debates amongst Baptists in North America.

So, discussion continued long after the excellent lecture was over, lubricated by Czech and then Bulgarian wine. Tomorrow is a day full of papers.  I will try and provide a summary of what I heard at the end of it all.