Two pro-gay national Baptist organizations have been denied official participation in an upcoming milestone gathering focused on Baptist unity.
The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB) and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, both of which openly affirm gays and lesbians in the life of the national bodies, were told they cannot participate as an organization in the "Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant" in January 2008. Members of the two bodies, however, can participate as individuals.
Alan Stanford, general secretary of the North American Baptist Fellowship (NABF) – the umbrella group organizing the January meeting – explained that this is not a rejection of either the organization or the people in those organizations, he wrote in an e-mail last week to leaders of the two groups, according to the Associated Baptist Press.
Rather, "it is a recognition that we can not hold together the large coalition of Baptists needed to create a new Baptist voice in North America and address the issue of sexual orientation at the same time. We ask for your forbearance and understanding," he wrote.
The New Baptist Covenant is an effort spearheaded by former president Jimmy Carter and Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University in Atlanta, to counter the "negative" Baptist image presented in the media and to demonstrate Baptist unity around social causes such as poverty and AIDS as well as evangelism. Carter has expressed concern that the most common opinion about Baptist is that they cannot get along.
Those participating in the new covenant, which may total some 20,000 Baptists from throughout the United States and Canada, will be gathering around common causes and focusing on what they agree on. Baptists within the NABF, however, have not reached an agreement on the issue of sexual orientation and to officially involve the two pro-gay Baptist groups might mean changing the already agreed-upon agenda of the new covenant.
"[W]hile everyone thinks that [sexuality] is a topic of grave concern – it is a topic that needs lots of discussion and prayer – it was not a part of the stated agenda from the beginning," said Stanford, according to the ABP. "And so I think a lot of the North American [Baptist] leaders thought that his would be changing the agreed-upon terms."
Ken Pennings, executive director of the AWAB, argued, "Here we are at a critical juncture when Baptists of all stripes are coming together to take a strong stand for justice for all of God's children, and the very people in American society being scapegoated and marginalized the most … are not going to be invited to participate."
The AWAB and the Baptist Peace Fellowship had applied for membership in the North American Baptist Fellowship and asked to be included as sponsors of the upcoming pan-Baptist gathering, according to Stanford. The NABF executive committee denied their membership which excludes them from being official sponsors of the new covenant.
"This really is more like the Old Covenant than the New Covenant," Pennings said, according to ABP. "Why would we want to participate in this? There's nothing new about this; it's the same old exclusion."
However, Stanford stressed to The Christian Post, "What we're going to focus on are things we're going to agree on."
Meanwhile, the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention – the largest Protestant denomination in the nation – has been invited to join the new effort. But the SBC elected not to participate, as Stanford stated.
Southern Baptist president Frank Page and some SBC leaders have rejected the New Baptist Covenant, showing concerns that the effort has political overtones, arguing that the date of the gathering is during the presidential election year and includes liberal speakers such as former president Bill Clinton, former vice president Al Gore, and Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman.
Nevertheless, the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant is seen as a bringing a vast diversity of Baptists together, including every major African American Baptist denomination.