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Baptists find unity at convention despite divisions

Friday, February 15, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 12:35 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Baptists in Columbia and around the state are hoping to bridge the divide with a movement toward unity.

The Rev. John Baker was among a group of Missourians who attended a meeting last month in Atlanta aimed at building unity among the 83 different Baptist groups in the U.S.

Thirty leaders of these Baptist groups combined efforts to create the “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant,” which brought together nearly 15,000 people for the meeting, which was hosted by former President Jimmy Carter. Former President Bill Clinton also attended and spoke to the audience. Though all Southern Baptist Convention church leaders were invited to the event, only those from Texas and Virginia attended; other Southern Baptists attended independently of their state conventions.

Baptist leaders spent the past year planning the celebration, themed “Unity in Christ.” According to its Web site, www.newbaptistcelebration.org, the group hopes to usher in a “new era of cooperation.”

Brian Kaylor, one of the event planners, said: “Baptists have been very divided. We’ve forgotten our purpose to love the world, and we need to put aside our differences.”

Missouri has had its own rift between the Southern Baptist Convention and other Baptist groups based in the state.

In 2002, a group formed the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, creating divisions among congregations in the state and prompting the Missouri Baptist Convention to eventually recognize only those churches that affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention.

In a letter to one of the organizers of the new Missouri convention, Morris Chapman, the president of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, declined to join the group. Chapman wrote that the ideals proposed by the Missouri Baptist Convention for forming the Baptist General Convention opposed those of the Southern Baptist Convention. As a result, the Southern Baptist Convention has chosen not to associate with the new Baptist General Convention of Missouri. Nor does it associate with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri.

After years of division, Baker particularly enjoyed the “rich and warm environment” of the celebration. He said he is just trying to digest what happened at the meeting. The “new level of trust and harmony” found at the covenant meeting will likely be required if Missouri’s Baptist groups are ever to join together on projects, he said.

Some Missouri Baptists hope to replicate the New Baptist Covenant here, and that cooperation will be a part of the future. A bridge between Baptists “will always be something to work toward despite theological interpretation,” said Jeanie McGowan, the leadership development team leader of the Baptist General Convention and a Jefferson City resident. “The goal is to find common ground.”

As for now, Baptists do have one thing in common: belief in Jesus Christ.

“Biblical Jesus prayed his disciples and followers would unite and be one,” Kaylor said.

At the “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant,” where discussions centered on unity in Christ, peacemaking, interfaith relations, poverty and health care issues, attendees said they felt optimistic about the future. “It was absolutely wonderful,” McGowan said.

Though former President Carter confirmed that the leaders of the Baptist celebration will meet again in March, the next step in unifying and promoting Baptist values remains with those who attended the meeting.

“There will be more local replications next,” Kaylor said. “I hope that in the future, others will be less reluctant to be involved.”


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