A History of The Gathering of Baptists
In one version of our draft for this account, John offered an Apologia as follows:
“The difference between an autobiography and a history is that the first is personal and subjective while the second attempts to be impersonal and objective. This commentary on events leading up to the creation of The Gathering will indubitably start from the autobiographical and move towards the historical ...” We hope that it will be so and that your sharing of recollections will help us to refine it.
The cold chill of literalism and of theological and ecclesiastic restraint was ramping up in the later half of the 1980s among the Baptists of Ontario and Quebec (BCOQ) particularly, and in the religious world globally. A number of voices began to cry out in their wildernesses for our people of BCOQ to take heed of our Baptist traditions and scriptural inspirations for free, informed thought and just action, and to warm the chill winds so as to foster wholeness and integrity following the example of Jesus. The Baptist Convention was seen to be retreating into a narrowness of vision and a power seeking centralization of control; the Denominational Seminary, McMaster Divinity College, reflected that trend of fear and control, had begin to crucify its faculty by firing or squeezing out into early retirement those members of the faculty whom they appeared to see as threatening to their agenda. The first to be dismissed from The College was one who challenged literalism, Professor Ken Jackson (1990). Within months one staff member and all but two, more compliant and less threatening, of the faculty were effectively gone
In those days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, two groups of clergy and lay persons had begun to meet with some regularity to wrestle with what was happening, to reflect on and to study what it is to be Baptist, and to consider how they might address situations among us of marginalization and injustice. One group was centred in Hamilton, the other in Brantford.
A third, but not independent group, with a pastoral concern for members of their congregations who were being mistreated, began to gather. These were John Dickenson, ministering at James Street Baptist, Chris Page, MacNeill, and Merle and Gary Caldwell, Dundas. In April of 1993, this third group initiated action to be taken to the BCOQ Assembly in June. A paper was distributed at the Assembly calling for reflection on what it is to be Baptist and inviting delegates and friends to participate in a study and discussion session in October of that year. Letters of invitation were mailed to some 70 congregations in the area. Hence, the first gathering of like-minded and concerned folk occurred Saturday, October 23, 1993, at MacNeil Baptist Church, Hamilton. The Rev. John Boyd, Minister of First Baptist Church Halifax and former President of The Atlantic Baptist Fellowship, provided input. The focus was (a) to discuss what our congregations do believe and to share thoughts on how we might be more effective in our ministries, and (b) to consider what an affinity group might include in its agenda to enrich our Baptist life and ministry. There were around forty in attendance with another similar number expressing regrets due to other commitments for that day. Enthusiasm for the objective and comradely resulted in a request that the conveners set up another gathering for the spring.
Over 80 congregational contacts were invited to this second Gathering which took place in Oshawa’s First Baptist Church on May 14, 1994. Dr George Rawlyk, Professor of History, Queens University, initiated discussion through his presentation on Baptist Origins, particularly in Canada. Another gathering in the fall was requested and subsequently arranged.
For the third gathering a mailing list had been established and letters of invitation mailed to some 84 contacts. An advertisement was accepted and published in “The Canadian Baptist’ (that was back in the day when it was still a two-way communication vehicle). This Gathering was at Highland Baptist Church, Kitchener on October 29, 1994. The focus was “Peace & Justice Issues in the Local Congregations” under the leadership of Dr. Paul Dekar, McMaster, Nancy Dekar, MacNeil, Hamilton, John & Judy Furry, Baptist Peace Fellowship, and members of the Peace & Justice Working Group of Sterling Avenue Mennonite Church, Kitchener. Sixty persons attended. The meeting resolved to hold regular semi-annual Gatherings in April and October.
The fourth gathering in Cobourg, April 29, 1995 resolved that a Steering Committee be established to better enable Gatherings and communications. The prime issue of the day was that of speaking out freely and cooperatively on issues of concern. Behind this discussion was the proposal of BCOQ Council to join ‘The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. The secondary issue was that of organizing for the continuity of these gatherings.
Hence the Gathering was born.
Our opening paragraph in this ‘history’ speaks of our purpose in gathering. In those early years the key issues included Baptist identity and freedoms, justice, and pastoral care. Other issues included the exclusion of a number of traditional Baptist believers from Thunder Bay churches, the mistreatment of women in ministry and BCOQ’s failure to take leadership in the midst of the literalists’ who seem to understand that ministry is a priesthood of men, the ownership of the Canadian Baptist Archives, the issue of gender orientation, the marriage of same gender persons, and the search to be effective and faithful in ministry and education..
The Gathering of Baptists was formed to positively influence BCOQ and to help to address a troubling trend. BCOQ churches had failed to recognize a wider malaise. Givings to BCOQ budget declined by almost 50% between 1991 and 1995; the membership of Convention churches, discounting the growth in ethnic congregations, also showed a precipitous decline; there was an influx of ministers from other denominations and many of our own young people were being trained in non-denominational schools – it was not uncommon to hear ministers say that “we live in a post denominational age.” And it is noted that even the new Principal of the Denominational Seminary’s experience of ministry was limited to two years of student ministry in a Methodist charge.
Having already been indirectly involved in two threatened lawsuits, The Gathering of Baptists incorporated and were granted Letters Patent November 26, 2004. We are continuing to gather regularly, twice annually, and now in our twenty-forth year.
The Prophet Elijah lamented: “Woe is me, only I am left.” To which God is heard to respond “No, you are not. There are 7,000 of you in Israel” – 1 Kings 19. The Gathering has been a place where people are heard to say “I am not alone in my distress, these are my people,” a place where people can speak and explore freely and with encouragement, and a place known to be fully welcoming. The values and the purpose set out early in the life of The Gathering remain our beacon.
John Dickenson & Gary Caldwell, recorders
Revised Edition 8 April 2016.