Friday, May 25, 2012

Remembering Sam Sharpe

This week is a significant one for us Baptists, as we remember the life and death of the Rt Excellent Samuel Sharpe.

His story is one that has been often overlooked, and in the lists of great leaders and great Baptists he's often missing.

In part, his absence is due to the violence that flowed from the uprising he is most associated with. But mainly it's because of ignorance; his is a story that seldom gets told.

A well-educated Baptist deacon, Samuel Sharpe knew his scripture, and could see for himself the equality of all people, and how, in Christ, that divisions of slave and free, male and female, black and white become irrelevant as God joins all people together in one new humanity.

Sharpe was legally a slave all of his life, but his heart was that of a free man, righteously angry at the sin and violence of slavery. On Christmas day 1831 he organised a general strike, in the belief that the British government had ended slavery and that plantation owners were now acting unlawfully.

That uprising turned violent and what had begun as a peaceful protest became known as The Baptist War. Hundreds died. Eventually, after two weeks of struggle,  the Jamaican army ended the protest.

For his part in leading the rebellion Sharpe was hanged on 23rd May 1832, 180 years ago this week. Among his final words he is recorded as saying, "I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live for a minute more in slavery"

His story didn't end there though. News of what had happened caused questions to be raised in the British parliament, and the inquiries that came out of them were instrumental in bringing about the change of law the following year that abolished slavery right across the British empire.

Too often, we in the British church have focussed solely on our own anti-slavery heroes like Wiliam Knibb, or the great William Wilberforce, and we tell the story of how slavery ended by the actions of these men, at the expense or even the ignorance of the stories of the many hundreds of slaves who rose up themselves to break off the shackles of slavery. I pray the day is coming when we'll hear the stories of peoples in many places who were so inspired by the gospel, and so appalled by slavery that they fought for true freedom. I pray people like Sam Sharpe will be properly remembered not just in Jamaica, but here too as we celebrate those heroes who inspire us today.

I was honoured recently to be invited to attend the launch of the Sam Sharpe Project at the Jamaican High Commission, and I want to commend this project to you. On the website you'll learn more of the story, and of upcoming events that will ensure Sam Sharpe's legacy.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Baptists Assembly thoughts part 1

So, this year it was London (next year, back to Blackpool) for the annual gathering of Baptist Union and BMS World Mission folks. In London specifically to mark the 400th anniversary of the first Baptist church in England, established close to the site of Spitalfields Market.

The format for the Assembly was quite different. Firstly, the timescale; it's usually been Friday afternoon until Monday Lunchtime. This year it was Friday through to Sunday early evening. And in the place where there are usually larger gatherings for celebration and business on the Saturday daytime, 15 day conferences were on offer instead, on a wide variety of subjects.

Add into this the backdrop against which this Assembly was meeting - the need to review the funding, structures and staffing levels of the BUGB family - and it made for a very different kind of gathering.

So, did it work? Well, on some levels I am sure that it did. The pressure of a shortened scheduled forced an innovation that had been long spoken about, namely the combining together of a celebration service to mark the completion of Newly Accredited Ministers studies for a number of ministers, and the valedictory service for those who've completed training and are about to leave for overseas mission. Traditionally two separate events, this were woven together on the Saturday. And I think, on the whole, it worked well, and made more sense of the idea of a shared responsibility within churches, Union and BMS to care for and support all our recognised personnel.

Sung worship was led often by Noel Robinson and his band, who were very accomplished and joyful, but at times it felt like we were just starting to get going when something else had to happen, and cut into it.

Communion on the Sunday was a delight. Ruth Neve had crafted a service that saw us worshipping and praying in Hindi, English and BSL. And Jane Day's message was delivered in the very language of heaven, English (Yorkshire). With music from Aradhna (Canadians who perform and lead sung worship in Hindi - go figure..) that was just so different yet accessible and uplifting, and the act of communion being led by the Vice President of BWA alongside the General Secretary of the Jamaican Baptist Union, it was a privilege to be present.

So, what didn't really work? Well, I think we missed something by adding the day conferences in on the same year as we shortened the schedule by a day. The day conferences in themselves seemed to work well, but the cost was in the larger gathering as a body, and in time for deliberation and conversation both formal and informal. Personally, this seemed too high a price to pay. That said, in a longer Assembly I think there would be a place for them.

Secondly, I think the much-needed debate on Baptist Futures was overly complex, and spent too long in presentation, and not enough time in prayer and deliberation.

What else worked well? Well, I'm hugely biased here, but I think greater inclusion of social media (primarily twitter) was a very positive step forward. There were far more people tweeting this year than previously, with apparently 107 unique accounts using the Assembly hashtag (#baptassem) to make nearly 1000 comments. I think this is to be hugely welcomed, especially during deliberation sessions. With those speaking  given 3 minutes, there can sometimes be a lack of opportunity to participate, however monitoring twitter feeds to then spot trends in comments might mean that the opinions of 50 or more people could be acknowledged in the time it would take one speaker. Of course, the limit of 140 characters doesn't give space to make the developed arguments we still need to hear, but it's something, and it's something more than we used to have.

As I said, the individual day conferences seemed well received, and so as a reward for having read this far,  I finish with this contribution from a group of people who attended the one themed on consumerism; Are We Really Worth It? This group were invited to go into the worship centres of high consumerism and read and reflect on scripture whilst in those places. What follows was produced in the mother temple of consumerism, the Apple Store. Using the ipads on display, they took the text and reworked it, I hope you like it as much as I did:

Matthew visits the apple store
(Matthew 6v25-34, hastily recast in a sexier image!)
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what upgrade you will have, what network you are on what call plan, how fast your broadband is. Is not life more important than tech, and your relationships more important than gadgets? Look at the football fans hugging strangers after a home win, creating community. Are your relationships not worth more than these? Can you by surfing the internet add a single hour to your life?
 And why do you worry about your image? See how the children are clothed with smiles and giggles from play. I tell you not even Princess Kate on her wedding day was dressed like one of these. If this is how God lights up a child's face, which tomorrow may dissolve in tears, how much more beauty does God reflect through your whole life? So do not worry, saying what tech do I need, or what gadget must I have, or who should I look like? For the consumers run after all these things and God knows what your deeper needs are. But seek first community and relationships that are just and loving as God intended. Therefore do not worry about what comes out tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Look after each other today.
 Clare McBeath, Sue Hunt, Phil Cannard, Tim Pressword, Ashley Lovett.