By Rev. Michael Woolf
We only got to meet in person one time before we took our American Baptist polity class online due to COVID-19. At first, I was upset. Wouldn’t this mean that I would miss out on forming the sort of robust connections with students that I had desired? It turns out that fear was misguided, and we were able to bond quite well over our tradition’s strange, humble, and extraordinary origins and theology. As we explored our faith using the backdrop of the current pandemic, I came to value the conversation we shared about our tradition more and more. Instead of feeling like a remote, academic exercise, the conversations about Baptist history and practice seemed anything but pedantic; they revealed a way of doing church that was built for times like these.
On twitter, fights raged about whether the Eucharist could be consecrated virtually. Bishops put out letters authorizing their ministers to consecrate the host via live stream, and then some bishops later rescinded those same authorizations. As I watched from the comfort of my computer screen, I felt strangely removed from my colleagues’ conflicts over authority in a time of crisis. After reflecting on why I felt on the sidelines of such debates, I realized that the Baptist tradition has two resources that are invaluable in this time: local church autonomy and a memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper.
Because the local church is an independent decision-making body, each congregation is free to figure out what sort of communion rites work for their community. That includes celebrating the Lord’s Supper online. If a community’s theology allows for taking such a step, then each congregation is empowered to do so. No permission or oversight is needed. In fact, our theology of communion and our historical understanding of that sacred moment as being a symbol might make us uniquely positioned to find creative solutions to our present issues. Symbols can take place anywhere, even virtually, and they give rise to the same sort of reflection and deep commitment that our tradition affirms in our understanding of the ordinances.
This is but one example of the ways that our tradition empowers creative decision-making from communities of faith. Some practices may work for my community, and others may not. There can be as many celebrations of communion as there are congregations in our fellowship, and some congregations, such as those with a real presence Eucharistic theology, may feel that their beliefs prevent them from taking such steps. That makes the American Baptist Churches, USA, nimbler than some of our sister denominations, and it has made me feel increasingly indebted to reformers like Zwingli and Baptist pioneers that emphasized the need for our tradition to be grounded in local context.
In times like these, the value of freedom to make our own decisions about how to best address the needs of our congregations and communities is magnified. Congregations have had to make decisions quickly, and the result has been worship experiences that have been transformative throughout our denomination. But that also comes with some responsibility, as my students were quick to point out. That means that our congregations have to practice good discernment, and that the responsibility for such decisions rests with them alone. Luke 12:48 comes to mind: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”
The good news is that our tradition affirms our discernment as individuals and as communities. Our belief in soul competency and freedom, paired with our commitment to the priesthood of all believers, means that is not just clergy or denominational officials that can receive direction from the Holy Spirit; everyone is able to participate in this project. We may not agree about how to approach it, but our tradition offers myriad resources for engaging with the needs of this present time. For that I am thankful. I am glad that the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago asked me to teach the class. Otherwise, I might not have been reading so much Baptist history and theology in the middle of this pandemic, and I would not have been as appreciative of the strengths that our tradition offers in a time of crisis.
The Rev. Michael Woolf is senior minister, Lake Street Church of Evanston, Illinois and a ThD candidate at Harvard University.