ATLANTA (BP)–A diverse group of Baptists meeting at the New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta Jan. 30-Feb. 1 heard speeches from two former U.S. presidents and a former vice president, made frequent mention of the Southern Baptist Convention and began planning for continued cooperation among moderate and liberal Baptists in America.
Registration solely for the New Baptist Covenant Celebration reached 5,000. Officials counted as participants another 10,000 people who were in town for the combined winter meeting of the National Baptist Convention of America, the National Baptist Convention USA, the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Registrants for that winter meeting automatically were counted as registered for the New Baptist Covenant.
The largest attendance at any plenary session appeared to be approximately 9,000 on the opening night before many attendees of the four African American denominational meetings departed. Attendance at Thursday’s plenary sessions dropped off and about 8,000 attended the final session on Friday with former President Bill Clinton.
“We’ve been excited and pleased and gratified at the participation — both the number, first of all,” former President Jimmy Carter said at a news conference Feb. 1. “We feel that we had about 15,000 persons who have actually registered, but because we have not required registration … we think between 15,000 and 25,000. We don’t know the exact number.”
Leaders of the gathering will re-assemble next month at the Carter Center in Atlanta to discuss how the group will continue to cooperate in the future, Carter said. Based on feedback from the event, Carter said stewardship of the earth and immigration will be two topics of continued interest.
Carter downplayed criticism by SBC leaders that the meetings had a political agenda and said he hopes New Baptist Covenant participants can engage in cooperative ministry efforts with Southern Baptists.
“That was a year ago and when we first announced it,” Carter said Feb. 1 of initial SBC criticism. “I think that many leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention saw this as a negative, critical assembly of people who didn’t like the policies of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have been in close touch with [SBC President] Frank Page. I communicated with him yesterday morning again after receiving a very generous letter from him saying that we were in his prayers.
“Even some others … like Al Mohler have said, who is very likely to be the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, that the results of this assembly will be what determines Southern Baptist Convention leaders’ attitude toward us. And one of my hopes is that as we identify specific projects that we might undertake, we’ll be reaching out to see in what one of those we can cooperate fully with the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention and members.”
Former President Bill Clinton concluded the meeting with an address in which he urged attendees to treat more conservative Baptists with love and respect despite deep disagreements.
“We should not let our response to the people who disagree with us be dictated by what they say about us or even how they treat people that we care for,” Clinton said to applause. “If there is any chance, any chance, that this covenant can become an embracing one, that there can once again be a whole community, it has to be the chance of love, the chance that we might not give up our differences but find that our common humanity matters more.”
Carter told attendees on the opening night of the convocation that Baptists of all races, political stances and theological leanings have an obligation to unite around belief in the Gospel and set aside differences that cause divisions.
Differing beliefs about the role of women in the church and the family, whether abortion should be legal, whether homosexuals should be accepted into Baptist churches, whether a wall of separation should be maintained between church and state and whether the United States should use the death penalty are not important enough to divide Baptists, the former president said.
“We come together in peace and harmony with courage to face facts and to search for inspiration,” Carter said. “We’re ready to make commitments individually and collectively to serve the Prince of Peace with eagerness, to spread His Gospel and to inspire harmony.”
Former Vice President Al Gore explained his views on global climate change and argued that believers must protect the earth from global warming at a Jan. 31 luncheon. Approximately 2,500 attendees paid $35 each to hear Gore’s presentation.
Criticism of the SBC’s conservative leadership was a frequent topic in plenary session addresses. One of the most outspoken critics of the SBC was novelist John Grisham, who criticized Christians who read the Bible with so-called narrow literalness. He also labeled as intolerant Baptists who believe Scripture limits some roles in the church to men.
“Who are we kidding when we try to exclude?” Grisham asked. “God made all of us. He loves all of us equally, and He expects us to love and respect each other without regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, biblical interpretation, denomination or other religions.”
Sen. Charles Grassley, R.-Iowa, was the lone Republican politician to address the gathering in a plenary session. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., was scheduled to speak but cancelled in order to travel with Sen. John McCain during his campaign for president.
Grassley said America is obligated to alleviate world hunger. He also briefly summarized the complexities of the debate over immigration, which Graham was to address.
“We come together to bridge our differences for the greater good,” Grassley said Feb. 1. “Whether it’s racial, geographic, political, theological or other divisions you can think of, our faith can help bridge differences. And that’s the only way we, working together, are going to make a difference.”
Other plenary session speakers included William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention USA; Tony Campolo, professor emeritus at Eastern University; Marian Wright Edleman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund; Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga.; Joel Gregory, professor of preaching at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary; and Charles G. Adams, pastor of Hartford Baptist Church in Detroit, Mich.
In other matters:
–Special interest sessions covered a range of topics from “Finding Common Ground with Other Faiths” to “Faith and Public Policy” and “Race as a Continuing Challenge.”
The 16 sessions were held Thursday and Friday and featured different speakers each day. Sessions presented diverse and at times contradictory points of view.
–The New Baptist Covenant’s communications committee included Greg Warner, executive editor of Associated Baptist Press, and Marv Knox, editor of the Baptist Standard. Both ABP and the Baptist Standard were credentialed media reporting on the gathering.
–Gregory, former pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, said he hopes one result of the New Baptist Covenant gathering is a renewed emphasis among Baptists on kindness to strangers.
Both the Old and New Testaments emphasize God’s concern with how God’s people treat strangers, Gregory said.
“We meet the face of the stranger in the Word of God,” Gregory said. “It is not a marginal issue. It is a central concern. It is not on the periphery. It is in the middle. It is not some kind of biblical sideline. It’s the biblical mainline.”
David Roach is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Ky., and a Ph.D. candidate at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. With reporting by Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach.