Different approaches to covenant
The Spring 2016 edition of Baptist Together Magazine focused on the aspect of our renewed culture where 'we feel like one team'. As part of this we invited different expressions of church to share their approach to covenant.
Watchet Baptist Church - Somerset
At Watchet Baptist Church we moved to a more covenantal system of church membership about five years ago. We made the decision to change not because we fundamentally disagreed with the inherited system but because we wanted to reclaim a more relational basis for commitment within the the church community.
We continue to discern the mind of Christ as a church through prayerful discussion amongst those who are Partners (our new name for 'Members') but decision-making within a congregational system of church government is no longer the primary 'point' of membership. Instead, being a Partner of the church reflects those who are a 'part' of the church family, in relationship with God, each other and those in the wider communities in which we live.
Those who have been baptised become Partners of the church straight away but the main time welcome new people who have joined with us into Partnership, as well as re-affirming our Partnership vows, is at our annual Covenant Service held on Pentecost Sunday. We follow a simple liturgy which each person has had plenty of time to consider in advance. The liturgy has three sections focusing on our relationship with, and commitment to, Jesus, each other and those who are not yet a part of the Church.
Apart from no longer having members on 'the roll' with voting rights from beyond the grave(!), we rarely have those discussions with people from other denominational backgrounds (or none) about not wanting to be Members because they (rightly or wrongly) associate it purely with Institutional legalism.
Partnership has become first and foremost about meaningful covenantal relationships. Commitment is no longer a duty so much as a desire to walk together through the ups and downs of life and to encourage each other to become more like Jesus. The annual Covenant Service has become one of the most special and significant gatherings in our yearly calendar. Whilst I am convinced that no change of membership system will be the key which unlocks 'revival on these shores', I feel sure that reclaiming a more covenantal understanding of how we relate to each other will strengthen us together as disciples of Jesus and enable us to more effectively join him in his mission and see his Kingdom come."
The Revd Carl Smethurst is minister of Watchet Baptist Church