The Baptist Union of Australia was inaugurated on 25th August 1926 at the Burton Street Church in Sydney. Over 300 delegates from every state in the Commonwealth were witnesses to this historic event. Reporting on the event, The Australian Baptist (AB) stated, ‘henceforth the most memorable date in the Australian Baptist Calendar’ (Alan Prior’s, Some Fell on Good Ground, p. 216). I suspect that 25 August is not the most memorable date in the Australian Baptist calendar. In fact, this begs the question of an AB Calendar and what would be on it. Perhaps in some local churches it might be the first Sunday in May for Global Interaction, or the Easter Offering for Crossover, or the Christmas Day Appeal for BWAA. Alternatively, it might be some State Union event, such as an assembly or conference.
That said, we are still approaching the 90th anniversary of BUA and that is worth celebrating.
The journey towards the inauguration of the federal body was ‘long and frustrating’ (Manley, p. 459). Basil Brown (p. 13) suggests that ‘early Baptists in Australia had looked forward to the day when a Continental union would be set up’. Accordingly, they called their colonial fellowships ‘Associations on the English model’, with a view that these would ultimately become the member bodies of a Baptist Union similar to the British experience. However, the colonies over time abandoned this concept as they constituted as State Baptist Unions.
While there had been a growing sense of co-operation in Baptist work across the colonies in the late 19th century, the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 provided the catalyst for increased energy for closer relations between the State Unions. What followed was a series of interstate Baptist Federal Conferences in 1902, 1903, 1908, 1911, 1922 and 1925. Brown documents the trials and disappointments as the ‘interest waned and the cause of federation lapsed’ (p. 8).
However, there were some positive initiatives that flowed from these Congresses. Following the 1911 Congress, the Australian Baptist Publishing House was established with the first issue of the AB published on 7 January 1913. In February of the same year, the Foreign Mission board was established to consolidate the missionary work of the State missionary societies.
Plans were also agreed to for the establishment of an Australian Baptist College to train ministerial students for both home and overseas.
Victoria had agreed that their college should be transferred to the States and governed by an interstate board. However, funding difficulties meant the proposal was abandoned.
The 1925 Congress in Adelaide approved the draft Constitution for the proposed Baptist Union of Australia that, with the agreement of the State Unions, would be ratified in Sydney in 1926.
And so on 25 August 1926, the signing of the Constitution took place. JA Packer, the editor of the AB, titled the event as the ‘Great Consummation’ as ‘Our one big Baptist Union’ was born (Manley, p. 459).
The inaugural President, Rev JH Goble, reminded the delegates that ‘this new Union would not be just another organisation, not a bid for centralized power and authority, but a means of extending God’s Kingdom’ (Manley, p. 459).
As Brown (p. 13) notes, the Baptist Union of Australia became a federation of State Unions and not, as the State Unions, a fellowship of local churches.
The purpose of the BUA as detailed in the Constitution was:
To extend the Kingdom of God through the work, service and witness of Australian Baptists by:
- Promoting the spirit of fellowship and co-operation among the Baptist Unions of the States of the Commonwealth of Australia and its Territories and their members and exhibiting their substantial unity in doctrine, policy and work.
- Conferring upon matters concerning the life and witness of the Baptist Churches within the Commonwealth of Australia and the progress of the Kingdom of God in Australia, its Territories and elsewhere.
- Organising and administering such enterprises as the constituent Unions may agree to undertake through the Union.
- Carrying out such work as the Union may agree to undertake on behalf of all its constituent Unions.
- Carrying out the work of mission and evangelism on behalf of Australian Baptists through Affiliated Organisations and Delegated Bodies (as defined in the By Laws).
- Participating in the work of the Baptist World Alliance and such other bodies as the National Council may from time to time determine.
- Expressing as far as may be possible the common judgment of the constituent Unions on matters of national, international or interdenominational importance.
- Assisting the constituent Unions to carry on national and missionary enterprises within Australia that are beyond the power and facilities of an individual constituent Union or Board to accomplish.
The Union operated through the triennial Assembly. Delegates to the Assembly came from the constituent Unions up to a maximum of 15 in proportion to the total State church membership. The Executive Council consisting of the Officers of the Union (OOU) and a small number of State representatives met annually. There was a smaller Executive Committee that met monthly. This committee was made up of the OOU together with Executive Council members from the State in which the BUA headquarters was located.
The Assemblies of the BUA were held every three years from 1928 until 2000. Assemblies until 1975 consisted of the State delegates together with a few other interested associate delegates. Over the years, there has been the consistent concern that very few members of Baptist churches have much knowledge of the ministry of the BUA. This concern gave rise to the First National Baptist Family Convention held in January 1975 on the Gold Coast in Queensland. The success of the conference saw subsequent conventions following the same format.
The BUA was eventually incorporated in the ACT in July 1954 under the Commonwealth Associations Incorporation Ordinance of 1953 (now the Associations Incorporation Act 1991). Initially, it was the practice to locate the Union headquarters in the State where the President resided but from 1935 until 2008 the BUA was located in Melbourne. It is now located in the city in which the National Ministry Director resides.
Aside from the establishment of the Assembly and the Executive Council and Committee, Boards were established to oversee the ministries of the BUA. These included the Home Mission Board in NSW, the Education Board in Victoria and the Young People’s Board in Queensland.
A brief review of the Boards provides an overview of the ministries that were undertaken by the national body.
The Home Mission Board was given the responsibility to commence the work in the nation’s new capital, Canberra, as well as to discover districts where the Gospel was urgently needed, and to explore opportunities of work among Aborigines and mission work with migrants. The establishment of Canberra Baptist Church deserves more comment than can be made today (see Ron Robb’s Fifty Capital Years). The major focus of the Home Ministry Board was the work in the new Federal capital and the key contributor was AJ Waldock who was appointed a Vice-President of the BUA. He worked tirelessly, identifying the site at Kingston, raising the funds to build the building and at the opening on 23 February 1929 noting that the church building ‘was a visible token of the unity and devotion of the Baptist people of Australia’.
Donovan Mitchell of Flinders Street Church SA described the building as ‘a sign of our unity in the faith. It is a corporate witness of our Catholicism; a prayer in stone: an altar upon which our petty state differences are consumed; a gift to our Lord; a symbol of our patriotism; a love offering to this land of hope and glory; an assurance to all present and future politicians that the people called Baptist watch and labour and pray’ (Manley, p. 460).
Involvement in Aboriginal ministries came to fruition in 1946 with the commencement of ministry in central Australia at Yuendumu. Under the sacrificial leadership of families such as the Flemings, new ministries were opened at Ali Curung, Lajumanu, and Kalkaringi. Organisational and funding difficulties saw the ministry transferred to the oversight of the ABMS in 1978. ABMS (Global Interaction) staff to the present day provide pastoral support to the Baptist churches in these Aboriginal communities.
The Home Mission Board also accepted responsibility to encourage and support ministry in the remote areas of the nation and especially the northern reaches of the Commonwealth, irrespective of State boarders. This included the establishment of Baptist churches in Darwin and the continued encouragement of church planting initiatives in the ACT. In the 1980s, the Board established a Field Workers Conference for those ministering in remote areas. Over time this responsibility was passed on to the Crossover Director and in more recent years the State Unions have accepted responsibility of the remote areas in their own States. By 2009, the States had assumed responsibility for the ministry in their own areas and the Home Mission was concluded.
The Education Board was established to encourage and assist the establishment of secondary schools for boys and girls under Baptist management in each State. Kings College in South Australia and Carey Grammar in Victoria provided the encouragement for this national initiative but little came of it. It was not until the introduction of Federal funding for non-government schools in the 1970s that there has been a substantial growth in the number of Baptist schools.
The Board’s second function was training men for ministry for local churches. However, having expended considerable energy in the development of a uniform curriculum by 1967, only 49 men had received tutorial assistance. By now, all the States except Tasmania had their own theological colleges. By 1975, the only activity of the Board was to organise a conference for staff members of the State theological colleges. The 1975 Assembly terminated the Board’s function.
The Young People’s Board was established to promote all young people’s interests and to provide uniform Sunday School lesson systems and other publications. Outcomes included the annual Sunday School examination and the provision of variously named magazines and Sunday School teaching material. Eventually, this Board and a Board of Literature producing religious tracts was merged to form the Board of Christian Education and Publication in 1956. During its years, the Board produced hundreds of titles resulting in over two million copies of pamphlets being printed. By 1971, it had become the Board of Christian Education producing the Word and Life material. But increasing decline in sales eventually saw the BUNSW accept responsibility to produce Word and Life and the Board was wound up.
Another early initiative was the Annuity Board, a pension fund to support retired ministers, ministers’ widows and children. The Australian Baptist Ministerial Fund was established in 1929. By 1985, having merged with NSW Provident Fund, it became the Australian Baptist Retirement Fund. The Fund subsequently has merged with other faith-based funds to form Christian Super.
An Advisory Board was appointed by the 1926 Assembly to give effect to a system of ministerial changes and transfers between States. Not finally established until 1935 and often bypassed in decisions about interstate transfers, the Board did provide a forum for highlighting the needs of churches in remote areas. The Board ceased to exist by 1984 but its lasting impact was the provision of funds to assist in removal costs for interstate transfers of ministers that continues to the present.
In the years following the 1926 Assembly, other Boards were established including the Board of Evangelism in 1938, the Women’s Board in 1935, the Men’s Board in 1950, the Federal Migration Committee in 1960, the Baptist Tours Committee in 1977 and the New Settlers Association to name the more significant. At this point it is worth noting the action by the 1950 Assembly to form the Australian Baptist Historical Society. As Brown notes (p. 28) the Society lasted little more than decade before subsiding into forgetfulness.
The Board of Evangelism was the precursor to the present day delegated body of the BUA ‘Crossover’ which seeks to help Australian Baptists to share Jesus by:
- Resourcing churches in effective communication of the gospel
- Equipping pastors and leaders
- Facilitating mission.
The other significant initiative that deserves specific mention was the establishment of the World Relief Committee in 1958, ratified at Assembly in 1959. The growth of the ministry is reflected in the name changes. In 1965 it became World Aid and Relief and in 1975 the Australian Baptist World Aid and Relief Committee. In1984 it became a Board of the BUA and titled Australian Baptist World Aid.
Resetting the model
The 1984 Assembly agreed to substantial adjustments to the constitution. The major changes reflected a move to more closely align the national body with the State associations.
The BUA continues to be federation of State unions and not, as the State Unions, a fellowship of local churches. The present structure of the BUA reflects this understanding. The National Council meets twice a year and consists of the six State Baptist Union leaders, a representative from BUNT, the CEOs of the three affiliated organisations, Global Interaction, BWAA and BCA together with the National Ministry Director and a Chair and Vice-Chair. The Council has also agreed that any Australian Baptist who is currently serving in a senior leadership capacity at BWA or the Asia Pacific Baptist Federation (APBF) would also be invited to be associated with the Council. This reflects BUA’s continued engagement with BWA and APBF.
The State Unions continue to have a significant influence in the governance of the BUA. The National Ministry Director is responsible for the oversight of the delegated bodies for the BUA. At present this includes Crossover, BFS, BIS, A Just Cause, the Multi-Cultural Taskforce, ABW, Administrators and Professional Standards Taskforces. The National Ministries Director is also responsible to help facilitate the meetings of the Remote Areas Committee, the Disaster Relief Committee, the Archivists and the Principals. All of these delegated bodies and committees report to the National Council through the office of the National Ministries Director.
The National Ministries Director position came into being following a major review of the BUA in 2007. Precipitated by changes in the leadership of Crossover and an apparent misunderstanding about the governance responsibilities of the delegated bodies, the review saw the Constitution amended to replace the President with a Chair of the National Council and the appointment of a full time executive officer.
In the preceding years, the practice of allowing the Director of Crossover to be requested to undertake national responsibilities not directly aligned to evangelism had developed. It was apparent that the increasing level of compliance issues at a federal level required more resources than the previous honorary secretary and treasurer roles could be expected to provide. It was also recognised that the funds that had been donated through the Crossover appeal were not being used exclusively for evangelism purposes. The new model was based on a shared leadership role, three days as the Director of Crossover and two days as the Director of National Ministries with Crossover funding three-fifths of the costs of the new office and the BUA funding the remainder.
The initial appointment of the National Ministries Director/Director of Crossover was made in 2008. In more recent years, the honorary roles of Secretary and Treasurer have now been collapsed into the office of the National Ministries Director.
What has been achieved 90 years on
What does the Australian Baptist landscape look like 90 years after the formation of the Baptist Union of Australia?
There are now 978 churches affiliated with the State Baptist Unions in Australia and a strong church-planting culture has been developed in every State. There are now local Baptist churches from Broome to Ballarat, Albany to Atherton, Darwin to Devonport and Port Pirie to Port Macquarie. These churches represent approximately 142,000 attendees of whom 62,700 are formal members according the information provided by the State Unions.
The 2011 National Census reported that 352,499 people identified themselves as Baptists. Christian Research Association suggests that Baptists are the third largest worshipping community in Australia (fourth according to the NCLS). Research undertaken by the Christian Research Association shows that at least once a month there are 1,000,004 Catholics, 214,378 Anglicans, 170,178 Baptists, 167,000 Uniting Church in Australia and 148,900 Pentecostals attending churches.
Local Baptist churches affiliated with the State Baptist associations are impacting their local communities and beyond in partnership with BaptistCare Australia in meeting community social needs and supported in their ministry initiatives through Baptist Financial Services (Baplink in Qld) and Baptist Insurance Services.
In partnership with Global Interaction and Baptist World Aid Australia, a significant transformational ministry in places as diverse as Bangladesh and Kazakhstan, Malawi and Mozambique, and China, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Philip Hughes writing in Baptists in Australia notes his surprise in the analysis of the 2011 National Census data to see that the Baptists were growing faster than almost every other denomination, even faster than the Pentecostals. While other denominations have shrunk, the Baptists have continued to grow about the same rate as the population. Three particular strengths seem to explain the growth of the Baptist community.
First, Christology: the emphasis on personal commitment to faith in the Lordship of Jesus as expressed in believer’s baptism. The centrality of baptism ensures that Baptists are highly committed. Research indicates that 63% Baptists are at a worship service once a month, compared with just 20% of Uniting Church attendees and 9% of Anglicans.
Second, Ecclesiology: the emphasis on the autonomy of the local church that gives rise to greater flexibility in how the local church engages with its local community. It gives rise to a flexibility to try different things, to be innovative, to adapt to the needs and interests of the local people, and to be flexible in finding the right leadership for the local congregation.
Third, Hospitality: more importantly and recently, Baptists have been hospitable to people of all races and all backgrounds. Migrant communities have made a huge difference over the years. The number of Baptist immigrants in the last decade 2001–2011 was 42,000, which is equivalent to all Baptist immigrants in the previous 30 years from 1971–2000. Baptists have made great efforts to accommodate them in the national movement.
Baptists in Australia: The challenging future story
The National Church Life Survey has shown that over the last decade Baptists are much better involved in the community. There has been a clear movement to be more engaged in the local community outside the walls of the church building.
However, what the NCLS survey also showed was that Baptists are less involved in faith-sharing than we were 10 years ago. It is thought the journey into the community has meant a self-imposed silence.
NCLS 2011 profile for Australian Baptist churches
Practical and diverse
Baptists in Australia: The challenge to be God’s instrument of change
The great privilege for all of us in our Baptist movement it to embrace the gracious call by God to be in partnership with his Son our Lord Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit to be about transforming the destiny of people and their communities in Australia and beyond.
- An agreed way forward of sustaining the centrality of mission both local and global as the focus of the national Baptist movement.
- A narrative that articulates what it means to be associated with a Baptist church, and Baptist agencies in a post-denominational world. What is the Baptist distinctive that makes BaptistCare different from Anglicare, and Baptist World Aid Baptist different from World Vision?
- The commitment to advocate for issues of justice and fairness in the public square.
- The development of a sustainable national communication strategy.
Who are we, 90 years on?
Fifty Capital Years, Ron Robb (ed.), 1979
Baptised in One Body, Basil Brown 1987
From Woolloomooloo to ‘Eternity’: A History of Australian Baptists, KR Manley, 2006
Some Fell on Good Ground, AC Prior, 1966
Baptists in Australia, Phil Hughes and Darren Cronshaw, 2013