(This report from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship conference in Atlanta was provided by Melanie Beller, Ann Worley and our staff.)
ATLANTA, GA—The Rev. Dr. George A. Mason made a homecoming recently to attend the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), which began with conversations among Baptists in Atlanta in 1990. At that time, these moderate Baptist voices were concerned about the rising power of Fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention. In sharp contrast to the exclusivist campaigns they saw unfolding within their current denomination, the co-founders of the CBF saw the true foundation of their shared Baptist tradition as rooted in religious freedom: the autonomy of individuals and congregations in following the Bible’s authority.
That’s also the foundation of George’s new book, The Word Made Fresh: Preaching God’s Love for Every Body.
As he arrived in Atlanta for the CBF’s June 28-30 General Assembly, George said, “The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is my extended faith family. I have been part of this Baptist fellowship since its inception and, over three decades, I have seen it become more than I could have imagined. I have enjoyed investing in this intentional community of diverse Baptist Christians. They have shaped my faith journey and made me better.”
Given the core value of freedom within the CBF, congregations participating in the fellowship nationwide now vary in their commitment to full inclusivity. The CBF began three decades ago with a main focus on empowering women in church leadership. That stance remains prophetic among Baptists to this day. While George and his CBF colleagues were preparing to meet in Atlanta, the Southern Baptist Convention once again emphasized its red line against allowing women clergy.
Moving toward Inclusivity in Many Forms
Meanwhile, many CBF congregations have moved on toward inclusivity in many forms, including welcoming LGBTQ members.
As the CBF was launching its work in the early 1990s, the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists (AWAB) was “supporting churches in being and becoming Welcoming and Affirming of all people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.”
Mark Wingfield, the executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global, reported on the significance of this landmark gathering in Atlanta and provided more background about the CBF under the headline: “At this Baptist gathering, there will be no debate about women preaching.”
On the significance of AWAB’s involvement at this conference, Wingfield pointed out that LGBTQ inclusion is evolving within the larger CBF and that George Mason is a part of that historic movement. Wingfield wrote:
AWAB transcends Baptist denominations and counts among its members some CBF churches, some American Baptist churches and some international churches. What’s notable this year is that for the first time AWAB will hold an event on-site during CBF General Assembly—independently sponsored as are most congruent events. Brian Henderson, executive director of AWAB, noted the 50-year-old organization has worked among American Baptist churches for 30 years and more recently has found an “overwhelmingly warm welcome” among some CBF churches.
Surprised by the Outpouring of Support
In Atlanta, AWAB leaders were surprised by the outpouring of support for their work and for their award ceremony honoring George Mason for his work. They had expected about 140 people to attend—but, at the last minute, they had to find a larger venue to accommodate the more than 250 people who wanted to come.
AWAB honored George with its Randle R. Mixon Award for Christian Service, named after the pioneering, openly gay Baptist pastor and educator whose ordination in 1996 at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, CA, sparked further divisions among Baptists nationwide. The award is given by AWAB to a clergyperson whose work helps to increase the inclusion of sexual minorities within Baptist bodies and has served to advance the cause of justice by educating congregations and organizations about sexual minority and gender identity issues.
Chairman of the Board Bob Sittig, who presented the award, said: “For over three decades George provided pastoral and prophetic leadership to Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. In the years preceding his retirement, George led the congregation through a very thorough discernment process at the end of which the congregation became overtly welcoming and affirming of all members, granting any member the opportunity to serve fully in any capacity of its ministry.”
As he received the award, George acknowledged that many individuals, groups and congregations had fought for equal acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in church life and ministry years before, paving the way for Wilshire Baptist’s decision.
AWAB’s Brian Henderson said, “Wilshire Baptist, under George’s leadership, represented one of the major churches in the Baptist family, not only in Texas, but nationally, to become explicitly and visibly welcoming and affirming. This allowed other congregations to have their own conversations and to follow in Wilshire’s footsteps.”
Finally, Rick Mixon said of George, “George is a consummate pastor, theologian, scholar and follower of Jesus devoted to the living out of our historic Baptist freedoms for all. AWAB is so glad for the leadership George provides at both the congregational and denominational levels of Baptist life. Congratulations George! AWAB is grateful for your leadership and vision!”
And in response, George said, “What an honor to receive this award in your name.”