A prominently placed Washington, D.C.-area church with a storied history voted this week to sever its denominational affiliation, claiming that foundational distinctives of the larger body have been lost.
The narrative may sound familiar, but this is not a conservative congregation departing a liberalizing Mainline Protestant denomination. Calvary Baptist Church, which started during the Civil War and is celebrating its 150th anniversary, is ending its longstanding ties to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
This development will come as a shock some, not because Calvary is ending the affiliation, but that the affiliation existed in the first place. Evidence of Calvary’s SBC affiliation over the past two decades is sparse.
“Our affiliation with the SBC has been in name only for many, many years,” Calvary Senior Pastor Amy Butler explained in a phone interview. The pastor estimated that it has been “over 30 years” since a financial contribution was made from Calvary to the SBC’s cooperative program.
Asked why Calvary retained the affiliation for so long, Butler explained: “Our congregation has been a declining mainline congregation in a huge facility, and we haven’t had the energy to spend around our affiliations and our identity.”
In the last 10 years that has been changing, according to the Baptist minister, who asserts new vitality.
The church, which claims about 200 attendees on a Sunday, is probably best known not for itself, but for being the worship site of a significantly larger evangelical congregation, Grace Presbyterian Church, part of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a conservative denomination. With an average attendance of over 450 (overwhelmingly young adults) Grace DC recently planted a second congregation. Grace DC moved to Calvary’s building after outgrowing leased space at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.
I have been to Calvary on many occasions, most notably three years ago when the congregation hosted the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) bi-annual Clergy Call. The event brings homosexual and transgender-affirming clergy to the nation’s capital in order to lobby congress on behalf of the country’s most prominent homosexual advocacy organization. The event I attended featured openly partnered homosexual Bishop Gene Robinson as the keynote speaker.
During the event, we were welcomed by HRC’s Associate Director of Diversity, herself a member at Calvary Baptist. Allyson Robinson, a graduate of West Point, served as a U.S. Army officer in Europe and attended Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. Robinson eventually returned to the United States and transitioned from living as a man to living as a woman. Robinson described how she and the woman she is legally married to found affirmation at Calvary, and from Pastor Butler.
In short, Calvary is, and has been, a very liberal church for some time, and I had no inkling that it maintained any sort of affiliation with the SBC. Baptist congregations can and sometimes do affiliate with multiple entities, and I faintly recall a stone near the front of the church that read “Northern Baptist” on it (the Northern Baptist Convention is a predecessor body of what is today known as American Baptist Churches, USA).
“Despite our long-standing ties to the Southern Baptist Convention, Calvary has for some time been at odds with many of the policies and public positions of the SBC,” Butler recently wrote in the Washington Post. “There have been many specific issues, like a rejection of the ordination of women, for example, over which we disagreed. But increasingly these differences became more foundational.”
There are approximately 60 Baptist congregations in Washington, D.C. that affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention. Calvary Baptist Church is not listed among them, although American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) and the Alliance of Baptists list Calvary as an affiliated congregation. American Baptist Churches is the smaller (1.3 million member) northern branch that the SBC split with in the 1840s, while the CBF and Alliance of Baptists are moderate/liberal offshoots of the SBC formed in the mid-1990s and late 1980s. The latter, who counts 65,000 members, endorses same-sex marriage. Both the Alliance of Baptists and American Baptist Churches, USA are member communions of the National Council of Churches.