Anatomy of a schism: how clergywomen’s narratives interpret the fracturing of the Southern Baptist Convention
Campbell-Reed, Eileen Renee
In the early 1960s the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) entered a period of conflict and change including disputes over biblical interpretation and women’s ordination. The Biblicist and Autonomist parties emerged and struggled for control between 1979 and 1990, and the conflict eventuated in a schism of the SBC. Recent studies portray women’s ordination as a primary cause of the split. However, the lives and experiences of clergywomen have rarely been studied as a viable source for interpreting the religious conflict. This dissertation challenges the oversight and asks: How can the narratives of Baptist clergywomen interpret the fracture of America’s largest Protestant denomination? As a project of practical theology, the study makes its case by exploring the two intertwined situations: the rise of Baptist women in ministry and the schism of the denomination. The study argues that between 1920 and 1960 Baptists negotiated tensions of belief and practice, as described by Bill Leonard. Between 1960 and 2000 the intertwined stories of SBC schism and women’s ordination escalated and polarized those tensions. Narratives from eight Baptist clergywomen, gathered in ethnographic interviews, are analyzed for ways they reinterpret the key Baptist concept of “soul competency,” which holds in tension the dialectical authorities of the Bible and the individual’s liberty of conscience. The theological anthropology of Edward Farley and object relations theories of D.W. Winnicott and Jessica Benjamin are utilized to expose the underlying anatomy of soul competency, highlighting its flexibility and durability. Clergywomen reinterpret soul competency by rejecting its effective history of sexism, and incorporating their experiences and vocations. Their reinterpretation shows how Baptist beliefs and practices of soul competency withstand conflict and change individually and institutionally. Clergywomen’s choices to remain Baptist in the face of widespread opposition, demonstrate how late-twentieth century Baptist culture was not only a site of contest, hostility and division, but also one of clarity, creativity and freedom. Rather than being merely a cause of schism, clergywomen are better understood as exemplars of the changing shape of Baptist identity, creators of new roles for women in Baptist life, and innovators for understanding ministerial identity in the Baptist culture.