An Interview with Jonathan Edwards
As he leaves the role of General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, The Revd Jonathan Edwards reflects on the last seven years
What have been the highlights of your tenure as General Secretary?
The Assemblies have been highlights for me. They have been huge events to organize swallowing thousands of staff hours but I have been thrilled by the way in which they have strengthened our life together. I rarely go for more than a few days without someone coming up to me to tell me what the last Assembly meant to them. Many people in our churches heard God call them to a new role in their church or into work with BMS or as ministers.
In truth there have been a huge number of other highlights. The Baptist Union Council debate on the Apology for the Slave Trade was an amazing "God moment" when we all felt God had spoken to us in a profound way. My subsequent visit to Jamaica with other BMS and BUGB representatives was also a deep privilege.
I could point to visits to the Royal Palaces, Downing Street or to my many foreign visits. They have all been memorable and precious but I can never escape the sense of excitement as I visit our churches Sunday by Sunday. That has been a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. To see faith being lived out in hundreds of very different communities is simply awe-inspiring.
How would you gauge the health of churches in our Union? What are the challenges we face?
I have been a minister for thirty years. In 1983 it was possible to describe what a Baptist church was and you could then go around the country and see churches worshipping and living in very similar ways.
The distinctive feature of Baptist churches in 2013 is that they are far more diverse, and the way in which they worship, fellowship and serve their communities is amazingly varied. I take this to be a sign of great spiritual health. It is wonderful to see people worshipping and serving God creatively and in ways that are appropriate to the context in which they are living. I am particularly heartened to see the ways in which our churches are engaging with their communities.
We haven't always been good at that and it is encouraging to see our churches deeply involved in gritty kingdom projects such as Food Banks, Street Pastors and debt counselling.
However, I have very few illusions! My constant travelling around the country keeps my feet firmly planted on the ground. Clearly, we face challenges on all fronts.
We live in a secular and materialistic society which will continue to put immense pressure on us, and distract our fellowships from their calling. Our society struggles to cope with people of religious conviction and we will need to be continually vigilant to ensure that we, and all people of faith, have the room to practice and promote our beliefs.
In addition to that we are clearly going to have to face continual financial challenge. I am very glad that the Baptist Union has taken such bold steps to address our financial situation but we are clearly heading into a long period of financial uncertainty as a nation and we will continue to need to be courageous in our decision making. However, none of these challenges, need to daunt us. The history of the church is one of constant challenge and probably the times of greatest danger for the church are when it is feeling at ease with itself and those around it.
In what ways are we a more inclusive Union?
I dearly hope that we are indeed a more inclusive Union these days but I am acutely aware that this is always work in progress. All human beings have a tendency to seek exclusive groups in which to find identity and affirmation. That's how we are all wired. So the challenge of the Gospel to live inclusively is a daily challenge and immensely hard work. However, at the same time it is also the path to true freedom and fulfilment.
I do believe that our churches work hard to include people of different ethnic backgrounds but this does demand huge grace, flexibility and patience on everyone's part. There are no easy journeys to inclusivity.I hope that women in our churches and particularly those in leadership feel that we are taking steps forward, but I recognize that this continues to be a painful and difficult journey for many. I am thrilled that my successor is Lynn Green and I am sure that her appointment will be an immense encouragement but we must not kid ourselves that the journey is complete.
I would also point to the inclusivity of people with disabilities. There is a lot of love in our churches but it is very demanding to make all our churches truly inclusive of people who span the whole range of mental and physical disabilities.
The only way forward to true inclusivity is love. It must come from the heart. And if we are committed for Christ's sake to sharing his love with everyone else then we will make progress. But we must keep in mind that his love can only be understood through the lens of the cross, and we are bound to expect that it will be incredibly costly.
What places has the role has taken you to?
The past seven years have involved constant travelling. My suitcase always sits half open in our bedroom ready for the next trip! I have visited hundreds of places in these years. Within this country I have sought to ensure that my visits are geographically balanced and so I have visited every corner of the country and that has been immensely rich.
Whether you are looking at our great cities, our market towns or little villages there is a great story to tell. The foreign visits have also been immensely stimulating. Because of our close partnership with Baptists around the world I have made four or five foreign visits every year.
My visit to Haiti after their devastating earthquake was particularly remarkable but I also treasure the memory of visits to countries such as Bulgaria, Chile, Hawaii, Ghana, Malaysia, Hungary, Italy and Tunisia. In most of those countries I have had the privilege of preaching in local churches and that has often been the highlight.
Can you talk a little more about what has attracted you to Prospects?
I have known about Prospects for many years and I have been impressed by the excellent work that they do amongst people with learning disabilities and their families. The charity has grown fast over the last few years and now has a turnover of over £10 million and a staff of more than 700 people.
Working with people with learning disabilities is challenging in all sorts of ways, but it is a wonderful Gospel ministry and I have been hugely impressed by the organization. A couple of years ago I was invited to become one of their Ambassadors, and I have been pleased to commend their work more widely.
And then in February of this year I was approached about the possibility of working with them and our conversations led to the shaping of my new role as Executive Ambassador. This will involve me in speaking and preaching around the country (sound familiar?!) and networking with the denominations, other disability agencies and Westminster. It's a new role and I am delighted to have this opportunity to work with them.
How can we best support the role of General Secretary?
No question. Pray for her! I have had a wonderful community who have prayed for me over the past seven years and they have given me enormous strength and encouragement.
For many years I have issued a prayer diary and I am deeply humbled by the fact that so many people have taken the trouble to remember me before God on a regular basis. The challenge for Lynn will be absolutely immense, but it is the testimony of Scriptures and church history that God specializes in giving people humanly impossible jobs. Jobs that without the breath of his Spirit could never be done.
The only grounds for our confidence as we look to the future is our confidence in God himself. So pray and pray hard!