From the General Secretary

General Secretary's Speech to the Council 2014, Bucharest, Romania

This has probably been the busiest and most demanding year I have experienced in travelling around the EBF, and I detail some of my journey here. But as you have called me to a further term as General Secretary this is also a time to look together at these next few years and ask where God is leading us. We will do that especially as we come to look at some Strategic Priorities later in the Council. But for now I want to highlight ten questions that I have asked in my report which you see in italics. They have come out the experience of this past year, and indeed going back beyond that.

1. How can we listen together for God’s voice in leading us forward as the EBF?

This is perhaps the most important question of all. How can we live out this aspect of our Baptist identity as the EBF, that when we gather together we listen for God’s voice and together put ourselves under the rule of Christ? How can we have the confidence and the trust to speak both words of love and words of truth to each other without fear of reaction; and together how can we seek God’s direction for the EBF in to the future? Well we hope that we can do that at this Council as we look at the future together.

2. One of the challenges for the EBF is how we evaluate nationalism in the light of the Gospel and in the light of our commitment to one another in the global fellowship of Baptists
We are all citizens of different countries and proud to be so. But how does that pride relate to nationalism, and how does nationalism relate to the Gospel we share? How does that fit with Baptists being a very inter-nationalist movement? Over these past years, and even in this last year, this has kept coming up. We have seen how in Europe ultra-nationalism so easily leads to anti-immigration and racism. Are there ways we can come together as the EBF to seek the mind of Christ on this?
3. How can we identify and nurture gifted younger leaders to rise to the challenge of leadership in our EBF Unions and Conventions?

When we had discussion groups at last year’s Council on the future priorities of the EBF, this was the number one concern, how to encourage and nurture gifted leaders among us who may be be younger - in our Unions and Conventions, and indeed in the EBF as a whole, in the future. It’s easy for me to put on a General Secretary hat and say that it is difficult to see how we have the resources for such a programme in the life of the EBF. But I believe that would be wrong. We must find a way to invest in potential future leaders and build it in to our life together.

4. In the EBF, are we able to truly stand with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, wherever they are, and in all that they are facing?
This especially related to the comments in my Report about Israel and Palestine. We have differing views in the EBF about the theological and political status of the modern state of Israel. But the fact is that all our Baptist churches and congregations in Israel, and in Palestine, on the West Bank and Gaza are Arabic speaking Palestinian congregations. One of them is the Baptist church in Gaza which, with all the citizens of Gaza has faced the bombardment from Israel in recent months. Whatever our theological and political views of the situation of Israel and Palestine, can we simply stand with our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ in Gaza as they seek to reach out to those who have lost home and loved ones? Let not our politics or our ideology prevent us from rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep, and standing in solidarity with them all.
5. The Uniting Church in Sweden is perhaps a unique situation, but is there more that we can do to work with Christians of other traditions for the sake of the Gospel witness in ‘secular’ Europe and the Middle East?

We are delighted to have with us at this Council two of the three church leaders of the new Uniting Church in Sweden which came together from churches belonging to the Mission Covenant Church, the Methodist Church and the Baptist Union of Sweden. This happened after a long period of close working together at both local and national levels. I don’t expect that will see Uniting Churches springing up all over the EBF, but is there more we can do to work with brothers and sisters in Christ of other Christian traditions for the sake of the Gospel and the growth of God’s Kingdom in Europe. In fact I already see this happening a lot at local level, even among Baptists who might be cautious about entering more formal ecumenical structures. Last year we voted for the EBF to seek full membership of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) . And just last week I was one of the speakers at a Summer School in Sicily organised by CEC to bring together theologians and lawyers to discuss issues of religious freedom. For me it was a great learning experience. In this kind of work don’t we need each other, not just as Baptists but as Christians throughout Europe?

6. In the EBF, how do we continue to build bridges between ‘East’ and ‘West’ and to affirm and celebrate all that we hold in common?

When I first became involved with the EBF some 17 years ago, I began to get used to the language of a difference, even a divide between ‘east’ and ‘west’ in the EBF. After the end of the Cold War this was understandable, not only did there seemed to be differences in theology but marked differences in culture. I am not so convinced now that this is the reality or that it is helpful to keep alive the talk of the difference between East and West in the EBF. What do we mean by ‘East’ and ‘West’? What about North and South and Middle East? If we put one another in categories is it so easy to make assumptions about one another based on them. One of the joys of discovery for me has been that I am constantly having my assumptions questioned and being surprised by what I find. But by all mean let’s have the discussion, some kind of seminar to explore this in a positive way. I think that we might be surprised by the extent of our unity as well as richness of our diversity. When I taught for a week at the Almaty Bible School in Kazakhstan on Baptist identity the response of the students to the staff was ‘ that the aspects of Baptist identity I was teaching seemed to be essentially the same as in Kazakhstan. That was a great relief and encouragement to me!

7. In time of war and conflict how we in the EBF preserve and draw on our fellowship and unity in Christ?
At this Council we will pause to remember the First World War in which so many millions lost their lives and which changed Europe and the Middle East and other parts of the world for ever. In recent times the question has come up again. In times of political or violent armed conflict between nations, how do we assure one another of our fellowship in Christ that rises above our national identity? This is not easy and I want to commend all that the leaders of Russia and Ukraine have done this past year to reach out to one another, despite the tensions and pressures arising from the conflict between their nations.
8. How can we encourage and support the ‘pioneers’ whom God is calling to move beyond the conventional boundaries and norms of church and mission in order to reach our generation with the Gospel?

At our Mission Conference in Warsaw in July we heard from some of those whom God has led into new ways of communicating the Gospel and new ways of being the church in response to the missionary challenges of our time, especially in secular Europe. These are mission pioneers no less than those who left Europe to go and spread the Gospel in other parts of the world. In the Baptist Union of Great Britain there is now the encouragement to take seriously the training and networking of such pioneers. And in the EBF too, I believe that we should encourage and support them, to be bold courageous and imaginative, maybe through looking again at the criteria for our own church planting programme, EBF Mission Partners. And perhaps all of us need to ask some searching questions about the way we communicate the Gospel in mission and evangelism. The Dutch missionary theologian Johannes Verkuyl wrote that ‘Christ promises to be with his church through all of her days’. ‘However’, he said, ‘the church must forever be asking, ‘What kind of day is it today?’ for no two days are alike in her history. What kind of day is it today to make Jesus known in our region?

9. What does authentic Christian witness look like to the Muslim communities of our Region?

And here is one of the biggest challenges to Christian witness in our region; how to respond as churches to the Muslim presence in Europe and the Middle East. Of course it takes a very different form in The Middle East from Western Europe, western Europe form Central Asia and the Caucasus. In Iraq and Syria we have been shocked by the activities of the Islamic State, the murdering of Christians and other minorities and the driving out of others from their homes. At this Council we will receive a full briefing about this from Nabil Costa and others. I sense that these leaders have arrived at the Council battered and bruised and exhausted by the pressures on them as dwindling Christian minorities in the Middle East. Let’s surround them with our love, our prayers, and our support for them in all that they are facing.
In Western Europe the issue is more how we balance peaceful co-existence with our Muslim neighbours and authentic witness to Christ among them. We need the help and encouragement of one another to do this, and next our Mission Conference will be on this theme and will take place in Birmingham, England, a city with a significant Muslim population. I commend again the joint Statement we adopted last year about Christian witness in a multi-faith world, as a good basis for our witness as European and Middle-Eastern Baptists .

10. How can we continue as the EBF family to affirm and support IBTSC in Amsterdam – by our prayers, our interest, sending our students, and not least by our financial support?

Finally let me say a word about the International Baptist Theological Study Cnetre (IBTSC) in Amsterdam. We have spent much of the last five years seeking God and seeking the wisdom of one another about the future of IBTS once we knew the very difficult financial situation and the necessity to leave Prague. You will hear in much more detail about the move from Prague to Amsterdam. But let me just say how much of a joy it was to spend a week last month at the new IBTSC in Amsterdam and see that after all the discussion and debate and agonising over the future something new and exciting has emerged under the leadership of our new Rector Stuart Blythe and his team which. It different from the past, but I believe that IBTSC will serve us well into the future as we continue to offer those gifted among us the opportunity to undertake high-level study in a Baptist context, and now also the context of a well regarded Faculty of Theology in the Free University of Amsterdam.

It is going to be even clearer in the future that we, the EBF own this precious gift of IBTSC together. At this Council we will be invites to renew our support and yes, to consider what we can do practically and financially to ensure that the life of IBTSC can continue and develop in the future.

These then are some of the questions and challenges for us we look to the future together. There are other which will occur to you. God is calling us forward as EBF ot play our part in planting his Kingdom in some very challenging situations. We need the encouragement and support of each other as never before.

Tony Peck
EBF General Secretary