Joel Edwards and his remarkably needful legacy
I learned a three days ago of the death of Joel Edwards. I have met him, albeit briefly, although I know a lot more about him. He was a well-known and thought of figure in the British Evangelical community, of which I am part of. My main exchanges with Joel were as a Facebook “friend” (more of which later), commenting on some or other issue of the day, often having differing perspectives.
According to Wikipedia: “Joel Edwards was the General Director of the Evangelical Alliance from 1997 until 2009. Prior to taking on this role, he was working as a probation officer alongside service as a church pastor, and general secretary of the African & Caribbean Evangelical Alliance. He became International Director for Micah Challenge and also a Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. He has presented on the BBC Radio 4 feature of The Today programme, Thought for the Day. When Edwards left the Evangelical Alliance, he made public statements stating that he was unhappy with the focus by the media on the “eccentric fringe” of British evangelical Christianity, specifically the frequent remarks of Stephen Green from Christian Voice, whom Edwards considers an “extremist”. In 2016, he was awarded the Langton Award for Community Service by the Archbishop of Canterbury “for his unique contribution in uniting evangelical Christians across the UK in challenging global injustice”. Edwards died on 30 June 2021.”
Wikipedia hardly does justice to Joel’s life, and more importantly his legacy, but the above write up will do for the purpose of this blog. There is a lot else relevant written about Joel that can be gotten from the Internet. The way Joel announced his own death (see meme) few would disagree was remarkable and unusual (and worth adapting for when own end comes), but given he knew his time was almost up because he was well aware with the illness he had it would soon lead to his death – and he was prepared for the inevitable, was touchingly appropriate. Like many, I found about Joel’s death by reading what he had written to announce his departure from this world to his Facebook friends. What I found especially powerful and poignant were the number of moving personal tributes by a surprisingly wide cross section of the Evangelical community and beyond, testimony of the great impact he had made on many lives.
I found out about Joel when he became the General Director of the Evangelical Alliance (an organisation for want of a better word that tries to bring together the disparate Evangelical community and provide a voice to Evangelicals and on behalf of Evangelicals participating in the public square). A black, Pentecostal that tries to engage on the issues of the day especially of the social justice ilk is hardly your stereotypical Evangelical but few will disagree now that whoever appointed him back in 1997 made a wise choice. But that is not the prime purpose of my writing, knowing there are many who knew him well who could write so much that is worth reading. In my opinion the Evangelical community is a broken one. Not only are there issues around the “Evangel” (what does this comprise exactly and how to promote it), the need for balancing proclaiming truth, righteousness and judgment with that of love, mercy and grace, the plethora of issues that divide Evangelicals of late, like Brexit, Trump and Corona and the wokeism that occupy many (critics say over occupy and in the wrong way) e.g. LBGTQ issues, climate change, racial equality, and of course the vexed issue of achieving unity.
Facebook can be a toxic environment and one the Devil, whose strategy has ever been that of divide and rule, does well to capitalise on – evidenced by the number of seemingly irreconcilable fall outs and echo chambers among Christians. But here my focus is on those we might label as Evangelical, who I have found generally agree with David Bebbington, who saw the four enduring characteristics of the evangelical faith as the Bible, the cross, the concept of “being born again” and activism. One might expect with all that there would much common ground for Evangelicals from whatever sector of evangelicalism to rally around on and more than get along. After all, did not Jesus pray (John 17) for his disciples to be one and can we say we are seeing it, unless of the view the only true Christians are those who go along with our view of Christian doctrine etc.
I am pretty sure Joel Edwards had many strings to his bow but one that stood out for me is how he would handle differences in opinion. I suspect if I were to dig deep I would find stuff I would disagree with Joel on. I am not a particular fan of Stephen Green (mentioned in the Wikipedia extract) but he strikes me as an example of the deplorables that others in the Evangelical community recoil from and I gravitate toward, who in my experience often vilify and marginalise (it happens the other way too). One memorable occasion was my making a comment on Joel’s Facebook page that Donald Trump was God’s anointed to drain the swamp etc. I then got a lot of stick by someone (who would not have known this) who was a leader in a Bible college my own church had long supported and I wondered how best to respond. Thankfully, Joel with typical grace and wisdom help to avert yet another Evangelical fall out and incline us toward the hope: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Psalm 133:1.
Some reading so far will not see as I do an Evangelical community (let alone the Liberals and Catholics etc.) that has lost its way or at least share the sort of perspectives I offer in my writings. Some of the very people who paid such beautiful tributes to Joel, I sadly feel estranged from, as far as doing what Evangelicals are supposed to be doing – having meaningful fellowship and faithfully spreading the Word. While our focus must be on Christ and living for Him, given what I am seeing, we need peacemakers in the Joel Edwards mold.