Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part interview with David Coffey, who agreed to a lengthy interview about his tenure (2005-10) as the president of the Baptist World Alliance during a turbulent time.
British Baptist leader David Coffey and I met in Seoul, Korea, in July 2004 when he was nominated as president-elect of the Baptist World Alliance. His nomination came at the first BWA meeting after the Southern Baptist Convention had withdrawn from the global Baptist community.
The SBC, the largest Baptist body, recommended, a few days before Christmas 2003, that Southern Baptists defund the BWA and filed false charges of liberalism against the BWA. Despite BWA’s efforts at reconciliation, the SBC voted in June to sever ties with the BWA under additional counterfeit claims. Any number of Southern Baptists, who were active in BWA, sat on the sidelines in silence.
That jarring event and the accompanying uncertainty about the BWA’s future did not dissuade Coffey from being willing to follow the BWA president, Korean pastor Billy Kim.
Coffey showed courage and demonstrated wisdom during his presidential tenure (2005-10). He rebuilt Baptist unity, presided over the transition of leadership in the office of general secretary, facilitated reorganization and addressed knotty global issues. In December 2008, EthicsDaily.com named Coffey as its “Baptist of the Year.”
As his presidential tenure draws to a close this week at the 20th Baptist World Congress, he agreed to a lengthy interview.
Question: In July 2004, you said, “I believe it [unity] is the most urgent need for the members of the Alliance.” At the end of your five-year term, has the BWA achieved the unity for which you hoped?
Answer: Whilst it’s possible to identify many solid achievements in fostering Baptist unity, we can never say we have achieved the fullness of the unity for which Christ is praying, which is why the Bible says we are to go on striving for the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.
One of the rich experiences of belonging to the BWA is encountering the rich diversity of the Baptist movement….I sense that Baptists know intuitively that the only way to cope with this diversity is to have a single authentic point of unity, Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we are one people with one life. But commitment to Jesus must also mean a commitment to the truth of his Word. Otherwise, we are grounding unity in fuzzy feelings.
Question: What are examples of Baptist unity on your watch?
Answer: It is one of God’s miracles that we have stayed together as a BWA…and in spite of global tensions, there have been no major factions.
[T]here have been some remarkable gatherings in the past five years…The groundbreaking New Baptist Covenant Celebration held in Atlanta January 2008 brought together African-American, Anglo, Asian-American and Hispanic Baptists, representing 30 Baptist conventions and organizations…
The Union of Baptists in Latin America also convened a unique summit of convention presidents in Panama April 2008.
[O]ne of the historic functions of the BWA is the capacity to draw scattered Baptists together…On numerous occasions, I have discovered disparate Baptist groups, who do not normally meet, but who are willing to attend a gathering to meet the BWA president.
Question: At the new Baptist covenant meeting in Kansas City in 2009, you said, “The great thing about this gathering is that you are Baptists who do cooperate.” How would you evaluate the cooperation that came out of the national and regional meetings of the New Baptist Covenant in North America?
Answer: [A]s I said in a personal greeting to President Jimmy Carter on the eve of the Atlanta gathering, I believed the outcomes of the New Baptist Covenant movement could have profound implications for the world community of Baptists.
But I also issued the warning in Kansas that you cannot manage a movement, and many aspects of the Atlanta covenant were bound up with the energy of a movement rather than an organization.
One of the central issues for all our denominational structures is whether the new generation of younger Baptists have the same commitment as an older generation to structures and organizations. The cooperative vision of the Atlanta covenant may be shaped in very different ways by younger leaders, and we should not fear this development.
We always need to reflect carefully on the historic Baptist principle of covenant. Our mothers and fathers of the 17th century practiced the fellowship principle of “Watching over each other and walking together before God in ways known and still to be made known.” As Baptists we belong to the rock and river tradition. We believe in the rock of God’s truth which never changes as well as the river of God’s never-ending work of renewing his church.
Question: You pledged in Seoul to support the Micah Challenge, a global project to cut the world’s poverty rate in half by 2015. How do you assess the faithfulness of global Baptists in supporting the Micah Challenge?
Answer: Baptists have been to the forefront in supporting Micah Challenge, and I am grateful for the initiatives taken by the BWA to lend their support to the movement.
In my own country of the UK, public opinion polls suggest the population would rather cut overseas aid budgets than see basic home services underfunded.
Baptists need to add their prophetic voice in challenging their governments to remember the poor of the world. Governments, who made the promise 10 years ago, need to keep the pledges already made to meet the achievable targets of the Millennium Development Goals…
The OT [Old Testament] prophets state clearly…that justice and compassion are the hallmarks of true worship, which is why I can affirm the Micah Challenge – “to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with my God.”
To make poverty history is the duty of every Christian…It is an acid test of our obedience to follow Jesus when he says, “in as much as you did it to the least of these you did it to me.”
Question: What more can global Baptists do to urge their governments to keep their pledges to cut poverty in half?
Answer: I suggest we join the Micah 2010 Big Promise campaign for Oct. 10, 2010, which is a focus on the promises made to the poor of the world 10 years ago.
Micah Australia has been promoting the campaign “Survive Past Five,” which highlights the terrible plight of 8 million children who will not live to enjoy their 5th birthday this year. With our loving commitment as Baptists to support and nurture the youngest members of our church communities, I suggest here is another way we can be a voice for and with the poor.
Question: Speaking at the BWA’s annual gathering in Ede, Netherlands, in 2009, you said that “the current unfettered free market system is flawed.” Would the BP gusher in the Gulf of Mexico be an example of the unfettered free market where a corporation took shortcuts and government regulation was missing?
Answer: My first comment on the BP oil gusher…is to express my profound continuing sympathy to the bereaved families of those who died and my pastoral concern to the thousands of workers who have been impoverished and their futures rendered uncertain by this disaster.
Certainly the management of BP has major issues or accountability to address on the safety standards of operation, but I am glad your question states whether this company is but “an example.”
The recent history of corporate capitalism in all parts of the world serves as a warning to all multinationals against rampant greed and lack of communal responsibility. It is a basic question to ask whether it is just that the world’s richest 2 percent owns more than 50 percent of the world resources.
The ecological disaster in the Gulf is…a challenge to Christians concerning their personal stewardship of God’s creation. Ultimately international energy resources are related to personal energy consumption and lifestyle choices and we lack transparency if these personal ethics are not also considered.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.