This article first appeared in The Baptist Times online:

Andy Goodliff explores the role of Baptist Union of Great Britain president

Sam Griffiths posted an interesting comment piece last week on Chris Duffett being something quite different as Baptist Union presidents go.
Of past-presidents Sam says, ‘The president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain would always be one of those suited chaps, well known, Phd, brown floppy briefcase, black shoes and a smooth haircut, and with a presidential theme that was probably generally forgettable after he had departed your church.’
Note the ‘he’ pronoun in the first paragraph is not quite accurate. While female presidents have been far too few, there have been three of them. Also only six presidents in the last twenty-five years have had PhDs, and only four of those presidents had PhDs in theology. And I’m not sure all have had ‘smooth haircuts’!
It is certainly true that Chris Duffett has been an excellent president in terms of his huge amount of energy and passion for evangelism and for loving people. This comes across every moment you are with Chris – what you see is what you get.
I think Chris has brought something new and different to our Union life and hopefully will have made a lasting impact on many of our local churches. We need to make more space for more people like Chris to both address and affect our Baptist life.
Sam’s’ article raises questions about who and what we think a Baptist Union president is. The Baptist Union Council explored this question in the middle of the 2000s, without result.
In the past, the presidency has, in many cases, been almost an honorary position bestowed on ministers at, or near, retirement – so Ernest Payne, David Russell, and more recently Peter Manson, John Weaver, Pat Took. This will also be the case in 2013 and 2014 with respect to Ernie Whalley and Chris Ellis.
In some cases it feels it has been a reward for long service in the Union and in others perhaps a desire to allow someone who has been in ministry for a long time to bring some of that accumulated wisdom to our life both at the level of Union and more locally. It has probably rarely had the youthful vibrancy many of us are experiencing this year.
Have too many presidential themes been forgettable? Probably. I can’t remember any, apart from John Weaver’s focus on creation care. Chris has been deft at having a theme which has in many ways been branded, with a memorable title and an accompanying book – this might be something for other future Presidents to learn from. I know Nigel Wright also published New Baptists, New Agenda during his presidency.
We might ask does the theme matter? The more important role of a president is to be a Baptist face at a local level for an intense year, with a message to encourage and bless.
This possibly in some cases needs also to be unafraid to challenge and chastise more – to be free to help us see ourselves in a new light. I think a few have tried and felt they went unheard. (We can be a stubborn independent lot!)
The presidency needs a rethink. It needs a greater diversity of persons holding the position. We need those with theological and spiritual depth – for example Brian Haymes, Roy Searle, Nigel Wright.
We need those with passion for something missing from our life – for example John Weaver (the environment), Chris Duffett (evangelism); we need those who bring a voice that we don’t hear enough – Kate Coleman, Pat Took, Kingsley Appiagyei.
We need the younger as well as the older (the youngest president before Chris was probably David Coffey in 1987, who was then only 46).
We also in the churches need to be more open and ready to listen to those who hold that office. To take seriously what they offer, rather than seeing it, as Sam suggested, something we just do as churches (‘book the president’).
The president’s role reminds us that we belong to something more than our local church. It has the potential to be a Jeremiah, Huldah or an Amos – naming injustice, offering hope, telling truths that comfort or disturb.
The president’s role also has the means of allowing the wisdom grown in long years of ministry to be distilled among us – and the means of allowing passion and imagination to flourish in a broader context.
There is great potential in letting a voice loose to speak from within us, but with hope that they will help lead us.

The Revd Andy Goodliff is minister of Belle Vue Baptist Church, Southend.

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