On Oct. 1, exactly one month after starting his new job, General Secretary Neville Callam of the Baptist World Alliance and I sat down for a conversation. He was in Atlanta as part of an 18-city tour throughout the U.S. and Canada.
A bright, articulate and gifted man, it is easy to see why Callam was chosen to lead the worldwide fellowship of more than 200 diverse Baptist groups around the globe. A Jamaican, he holds the distinction of being the first non-white to serve as BWA general secretary.
Of his many open and interesting responses to my questions, I was intrigued by one in particular. Callum expects the Southern Baptists to return to the century-old fellowship they helped found.
“I entertain the view that in due time members of the Southern Baptist Convention, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, are going to recognize the lack they have brought upon themselves by having withdrawn from the Baptist World Alliance,” Callam told me. “I am convinced that in due time, God’s time, the Southern Baptist Convention is going to want to return to … the Baptist World Alliance.”
Those familiar with the story know that the now-fundamentalist-controlled SBC withdrew from involvement in and support for BWA after the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was admitted into the BWA in 2003.
Speaking to SBC messengers, convention kingpin Paige Patterson urged the withdrawal with claims of “a continual leftward drift in the BWA.” It was a similar charge he once made of fellow Southern Baptists.
Leaders of the worldwide fellowship countered that the small, medium and large Baptist groupings around the world possess a wide variety of theological perspectives.
Callam said Southern Baptists are responsible for introducing Jamaican Baptists, and others in the Caribbean, to the Baptist World Alliance. They are grateful, he said, and don’t plan on turning back.
An effort by current Southern Baptist leaders to build international relationships apart from, and possibly in competition with the BWA, is “a transient effort, a fleeting moment that’s going to come and going to pass,” said Callam.
“God must want Baptists of the world to be together, not to be segregated in various entities sometimes giving the impression of being at war or in competition with each other,” Callam added.
Is the new general secretary hopeful? Naïve? Realistic? Patient? Who knows.
To me, it does not seem likely that current SBC leaders, who mistakenly equate any form of cooperation with condoning the full beliefs of others, would ever consider such a return. They have demonstrated a strong commitment to only involving themselves in those things they can control.
Even within their own denominational structure, there is a continuing effort to draw the circle smaller.
Certainly, it would take a kinder, gentler kind of SBC leadership such as current President Frank Page and those working to stop the stranglehold of fundamentalism on the convention. But such persons emerging within the SBC to any degree of lasting influence does not seem likely.
While the BWA could benefit from the restored funding of its once largest and most generous partner, many Baptists around the world have expressed relief at not having the large and loud theological watchdogs of the SBC exporting their divisiveness abroad.
It is interesting that Callam believes the mission of the BWA is so compelling that the SBC will eventually return. His faith is greater than mine.
(The full interview will appear in the November issue of Baptists Today. For print or online subscriptions, visit www.baptiststoday.org or call 1-877-752-5658.)