Changing to stay faithful
John Bradbury, incoming United Reformed Church General Secretary, talks to Stephen Tomkins
When the Revd Dr John Bradbury was nominated to be General Secretary of the United Reformed Church in 2019, he could hardly have pictured the circumstances in which he would take up the post in 2020: churches across the country closed since March, Church House empty, the Church’s General Assembly cancelled, and the future still uncertain. As Dr Bradbury said before the interview: ‘I keep meeting all these new colleagues on the screen. It’s like being introduced to all the characters in a soap opera. Nothing feels normal.’
Dr Bradbury will be helping to lead the URC through some challenging times – coming, please God, out of the pandemic, and trying to work out how things have changed and how things need to change. He talks about this prospect with a sense of hope and a sense of calling, to be a faithful Church, to find new ways to tell the Christian story and to shape the future.
What did you think your priorities were going to be when you were nominated to be General Secretary last year?
Ha. Helping us to understand that word ‘evangelism’. I think we get quite scared of that word. In the world we live in, we can’t presume that people have an understanding of the Christian story and will see it in what we do and put two and two together.
I also thought it was going to be about resources – getting our resources in the right place on the ground to help congregations have the biggest impact they can. Those were two of the biggest things I thought might help us realise visions for the future.
What is evangelism for you then?
Evangelism is, at its simplest, about our ability to talk about God. We’re quite good in church at talking about almost anything but God – we’re very good at talking about church, but we’re not quite so good at talking about God. Evangelism is our ability, in our daily lives and the life of the Church, to talk about the reality of what God is up to, what we experience God’s Spirit doing, what we’re doing in response to the Gospel, the way we live our lives. It’s being able to articulate all of that in such a way that Christ’s story becomes a story other people begin to live in.
We can get stuck thinking there’s lots of residual Christian faith out there, and that we can reactivate it and people might come back to church. We’ve gone way beyond that. We need to tell the story of Jesus, to tell the story of what God is up to in the world, to tell the story of the experience of the Holy Spirit, in ways that people can grasp for the first time and begin to experience.
Did you have some experience of doing that in Liverpool?
Yes. My first ministry was working very closely with my Methodist colleague, Barbara Glasson, who initiated what became known as the Bread Church, a Christian community that gathered around baking bread. It was one of those moments where the divine sense of humour kind of catches you out. We only gathered during the working day and I thought: What about those people at work who can’t come then? Let’s do something on an evening. Being a bit of an idiot, I decided we’d go for Friday evening. And what emerged was not folk who were at work during the day, but folk who hadn’t quite got out of bed during the day…
This is an extract from an interview published in the July/August 2020 edition of Reform