Dr Elaine Storkey writes:
JOEL EDWARDS was one of the Windrush generation, emigrating from Jamaica in 1960 as an eight-year-old, with his parents. As they were coming from a country where between 60 and 70 per cent of the population attended church, and the rest were “extremely Christianised”, the culture shock was considerable. He reflected in later life: “People back home warned us we were coming to a spiritual graveyard, but my family arrived full of hope and ready to revitalise the economy and bring spiritual revival.”
Plenty of options were available for church attendance in London, but the incomers found denominations confusing. Their own tradition was Pentecostal, yet different from that of white Pentecostals. “They didn’t preach for as long, didn’t sweat, didn’t jump or shout much and didn’t sound Pentecostal!” Clearly, the “spiritual revival” was going to have to come from their own churches. Black churches started to spring up, beginning as house gatherings but rapidly expanding as immigration continued. They soon provided a vital base for a new infusion of Christian witness in the UK.
From his early years, Joel was a leader. An industrious student, with a special interest in philosophy, he was chosen as head boy at Sir William Collins Secondary School in Camden, north-west London. For aspiring black immigrant youngsters further down the school, here was a role-model who embodied the kind of leadership they could emulate.
Black Gospel music was influential in the 1970s UK, and, as a musician of some competence, Joel had co-founded a Christian band, Kainos, with himself as lead guitarist. The band’s repertoire was different from that of traditional Gospel groups. Its funky, fast, fiery output surprised older black Christians, but delighted audiences at Greenbelt and other big festivals. Joel was completely at home on the mainstage, producing radical sounds with his prized Gibson Les Paul guitar.
Joel worked as a probation officer, before being ordained in the New Testament Church of God, serving as a pastor in Mile End. He saw the potential of black-led churches to consolidate the faith of Christians from the Caribbean and build links with other immigrant believers. (That potential was realised; in London today, around a quarter of all practising Christians are from a black ethnic background.)
When the newly established African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA) was looking for a leader in 1988, Joel was an obvious choice. It was a strategic post. In the significant racial tensions, Joel was keen that the churches should be voices in their communities, speaking for both justice and reconciliation within society. African and Caribbean church traditions were focused more exclusively on evangelism; so it took all Joel’s persuasion for them also to speak out against knife crime and set up peace projects.
During his studies at London Bible College, Joel had been exposed to the breadth of British Evangelicalism, and threw himself into collaboration with the UK Evangelical movement. At ACEA, he worked closely with Clive Calver, who had recognised his significance for the Evangelical Alliance. In 1997, Joel succeeded Clive as General Director of the EA, the first black Pentecostal ever to hold that position.
Over the 11 years of his directorship, Joel’s impact on British Christianity was profound. He deepened the diversity of the Evangelical Alliance, promoting racial justice and challenging the churches on their past indifference. He encouraged social involvement and strengthened the voice of Evangelicals in the public square. His vision for Evangelicals was for them to present Christ credibly in the 21st century and to be at the heart of spiritual and social transformation of society. He became a sought-after spokesperson on a range of social issues, reaching secular audiences through his broadcasting, including Thought for the Day.
Among many other appointments, he became a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, received an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews and a medal of appreciation for services to Jamaica, and was made an honorary canon at St Paul’s Cathedral. Yet, none of this recognition distracted Joel. Approaching 60, he became a student again, working for his doctorate at Durham University.
After leaving the EA, Joel moved further into the global scene, as International Director of Micah Challenge, tackling issues of global poverty, and adviser to Christian Solidarity Worldwide. He was also a member of the International Religious Advisory Council to Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation. In 2016, he received the Langton Award for Community Service from the Archbishop of Canterbury, for uniting Christians across UK. He was appointed CBE in 2019, and, in April 2021, was appointed by the Church of England to establish a racial-justice commission.
Joel Edwards was an outstanding Christian leader, prophet, educator, communicator, friend, and unifier. His ability to inspire widely diverse groups of people with the whole-life significance of Christ’s redemptive love has been witnessed in the accolades which have poured out since his death.
Yet Joel never wanted the focus to be on him. As one mourner said, “he left his mark because it was never about leaving his mark, but about opening up to the life of Jesus.” His sermon in Westminster Abbey in 2018, celebrating the Windrush Generation, poignantly conveys the heart of Joel’s identity. It was anchored in God, who sets his people free and never forsakes them.
Joel died on 30 June, aged 70. He leaves his wife, Carol, a son, and a daughter.