Leslie Griffiths writes on a day for remembering
I’m writing this on January 21st, on the fiftieth anniversary of my ordination, and find myself happy to spend the beginning of the day with my friends in the Forward in Faith movement. My mind, of course, is filled with emotions recollected in the tranquillity of this day and I’d like to share some of them with you.
It all took place in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. I’d been sent there from Cambridge where I’d taken the Theology Tripos. The culture shock could hardly have been more radical.
Then, as now, we were in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Since my arrival in this extraordinary country, the poorest in the Western hemisphere, the first black republic in the world, I’d been a member of the Groupe Oecuménique de Recherches and I was more than gratified when just about all my comrades, confrères, fellow ministers, hierarchical superiors from across the Christian spectrum turned up for the event. The Pentecostals and the Salvation Army were there, so too were the Baptists and Free Methodists, and who could doubt the presence of the splendidly robed Episcopalians and Roman Catholics? The Body of Christ was clad that day in its coat of many colours and I had a keen sense of being ordained into the one apostolic, catholic, charismatic, corybantic, dogmatic, pneumatic church. I’ve listed those categories in alphabetical rather than hierarchical order. Just in case anyone was wondering.
I’d been befriended by a young Roman Catholic priest who worked with the Apostolic Nuncio, an archbishop no less. Since my ordination service was to include the Eucharist, he knew he’d need the permission of his boss. And his boss said, very firmly, NO. But then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added the word UNLESS. My friend could attend only if he, the archbishop, could also be there. And so it came to pass. There he was, Mgr Luigi Barbarito, to the wonderment of us all, sitting amongst all the other church leaders. A little miracle I think.
That’s led me more than once to wonder. There was I, hands laid upon me and the Holy Spirit being invoked by the Jamaican President of the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas. Behind me, less than ten yards away, sat a Roman Catholic archbishop. Might it be possible, I’ve mused, that my ordination may turn out to be more valid than that of the numberless priests who’ve made it clear down the years that they don’t really believe I’m a ‘proper’ presbyter at all? I suspect that there may be some readers of this piece who still hold that view. But what if, like a spark that jumps the points, grace might have leapt from the nuncio’s heart to mine. Another case, perhaps, of cor ad cor loquitur? I’d like to think so.
I little realised then how important a part Mgr Barbarito would play in my later life. That began in Westminster Cathedral. I was there for the consecration of Vincent (now Cardinal) Nicholls. Part of the ceremony involved the reading aloud of the papal authorisation for this translation. This was done in the name of the Papal Nuncio to the Court of Saint James, none other than dear old Luigi Barbarito himself. We were soon in touch!
I used to go to his home in Wimbledon. We’d play snooker. On one occasion I dared to ask him how, in the time he was in Haiti, he’d felt able to toe the line of the dictator François (Papa Doc) Duvalier. Duvalier had insisted that the Roman Catholic church in Haiti should be led by Haitians rather than, as had previously been the case, by Breton or Belgian or Canadian hierarchs. After the Second Vatican Council, that actually became a desirable objective for Rome too. So Mgr Wolf Ligondé was duly chosen and consecrated to the archiepiscopacy of Port-au-Prince despite his known affiliation to the notorious Tontons Macoute – Duvalier’s secret police force. ‘Ah!’ said Luigi, ‘that was to appease him. It allowed me to choose three other bishops who were far more acceptable.’ Thus is the world of ecclesiastical diplomacy ordered.
Later, when a Roman Catholic priest and Liberation Theologian, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected to be President of Haiti, the Roman Catholic bishops there seemed unwilling to give their blessing – no doubt sensing the difficulty of a priest currently under their authority becoming Head of State under whose authority they would soon sit. I got news of this and went immediately to see Mgr Barbarito. We had a long conversation. He asked me to write the main points of our discussion onto one side of A4 paper. I did that. He sent me a post card – the matter was now with the Secretary of State at the Vatican, he assured me. And that was that. Until, just days later, I arrived in Haiti for the inauguration of the new President to find that the bishops had come ‘on side.’ They’d issued a declaration and listed the points which led them to their conclusion – the identical points that had figured in my letter to the Nuncio just a week earlier and in the same order. I was chuffed.
Fifty years a minister. A colourful life. The last nineteen of them as a member of the House of Lords. I was invited to write a piece on the fractured nature of our national political life. I’m sorry to disappoint. If I’m invited to do so, I’ll have a go at that next time! Meanwhile, God bless all readers of this august journal.
The Revd and Rt Hon Lord Griffiths of Bury Port is a Methodist minister, politician and life peer.
He was President of the Methodist Conference 1994-95.