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Interview: Leslie Griffiths Methodist minister and life peer

12 April 2013

'Anglicans infuriate me'

I am Superintendent of Wesley's Chapel, "the mother church of world Methodism". I'm the guardian of Wesley's bones and the Museum of Methodism. That's my day job.

I also write, broadcast, chair an important educational project, and all kinds of bodies relating to Haiti. I'm also active in the House of Lords.

The theology of both the Wesley brothers was utterly orthodox, and brilliantly expressed in prose and verse. They focused on the Christian faith in its inward and outward expressions. Theirs was an inclusive understanding of grace, and a total commitment to social holiness. This inebriating combination sets a standard against which the Church of all ages should judge itself.

Haiti was my very first posting, my curacy, as Anglicans would call it. We lived there for ten years. When I went out, the dictator Papa Doc was still alive. I met him twice. His infamous Tonton Macoute were everywhere, and people were terrorised. He died shortly afterwards and his son took over. It was still a dictatorship, and a tough old time. Of course, there were compensating factors.

I went out because I spoke French, but ended up with 48 churches to look after, and was a bishop before I was ordained, and nobody spoke French; so I had to learn Creole. Now it's been devastated by hurricanes and earthquakes, but clawing its way back with the same brilliant, creative people. I've just been back for the 40th anniversary of my ordination, my fourth visit since the earthquake of 2010.

I'm also excited by the work I do as chairman of the Central Foundation Schools Trust, related to the Dulwich Estate.

I was ordained to the Methodist ministry on 21 January 1973: 40 years ago. I was a Local Preacher for ten years before that. The places where I've served have changed, but my ministry, in its basics, hasn't. I've consistently refused preferment. I've only ever wanted to be what Anglicans would call a "parish priest". Teaching, preaching, pastoral care - these have been the fundamental elements of my ministry from start to finish.

How can I possibly explain the privilege of being with people in their most precious and intimate moments: when a baby is born, at times of crisis, when couples marry, when there's a bereavement? And having the company and stimulus of young people, day in, day out, keeps an old man like me from getting grumpy. My whole life has been blessed by these privileges.

A good preacher commends Christ and the Christian way. She's someone who has something to say, who believes what she says, and says it with passion and conviction. Because she's a good pastor, loves people, she is able to respond to questions the congregation are asking themselves. A sermon should be a participative, not a passive, act within the liturgy.

The Revd Jubilee Young, a famous Welsh Baptist minister, preached on the Good Samaritan in Zion Chapel, Llanelli, when I was a teenager. The bench pulpit he preached from became the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and, for sheer drama, it totally captivated the attention of all 2000 people present.

Anglicans infuriate me. I love the Church of England. I still haven't recovered from the "great rejection of 1969" [News, 18 July 1969]. My theology and churchmanship would make me a liberal Anglo-Catholic - I'm actually "High Chapel" - but with a sharp Evangelical cutting-edge. I've hated seeing Anglicans tearing themselves apart over issues that are really, at the end of the day, marginal to the great task of witnessing to Christ in a world that is happily committing suicide all around us.

I should add that it's a great privilege to offer these criticisms as an Honorary Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, where I've been a member of the Cathedral Council for the last dozen years, and as an Honorary Fellow of Sion College.

I didn't grow up in a churchgoing home, and the Methodist chapel was just round the corner. So it was an accident. Or luck.

Methodism in Britain is at a crossroads. Numerically, it has suffered a steep decline in recent times. It's seeking to re-invent itself as "a discipleship movement shaped for mission". I wish it well. But it is fast moving away from the Church I have served all my life, and I know I shall end my life feeling deeply saddened at this loss.

It should be to the Church of England what the Franciscans or Dominicans are to the Roman Catholic Church. But to forge that identity as a freestanding entity makes no sense.

I'm angered that the Anglican Church has not found it possible to be more generous, imaginative, welcoming over the years. All the fuss about the voting about women bishops. . . The percentages were almost identical in 1969; and the Methodists had voted themselves out of existence. Really, we should be organically part of the Church of England, and ready to move forward together.

Nothing had led me to believe that I was going to enter the House of Lords. I love it. It's such a friendly place, and the grand people I'd only previously seen on television turn out to be simple souls and breathing human beings. For me, it completed the flush: a boy from the gutters in a faraway village in South Wales ends up with John Wesley's pulpit, a seat in St Paul's Cathedral, and another on the red benches in the British Parliament.

I regret that my mother didn't live long enough to see how remarkably my life has worked out.

The Lords needs pruning. There are too many members. We need a retirement age, and to deal with the hereditary question once and for all. It doesn't lend itself to coalition government. But it's far more "representative" than the House of Commons: gender, range of disciplines and experience, disability, ethnicity, and faith. It wouldn't take much to turn it into a first-rate instrument for the review and scrutiny of legislation, and for debating matters of current concern. 

The Bishops are the nearest we've got to "constituency" members, who speak for geographical areas. And they retire! They do need to think a bit harder about how to work more strategically.

Margaret and I have been married for 44 years. Our three children have turned out to be fine and upstanding individuals, all blessed with good relationships. Our two grandchildren are growing up fast.

I shall continue to write and think. When I finally slow down a little, I'm sure the company of my family will be an increasingly important strand in the texture of my life. But there's also death to deal with. I want to be able to embrace the Grim Reaper in the same way I've kissed and hugged members of my congregations down the years.

Margaret is a retired radiographer, who puts her very best into everything she does. Unlike me, she's a "kosher" Methodist. I'm happiest when Margaret and I are cooing and gawping at the latest pictures of our grandchildren as they come to us via the wonders of cyberspace.

The biggest decision was leaving an academic career I loved to enter the Methodist ministry, which I've loved even more. And the decision to go to the rough realities of Haiti rather than the comforts of a teaching job in a theological college.

I'd like to be remembered for having written one decent poem. Poetry is my deepest literary love, and I can't write it for toffee.

I admire Toussaint Louverture, who led the slaves of Haiti to freedom. His heroic deeds, combined with his humility, remain astonishing. Wordsworth's sonnet to him is one of his best.

I have read Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy's War and Peace at least half-a-dozen times.

The view of Burry Port from Pembrey "mountain", especially when the tide's in . . . this is home, the place that shaped me.

"What does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world at the cost of his true self? What can he give to buy that self back again?" This is the verse bedded in the deepest recesses of my mind. The passages in Deuteronomy which describe the Jews wading into their promised land with orders to exterminate the local populations are distinctly odious.

I am angered by the plight of the poor and suffering - in a world that could so easily do something about it. How long, O Lord, how long?

My only real prayer is that I be given heightened awareness, so that I might see the world as near to the way God might see it as is humanly possible. I want to be delivered from my dullness of spirit and my bourgeois sensibil-ities.

I'd like to get locked in a church with Rowan Williams and Jeffrey John, who were made for each other, and whom I want more than anything to rediscover each other. I'd make sure I hid the key until my mission was accomplished.

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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