A guest review by Michael J. Cleaves of For Christ and For Wales: Essays in honour of the life and ministry of John Griffiths (College of Baptist Ministers in association with PB-M books, Chelmsford 2023) edited by Paul Beasley-Murray.
Beyond the portico front door of 54 Richmond Road, Cardiff (where students were not allowed to call, let alone enter through) is a corridor at the end of which lay the boardroom of the South Wales Baptist College. On the few occasions that as students of my generation were allowed to enter, we were able to see the portraits of the former principals of the College, none of whom we recognised, remembered, or knew the names of. This volume is written in part as a remembrance of one of them, Rev. John Griffiths, who held the post of principal for a short time before he died in February 1947, almost 75 years ago.
I reflected on how Wales, its people, and its churches have changed. Would the generations who lived in Wales during the first half of the twentieth century recognise what the country has become and how it has changed?
This book raises many subtle questions about being, faith, authenticity, belonging and identity. For instance, my personal question of identity arises when reflecting that I was born and educated in Wales, but from English-only speaking Monmouthshire. Am I less Welsh than my wife, raised only 20 miles away in a Welsh-speaking home in a family from west Wales? And are both of us less Welsh than Welsh speakers from Aberystwyth or Bangor? These are questions that have troubled the churches of Wales for generations and have led to a sadly disunited Baptist community throughout Wales.
I believe John Griffiths would be only too familiar with the current social deprivation which many people in Wales are undergoing. He was, after all, a greatly experienced pastor, an ex-miner, a tutor at many levels of education from the chapel Sunday Schools of his youth to the principalship of a university-affiliated theological college, all stages of experience which require an understanding of a kind of poverty!
But how would John Griffiths look on the nature of the churches in Wales today? I am sure that he would be concerned at what is being revealed by survey after survey of religion in its widest sense in England and Wales. Indeed, he would be saddened to discover the recently published results of the 2021 census, published by the Office of the UK, which reveals that for the first time the percentage of people in England and Wales claiming a Christian identity has fallen below 50%. The challenge churches today face in a now deeply secularised society calls for deeper reflection and a more radical response than we have seen in recent years. It also underlines the need for training such as provided by the Baptist College in Cardiff, as also by all British theological colleges, to be constantly evolving to be relevant to the needs of pastors and churches alike.
My suspicion is that even a gifted and deeply spiritual pastor like John Griffiths would struggle to keep abreast with the atomised, individualistic and highly tech-savvy needs of the churches in contemporary society. On the other hand, I also expect a deeply thinking and caring pastor like John Griffiths would find ways to connect with the present generation. In this regard For Christ and for Wales provide much food for thought, for churches both in Wales and beyond.
On a lighter note, of all the contributions in this volume, the one which is a real ‘treat’ is Caroline Beasley-Murray’s essay on John Griffiths. She takes the style of the masterly BBC radio series narrated by Neil Macgregor in A History of the World in 100 Objects, but narrows her list down to ten objects (or groups of related objects) in her home which remind her of her paternal grandfather, viz. John Griffiths. The descriptions weave a tantalising picture of a long-forgotten pastor’s study; and remind people of my generation and subsequent ones how pastors should make their surroundings homely and welcoming to all. The list begins with a portrait of John Griffiths and continues with a tile from a miners’ institute; a plate from Ammanford Baptist church; a photo of John Griffiths as a young man; a children’s storybook and Bible; a 1919 peace beaker and a model yacht; a glass inkstand; a fire-screen; an unused wallet; and a family photo. It made for a thoroughly enjoyable but thought-provoking read.
Michael Cleaves, a former student of the South Wales Baptist College (1971-1975), a Baptist minister since 1975, and a proud Welshman.