CLERGYMAN CONNECTED THE BIBLE TO POSTMODERN ANXIETIES
He was a new kind of preacher for the postwar generation, filling pews with influential congregants and delivering complex and insightful sermons
By JOHN STACKHOUSE
Special to The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, July 30, 2019 Print Edition, Page B16
In the early 1950s, when a demographic boom and surging economy began to transform every corner of North American society, the United Church of Canada turned to a young preacher to do the same for the pulpit.
Canadian church leaders had watched how Billy Graham's energy electrified congregations across the United States and felt a new style of Canadian preacher - perhaps less fiery, perhaps more reflective - could fill their pews, too, as a postwar generation struggled to balance a new secularism with an angst brought on by the bomb, the pill and the Age of Me.
Rev. Leonard Griffith would be their star.
Already a rising figure from his perch in Ottawa's Chalmers United, where the great and good of Canadian politics worshipped, Mr. Griffith was recruited in his early 30s and sent out nationally to spark a new kind of Canadian theology. The young preacher was soon a headliner for the church's first "evangelistic meeting" in Windsor, Ont., drawing close to 30,000 people at a local arena on the gathering's first night. He continued every night for a week, sending a signal that a new voice had arrived.
As a United and later Anglican minister, Mr. Griffith was one of Canada's most influential Protestant voices through the second half of the 20th century. He was also, perhaps, the last of a kind.
With a command of ideas and oratory, he had an ability to connect the Bible to postmodern anxieties. He filled pews, of course, but he also built a following that included political leaders, business tycoons, academics and swaths of ordinary Canadians. From Chalmers, Mr. Griffith went on to be the voice of the great City Temple in central London in the 1960s, and finally St.
Paul's Bloor Street in Toronto, where he often drew 2,500 congregants. At one point, in the 1980s, he preached to nearly a million worshippers, over the course of a week, in South India.
I watched Mr. Griffith at the height of his craft, in the late 1970s at St. Paul's, where, as a server, I sat beside him on Sundays as he prepared to mount the pulpit. It was like sitting in the bullpen with an ace pitcher preparing to take to the mound.
Every week, as another minister, usually Rev. Bob Dann, led the church in prayers and readings, Mr. Griffith sat quietly behind the pulpit, muttering key phrases to himself and reviewing his notes one last time before rising to speak for 20 to 30 minutes. In those days, a half-hour sermon was still a high point of the weekend for many worshippers.
His sermons were like complex symphonies, rich with historical and intellectual detail that made the listener work. Although he enjoyed contemporary culture, he seemed to struggle with the popular references that preachers increasingly relied on. He equally eschewed the pop psychology that those in the modern pulpit often tried to deliver, preferring to take his listeners through the majesty and nuances of the theology he had learned from perhaps the century's greatest thinker in the field, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth.
Mr. Griffith treated every sermon like a marathon to train for, noting in his memoirs, From Sunday to Sunday: Fifty Years In the Pulpit, that he liked to spend an hour at his desk for every minute he would address the congregation. He also came about his craft naturally. He was born in Preston, England, on March 19, 1920, to two Welsh opera performers. He spent his early childhood travelling around England with his parents' various troupes. (His father began his working life in a Welsh colliery, and had a bass baritone that Leonard often adopted, aided by 40 years of smoking that he later observed, guiltily, didn't diminish his lifespan.)
His parents' stage careers were undone by the Great Depression and the rise of cinema, which forced them to seek a new life in Canada. They settled in Brockville, Ont., holding a series of menial jobs that allowed young Leonard to excel at school and volunteer for the local church. He earned a scholarship to McGill University, where he studied theology and advanced his command of the stage through campus theatre and some early CBC Radio plays.
He then studied at Montreal's United Theological College, graduating in 1945, the same year he was ordained.
Mr. Griffith later confided, again with some guilt, that he never had a religious experience or revelatory moment that drew him to the church. He was instead drawn by the intellectual challenge of dissecting scripture (he wrote 21 books) and using his rhetoric to compel people to change.
One of his preferred sources was the Book of Isaiah, with its mix of poetry and prose, and its sweeping landscape on reflection.
Mr. Griffith excelled as a smalltown preacher in Southern Ontario before being called to Chalmers, then the citadel of the United Church, which he took over at the age of 29.
He regularly drew more than 1,000 people to his Sunday morning service, and another 200 on Sunday evenings. But as the 1950s progressed, he noticed the evening numbers shrink, as did other ministers in Ottawa. He realized it was the same media disruption that had been the undoing of his parents' travelling opera. For him, it was The Ed Sullivan Show, the biggest force in TV in the 1950s.
Exhausted from the pulpit, he returned to academia to complete a doctorate at Oxford University in England, where he focused on the theology of Barth, who was so influential a theologian he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1962. From there, Mr. Griffith moved to City Temple in London, which at the time was one of the world's most influential churches, patronized by those among Britain's elite who didn't attend the Church of England or Roman Catholic Church. The congregation included Garfield Weston, the grocerystore magnate, who was so pleased to have a Canadian in the pulpit that he bought the church a house for the new minister and his young family.
While on high occasions Mr.
Griffith could fill the church to its 1,500-person capacity, he watched the crowds slowly dissipate as church attendance declined across the West amid a growing view that "God is dead," and the sexual and secular revolutions that swept the 1960s.
In his memoirs, Mr. Griffith recollects using his time in Europe to visit Switzerland to interview Mr. Barth for his Oxford thesis. He was struck by a Grunewald painting behind the great theologian's desk, depicting Christ as a figure who transcended the world and indeed religion. It was that image of infinite mystery, and transcendence, that helped him see his own messages as more than words spoken to an immediate audience, even as it dwindled.
They were an expression of faith that he hoped lived beyond the moment of their delivery.
It was a faith he would need when he returned to Canada, moving to Toronto with his wife, the former Anne Merelie Cayford, and two young daughters. The city of the 1970s was in the early stages of a de-churching that would shake many church leaders and push them to try almost any gimmick to draw and retain parishioners, a bit like Isaiah despairing the rebellious nation of Israel. As Mr. Griffith later wrote, in his new pulpit, at the prestigious Deer Park United in North Toronto, he saw "membership shrank; the congregation shrank; its financial intake shrank; and I guess my popularity also began to shrink."
His confidence was shaken, like that of an all-star pitcher on a new team and losing more games than he had won. Parishioners, when they bothered to come at all, seemed to want entertainment more than edification.
He regained his confidence at St. Paul's, and continued in retirement, preaching into his 90s and turning to new media - CDs at first, then YouTube - to record and share his work, still turning to Isaiah as much as any other source, taking stock in its equanimity and promise of a day when righteousness overcomes folly, and "the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed and the ears of those who hear will listen."
Mr. Griffith died on April 7 in Toronto at the age of 99. He leaves his wife, Merelie; two daughters, Anne Rutherford and Mary Griffith; four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren (one of whom was born after his death).
Rev. Leonard Griffith is seen during celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of Founders' Chapel at Wycliffe College in Toronto in 2011. Mr. Griffith confided at one time that he was never initially drawn to the church by way of a religious or revelatory experience. Rather, the intellectual challenges inherent to clerical life are what attracted him, as he relished the opportunity to use his rhetoric to compel people to change.