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 Issues | Church History | W. H. Griffith Thomas

 

Great Churchmen (No. 25)

W. H. Griffith Thomas (1861-1924)

by M. Guthrie Clark

Minister, Scholar, Teacher

Published by Church Book Room Press

 

St Paul's, Portman Square & Wycliffe Hall, Oxford

 

St Paul's, Portman Square

The story of what were called “proprietary chapels” in London and other places is very little known. Most of them were built on account of the deadness of many of the parishes in the bigger towns and cities. Friends living in the same area who wished to have congregational worship and the message of the Gospel in the pulpit would put their heads and their money together, acquire a site, build a Church, and appoint their minister.

In some such way as this, a proprietary chapel was built between 1764 and 1784, when Portman Square came into being. The ground was the property of Lord Portman, who received a rental for it of £400 per annum. The unfavourable possibilities of this position can be quickly seen, and it is not surprising that towards the end of the last century it became more and more clear that the property should be purchased.

It fell to the lot of the new incumbent, the Rev. W. H. Griffith Thomas, in 1900, to effect this change. £8,000 was asked for and raised in 3 months. Of this large sum Lord Portman handed back £3,000 to form the nucleus of an Endowment Fund. At the same time the conventional district (as it was called) was converted into an ordinary parish and Griffith Thomas was the first Vicar in the usual sense.

Much ought to be written of this decade, but space forbids. If anyone wants to know the principles on which the work was based let him read or reread The Work of the Ministry, perhaps Griffith Thomas’ greatest book. The substance of that book was delivered as lectures at Wycliffe Hall, but the experience embodied in it was largely gained at St. Paul’s.

It was a most distinguished congregation to which the young clergyman was called from Oxford in 1896. A well-known surgeon, Dr. Amand Routh, was Churchwarden. Sir George and Lady Williams, Lord and Lady Kinnaird, Lady Sophia Cecil, the Ladies Elizabeth and Flora Knox, Lady Lichfield, and others of high standing were members of the church and regular worshippers. The generosity of the church, both to foreign missions and to other causes, was phenomenal and the outcome doubtless of deep spiritual experience.

It is interesting to discover that as early as 1898, more than 20 years before the Enabling Act, St. Paul’s had its own Parochial Church Council, 48 strong, which acted in an advisory capacity. Certain gentlemen were ex officio members, the rest were chosen, half by the Vicar, half by the communicants.

The congregation was keenly missionary-hearted. It was from this warm atmosphere that Montague Beauchamp, one of the Cambridge Seven, had gone forth some years before. The C.M.S. was never more keenly supported than by this Church, which had a flourishing branch of the Gleaners’ Union.

It was while Griffith Thomas was Vicar of St. Paul’s that he was married, in 1898, to Alice, only child of Alfred Monk and his first wife, Elizabeth Leigh, of Chorley, Lancashire. It is altogether fitting to state that Mrs. Griffith Thomas, still living at an advanced age as this is being written, most ably supported her husband in every good work. At Portman Square she taught a weekly Bible Class, conducted the Gleaner’s Union branch, and introduced the All Day Working Party, an idea which spread to other churches. In 1902, their only child, Winifred, was born. Throughout nearly 26 years of married life, Griffith Thomas had a home life which blessed all who shared it; for he in turn was a devoted husband and father.

All the usual parochial machinery was there—with a difference! It was oiled and kept running sweetly by prayer.

No less than six prayer meetings were held each week. There was, the power house. A long list of the various agencies and departments might be mentioned, but only some can be named. There were regular meetings for men, a vigorous Orchestral Society, Day Schools that were full where the Vicar taught regularly, a cycling club, a company of Boys’ Brigade, a circulating library, a Teachers’ preparation class, a Prayer Union, various working-parties, Band of Hope and other Temperance groups. In these many activities the Vicar was ably assisted by two vigorous young curates, and for some years one of these was Canon J. R. Crisall, of Southport.

A weekly afternoon Bible Reading conducted by Griffith Thomas calls for particular notice. There is little doubt that we have here one of the earliest Bible Schools which have since become so popular and so helpful a feature of Evangelical Churches. A printed syllabus outlining the course was issued, and then weekly notes for study. Much ground was covered in this way, and the author’s books on Peter’s life and letters, the Epistle to the Romans, and the book of Genesis were first given in the form of these weekly lectures.

The nine years in London were years of considerable literary output, not only in the form of books, but also in articles for the religious press. The Catholic Faith, much of which was given to Confirmation classes, was first issued in 1904. It has since gone through numerous editions, completing sixty thousand copies.

Many demands were made on Griffith Thomas’s strength and time, and right nobly did he respond. It is lovely to see that he was just as ready to speak at a little mission in a London slum as he was to cross the Atlantic (as he did in 1903) to address the great Northfield Conference in America.

It was while Griffith Thomas was Vicar of St. Paul’s that two innovations were made which have proved of lasting value—the setting up of a text-board outside the church and the fixing of a small plaque on the pulpit desk. No one but the Lord knows how effective that display of a text has been, but many a preacher must have been challenged, as he stood in the pulpit, to read these words:

“Sir, we would see Jesus.”

“Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord.”

St. Paul’s, Portman Square, was probably Griffith Thomas’ happiest sphere of work. In his farewell letter printed in the Parish Magazine, October, 1905, he writes: “These nine years of happy ministry have left a deep mark on my heart and life, and I lay down my work here with keenest regret, even though I am fully convinced that I have taken the right step in so doing. I can understand now from personal experience what I have long known from the testimony of others that ‘Portman Chapel is one of the dearest spots on earth.’ It will be specially dear to me as the place of my first incumbency, as the place of my first home, and as the place where we have had our first experiences of home joys and sorrows.”

 

Wycliffe Hall, Oxford

The book on Pastoralia, to which I have already referred, carries the following inscription: “To the eighty-two students of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, with whom it was my privilege and joy to be associated October, 1905 to August, 1910.” One envies the experience of those four score men, a number of whom have written to me about their old Principal, always affectionately referred to as “G. T.” What days! What blessings! What memories! If Griffith Thomas’ nine years at Portman Square were the happiest of his life, the next five (1905-1910) were certainly the most important, at any rate as far as England is concerned, leaving out of account the last 14 years of his life which he spent on the other side of the Atlantic. He left his mark upon his men in a most distinctive way and that influence has been passed on by them to others, amongst whom I am one.

When Dr. Grey resigned the Principalship of Wycliffe Hall in 1905, the Trustees (of whom Lord Kinnaird, already mentioned, was one) began to search for the best man to occupy the position. Their choice fell upon the Vicar of St. Paul’s, Portman Square, who accepted the post as one which would afford him even wider opportunities of usefulness as a teacher, which many felt to be God’s special gift to him. Accordingly we find him installed at Wycliffe Lodge with his family, to begin a new phase of his work which proved to be his last period of prolonged service in England. Among his own men, and in a greater circle in the University itself, he proved to be a tower of strength to all who loved the Lord and His Word.

In preparation for his new responsibility he read all the books on the Higher Criticism that could be procured. Everything was noted and turned to good account in his lectures. “Do you mean to say,” said a friend, “that you have read Driver and the others, and you are still a conservative?” “Yes, I have,” was the reply, “and that’s the reason why I am!”

Important as were his lectures, the impact of his consecrated personality was even deeper. All his great powers of intellect and heart were fully yielded to God, and, then the Holy Spirit wielded him as a teacher of the Truth and as a holy man of God.

A man of wide experience, deep understanding, true godliness and rippling humour, he must have been as nearly as possible an ideal Principal.

It appears that he bore the brunt of the lecturing himself. And this was in addition to his Greek Testament studies in chapel, and outside work. The Pentateuch, the Historical books of the O.T., Christian Doctrine, the Gospels and Apologetics—all these vast fields were covered by him. No wonder he was able to publish so little during those five years. But it must never be forgotten that the substance of his posthumous book on the XXXIX Articles, The Principles of Theology, was given in his lectures on Christian Doctrine.

His addresses on Pastoralia, in view of his varied experiences in different spheres and his wide reading, must have been specially helpful. Much of what he then gave was reproduced later in The Work of the Ministry. The second part on Preaching is unrivalled in its grasp of the subject and its suggestiveness. “Think yourself empty, read yourself full, write yourself clear, pray yourself keen—then enter the pulpit and let yourself go!” It would be hard to better that as a general counsel.

In the University itself, he conducted a weekly Greek Testament Reading on Sunday afternoon. It is interesting to record that T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was a member of that class in Hannington Hall.

We find him speaking at Keswick in 1906, 1907, 1908. In 1908, he addressed the Pan-Anglican Congress on the subject of the Training of Candidates for Holy Orders. The following year he was invited to speak on a similar subject at the Church Congress at Swansea. Calls and invitations came to him as “thick as autumnal leaves. . . in Vallombrosa”.

Although few books were published while Griffith Thomas was at Wycliffe Hall, there was literary work of another kind. He was asked to write a column in the Record called “In Conference”; he planned a series of books, Anglican Church Handbooks, to which he contributed Christianity is Christ; he became Editor of the quarterly periodical, The Churchman; he wrote a thesis for his Oxford D.D. which afterwards appeared as A Sacrament of our Redemption; he planned a series of lectures on the Holy Spirit for the Bampton Foundation which, however, were not accepted; and he penned many most helpful letters, some of which I have been privileged to see. He adorned all he touched, and these writings are marked by sound scholarship, clarity of expression, and warm sympathy.

He was not a party man without vision and with little understanding. As he once wrote, “I do not care much for mere party views, high, low or broad, but I do care that a minister should be truly converted, truly spiritua1, loving his Bible, and hearty in his acceptance of Articles VI and XX. Then he can call himself what he likes.”

When, at the end of five years, he was approached about a Professorship at Wycliffe College, Toronto, he felt it was God’s call. Friends of long standing, being mindful of the larger sphere to be found in connection with a reputedly Evangelical stronghold in the young and growing Dominion; told Griffith Thomas frankly, though regretfully, that he ought to accept the invitation. From Wycliffe, Oxford, to Wycliffe, Toronto, accordingly, he and his family went in September, 1910, sent on their way with a torrent of good wishes voiced at a Farewell Dinner and Presentation in London before they left.

 

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