Leonard Griffith keeps on preaching

Few men mark turning 90 by sitting down to grapple with the deepest philosophical and spiritual questions confronting humanity. But that is precisely what Leonard Griffith did. Earlier this year, the venerable minister released a two-volume DVD collection of meditations on Questions Christian Ask. For anyone searching for answers in our confused and troubling times, I cannot commend these DVDs too highly.

A few decades ago, Leonard Griffith was one of the most prominent United Church pulpiteers in Canada. I remember him as the finest orator I ever heard. His preaching has never failed to stir my imagination, engage my mind and strengthen my faith.

What makes him a great preacher? The answer is a combination of dedication and intellect, plus preparation, preparation and more preparation. Griffith once estimated that he needed an hour's preparation for each minute of preaching. Of course, the art that conceals art is not evident to an observer. What the observer sees is a slender, wiry, somewhat aloof man, of medium height, lacking oratorical tricks or histrionics, but a man utterly at home with his faith.

Griffith was born on March 19, 1920 in England, the only child of parents who were singers in an itinerant opera company. He came to Canada at the age of nine and his family settled in Brockville, Ontario.

A local minister interested himself in the young Leonard and wrote to the principal of United Theology College at McGill University, recommending him. In 1940, the principal responded by offering Griffith a place at the college. He was ordained in 1945.

After only two years as a pastor in Grimsby, Ontario, Griffith received a telegram from one of Canada's most influential churches - Dominion Chalmers in Ottawa - inviting him to be short-listed for their pulpit. Although this vacancy attracted "star" candidates, the selection committee heard Griffith preach and soon offered him the position.

While in Ottawa, Griffith wrote his first book, The Roman Letter Today (Ryerson Press). Two other sermon series preached at Chalmers later became books: Beneath the Cross of Jesus (Lutterworth Press) and Barriers to Christian Belief (Harper and Row).

In 1960 Griffith received an invitation to preach at City Temple in London, England. It was then known that their renowned minister, Leslie Weatherhead, would soon be retiring. Griffith was invited to succeed Weatherhead and, with some trepidation, accepted.

Griffith spent six years at City Temple, one of the most prominent pulpits in Christendom. There he preached twice each Sunday and once on Thursday - a different sermon on each occasion.

In 1966 Griffith returned to Toronto, first to Deer Park United Church, later to St. Paul's (Bloor Street) Anglican Church. Beginning in 1977, and for a decade thereafter, he taught preaching at Toronto's Wycliffe College. In 1986, he formally retired, but kept up a busy itinerant preaching and writing schedule. He has written more than 20 books.

On Questions Christians Ask, Griffith explores five themes: What is Christianity? What is faith? What about prayer? What does the cross signify? Is there life after death?

Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University in London, Ontario. The DVD set is available from St. Paul's Anglican Church in Toronto. Call 416-961-8116 or visit www.leonardgriffith.net.

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