In this month’s letter our bishop talks about the late Dean Victor Griffin – a positive influence for him since childhood.
He also mentions the value of independence of mind and quotes a poem that reflects upon the danger of certainty ‘in the delicious and challenging greyness of life.’
Last month I reflected on the passage of time, on the rate of change I had witnessed in the affairs and the personalities of this diocese over the years.
In a world of rapid flux, one sometimes preserves one’s perspective and occasionally one’s sanity by taking comfort in the presence and abiding influence of individuals who have ‘always been there’. These are the people who provide anchorage amid the storms of life, who can be relied upon to be oracles of wisdom and guidance all through the years.
For me one such person was a distinguished son of this diocese, a native of the parish of Carnew, whose death full of years was announced on the very day on which I write these words. The Very Reverend Victor Griffin was dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin from 1969 to 1991.
Key figure in church life and public debate
Thus he was a key figure in church life and public debate in my native city during my childhood and student years. He was a person of energy, fluency, moral courage and captivating personality; he was always prepared to speak his mind and at times be in a minority of one.
To his dying day he remained proud to be a Wicklow man and a past pupil of Kilkenny College – he kept up these connections through his local relatives including the Morrow family in Kilkenny.
He was well acquainted too with the reality and the challenge of human pain… One of his two sons died tragically and his wife Daphne was for many years a wheelchair user. The Griffins were ahead of their time in promoting disability awareness in the church.
Voice of a minority – visible and audible
Victor Griffin served the Church of Ireland with distinction in both Derry and Dublin. As dean of St Patrick’ s he was committed to the care of the cathedral and the upholding of its best traditions of worship. But the most memorable aspect of his ministry was the manner in which he used the role of dean to encourage participative yet critical Christian citizenship in the circumstances of his time. He was the voice of a minority striving to be more confident, and no church leader in my lifetime in
the Church of Ireland was ever more visible, and audible, in the debates of the public square. He could take to the streets with a megaphone to advance social causes in the inner city… He could engage in the most unlikely political alliances to pursue urban renewal. He was more political in many ways than most politicians, because he always combined shrewdness with principle.
Above all, he taught the Ireland of a generation ago in a most prophetic way the importance of pluralism and tolerance. He had a vision of a society which was kindly, embracing of difference, eager to escape from its former rather monochrome understanding of itself.
Not always popular but far-seeing
Not every cause which he pursued in the cause of pluralism brought him popularity even within his own church … There were those who said in slightly disapproving tones that when preaching on Christmas Day in the cathedral Dean Griffin could move from the shepherds at the manger to the need to introduce divorce with remarkable rapidity!
His opposition to the 1983 amendment to the Constitution concerning abortion was passionate and legendary. Whatever one thinks concerning that delicate
subject ( and the matter is so relevant again today), Victor Griffin realised with quite remarkable prescience how the wording of the amendment would cause human tragedies to be dragged all the way to the Supreme Court, and how the amendment might have consequences dramatically different from the intentions of those who had originally espoused it.
Shadows and troubles
It is only fair to say that the ecclesiastical world of the period, out of which Victor Griffin addressed society, was not without its own shadows and troubles. The dreadfulness of the extent of child abuse was yet to be revealed, and in recent times its occurrence within the Church of Ireland itself, including in the context of St Patrick’s Cathedral, has been coming horribly to light.
Painful events undoubtedly happened under the watch of bishops and deans who were the estimable heroes of my formative years, and the reasons why this was so require the full scrutiny of due process. Even on his very deathbed, these were matters which tormented Victor Griffin.
That honestly said, what for me made Victor Griffin great was his distinctive capacity to lead a great institution while at the same time sitting very lightly upon it. For him, to quote one of his own sermons, singing ‘Glory to God in the highest’ was never to be confused with glorifying an imperfect institution.
Cherishing utter independence of mind and contemplating the grey
The way to protect oneself from groupthink was to cherish utter independence of mind. The way to avoid seeing complicated matters of theology and morality too much in black and white was to muse upon the degree of divine presence in the colour grey. All through my years in this diocese he used to telephone me from his retirement home in Derry, not just to seek news of Carnew and Kilkenny, but to encourage me to do anything I could to promote his beloved causes of pluralism and inclusivism.
I last heard his distinctive Wicklow tones on the telephone not many days before his death, when he spoke with remarkable realism of that coming event and of his gratitude for a long life extending into his nineties.
Soon after his retirement from St Patrick’s, Dean Griffin published an autobiography with the apt title, Mark of Protest. It is the story of the contribution of a very great Irishman, one of the greatest indeed whom it has been my privilege to know. The book ends, as will this letter, with a poem by the Ulster poet and son of a bishop Louis Mac Neice, entitled ‘Entirely’. This is a reflection on the
danger of blinkered and ungenerous certainty in the delicious and challenging greyness of life.
And if all the world were black and white entirely
And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters
A prism of delight and pain,
We might be surer where we wished to go
Or again we might be merely
Bored. But in brute reality there is no
Road that is right entirely.
Amen to that!
Michael Cashel Ferns + Ossory