But for an acknowledgement of his death two days earlier, Alfred Reid, at least in name, hardly figured at last week’s instillation, at St Margaret’s Anglican Church in St Andrew, of Antiguan Oral Thomas as the new president of the United Theological College of the West Indies (UTCWI). But his theology did.
The essential theme of a slew of speakers was about the need for the revitalisation of a theology, and a church, that is connected to real-life experiences of the people of Jamaica and the Caribbean rather than taking the gospel into “an anti-intellectual retreat” from reason, or that things, ultimately, will sort themselves out. Or, as Dr Thomas noted in accepting his charge, “worship with a prophetic voice is only noise, which makes it part of the mandate of the UTCWI not only to assess the Bible’s truthfulness, but make the Bible truthful”.
That, from this newspaper’s perspective, was, principally, what Rev Reid, who served for a decade as the Anglican Bishop of Jamaica, attempted during nearly 60 years of ministry. He died on December 2, age 82.
Bishop Reid, who, theologically, came of age during Jamaica’s political ferment of the 1970s, was in the tradition of his immediate predecessor as bishop, Neville de Souza, and the Presbyterian pastor, the Rev Ashley Smith, who explored new contexts and interpretations of gospel in the Caribbean. No one, however, could, credibly, have claimed Bishop Reid to have been an ideologue, though he was, profoundly, a Jamaican and Caribbean nationalist, the manifestations of which were evident in some of the physical aspects of the church that he inspired.
For instance, as the priest of the St Jude’s Anglican Church in Stony Hill, the finalisation of whose reconstruction he oversaw, Bishop Reid commissioned the Jamaica avant-garde artist Christopher Gonzalez to produce a bronze crucifix and gave the artist free rein to conceptualise the piece. Gonzalez’s, now iconic, Afrocentric interpretation of Jesus Christ, which still hangs over the church’s limestone altar, ignited deep controversy for its challenge to existing ideals of religious symbols.
Bishop Reid also spearheaded new investments at St Jude’s, using materials such as calico and the brightly coloured bandana that is often associated with the Caribbean working people and peasantry. Later, too, he was chairman of a committee that published a new hymnal for Anglicans in the region that included the song Jah is My Keeper by the Rastafarian reggae singer Peter Tosh among its hymns.
GREATER ECONOMIC EQUITY
These actions at reshaping the liturgy were part of a rebalancing of attitudes that were part of the church he joined, which, like the rest of society, was on the periphery of empire and power.
“When I was ordained 40 years ago,” he said in a 2011 interview, “40 per cent of the clergy were British, 60 per cent were Jamaican, but the 40 per cent were more dominant than the 60 per cent.”
“He took a lot of risks in the early days in order to help the Church to embrace the culture that we are living in,” said Suffragan Bishop of Kingston Robert Thompson, following Bishop Reid’s death.
Bishop Reid’s courage didn’t end at a willingness to shake the structures of his own church. He was ready, too, to challenge power and perceived in the gospel the right of advocacy for greater economic equity.
“We have not since the days of slavery seen such a wide gap between the richest and the poorest in the society,” he said in his address to the Anglican synod in 2011. “It is, indeed, a sad irony that fundamentalist Christians, who reject Darwinism, as it applies to my origin, are the ones who fully embrace Darwinism as a social theory, that is to say, that the powerful are those who deserve to be powerful and the weak are weak by their own fault.”
Bishop Reid’s interpretation of Jamaica’s, and the Caribbean’s, social and economic reality ought to be part of a broad debate. Insofar that there is such a discourse, it is dominated by the religious fundamentalist and economic orthodoxy.
It is perhaps a coincidence of time, or maybe divine intervention, that the UTCWI, and Dr Thomas, are being called to lead a re-engagement.