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Stabroek News

Robert Thompson, on a mission of transformation
published: Monday | May 30, 2005

Mark Dawes, Staff Reporter


RICARDO MAKYN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Canon Robert Thompson, rector of St. Andrew Parish Church will be consecrated and ordained as the Anglican Suffragan Bishop of Kingston tomorrow (Tuesday) at the Kingston Parish Church beginning at 10:00 am. In this interview with The Gleaner, he shared some of his theological and social perspectives.

IF THERE is a single word that best describes the vision of the Rev. Dr. Robert Thompson for Jamaica, it is 'transformation'. That is the mission to which the church must be the lead players, he believes. But it is a mission for which they have not been particularly successful. He is keen to use all his influence to secure that kind of change.

"My passion is for the church to be literally the instrument of transformation. We (the church) are about God's mission. God has a plan for God the world. We need to find out what that is. (To do this) We go to Scripture. We track the tradition of the church and we listen to what our predecessors said, and we plug into that," the Rev. Dr. Thompson said.

Speaking with The Gleaner three weeks after the 135th Anglican Synod which elected him on March 30, 2005, to become Suffragan Bishop of Kingston, the clergyman said: "We are disconnected as a society ­ not just in terms of uptown and downtown. The disconnect has largely to do with how people perceive themselves. Whether they see themselves as belonging."

He argued: "If the church is about reconciliation, then the church has to go behind and find out what it is that is creating the disconnect within the society. I don't have all the answers to that question. But I think that if we begin to dialogue with the other partners in society, then we will be able to find out... And if we (the church) have failed the nation at any point, we have failed the nation in not facilitating that kind of dialogue.

RETURNED TO JA

The Bishop-elect returned to Jamaica last October after spending two years in the United States where he successfully pursued a doctorate. His doctoral thesis is entitled: Redemption Song: A theological hermeneutic for social transformation in Jamaica. In it he stressed that the church needs to ensure it asks the right questions as it formulates its theological outlook. He believes the church needs to more intentionally decolonise its theology to attain greater relevance for the people it seeks to serve.

He told The Gleaner: "Those who brought Christianity to us ­ brought it through their own lenses, through their own prisms. We have to determine for ourselves as Jamaicans what lenses we are going to use when we are reading Scripture it is to impact socially.

"The Rastas, for example, have said the way we have read Scripture in the past has contributed to the oppression of black people. So we need to critique that. You can't ignore that statement as a Christian conscious of our need to reconcile the alienated elements within our society to God. We need to pay attention to that. In paying attention to that it does not mean we have to endorse their modus operandi. But if we ignore what they are saying then to our peril, we will continue to be speaking to ourselves and really not addressing some of the serious issues in the society," the Bishop-elect said.

A product of western Jamaica, the Rev. Dr. Thompson grew up in Westmoreland. He is the son of James and Elethe Thompson. His father is the retired Custos of Westmoreland.

From as early age six, young Robert knew he wanted to be a priest. He was attracted to the priesthood because of Canon Weeville Gordon, the Custos of Kingston and retired rector of St. Matthew's Church in Allman Town in Kingston. It was Canon Gordon who prepared young Robert for confirmation at the Grange Hill Holy Trinity Church in the parish. "I plugged into his humanity. Yes he is a man of deep prayer and deep spirituality ­ but it came out in his humanness. And I think today you can still see it in him.

In his 15 years at the St. Andrew Parish Church, Fr. Thompson has been able to recommend a number of young persons for training as priest. Securing more entrants to the priesthood is one of his goals. He is anticipating that in much the same way Canon Gordon's life and witness influenced his decision to become a priest, the Bishop-elect is hoping to inspire more young people to embrace the call to the priesthood by his own life and witness.

GOD'S CALL

After primary and secondary schooling in Westmoreland, the young Robert Thompson secured a job at Barclays Bank. Then the call of God on his life grew stronger and after two years of working at the bank, he left and enrolled as a student at the United Theological College of the West Indies (UTCWI). Since then, he has also done studies at McGill University in Canada, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University, and most recently, the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he earned his doctorate. Before his election to the Bishopric, the Rev. Dr. Thompson, 56, had been serving since 1990 as rector of the St. Andrew Parish Church. He was invited to become rector at St. Andrew Parish Church following the election of the then rector, Canon Herman Spence as Suffragan Bishop of Kingston. When Bishop Spence died in 2001, his post was left vacant until this year's election of Canon Thompson to this office.

Asked how he felt succeeding Bishop Spence at both St. Andrew Parish Church and now as Bishop of Kingston, Canon Thompson said "It is a great honour. He was someone I admired. There are a lot of things that I learnt from him."

Prior to coming to St. Andrew Parish Church, Canon Thompson served 10 years as rector at St. Jude's Church in Stony Hill St. Andrew. He was made a deacon of the Anglican church in 1973 and appointed a priest in 1974. He was also curate at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin.

While he did not set his heart on one day becoming a Bishop, Fr. Thompson has received his new appointment with Christian grace. Nevertheless, he is not without a vision for his ecclesiastical parish, which since the death of his precedessor, Bishop Herman Spence, has been reconfigured. His jurisdiction will include Kingston, St. Catherine and St. Thomas. St. Mary, St. Andrew and Portland, which were formerly under the Bishop of Kingston, will be given pastoral care by the Lord Bishop of Jamaica. The Portmore area will be the object of particular attention for the new Bishop of Kingston. "In Greater Portmore, we have between 20,000-22,000 persons who identify themselves as Anglicans. I don't think we have 2000 of that number who are actually practising Anglicans or who are connected with the Anglican church."

MAJOR CHALLENGE

The new Bishop acknowledged a major challenge to secure adequate clergy supervision and pastoral care for churches in St. Thomas which at this time is served by one fulltime rector.

The Bishop-elect hopes to place great emphasis on training with the hope that this will inspire Anglicans to greater engagement in Christian missions while enriching their own journey of faith. He is of the view that with the creation of more training opportunities more persons will opt for entry into the supplementary and/or ordained ministry of the Anglican communion.

The Rev. Dr. Thompson is married to Charmaine (nee Bunting) an artist. They are the parents of two adult sons.

While he looks forward to the new challenge being a Bishop will bring, the Rev. Dr. Thompson acknowledged that he will nevertheless miss being a rector. "I will certainly miss it. Not only because that is what I know. But that is what I love. There are two aspects to pastoral ministry that really excites me.

"One is the people relationship ­ visiting people in their homes, joining them in their journey through life, their struggles and problems. I spend a lot of time counseling ­ most of my time is taken up with that. It is quite a satisfying experience to journey with people at their level of struggle.

"The second aspect is the worship and liturgical life. As a bishop, you are moving from church to church and you have various experiences. That has its joys. But to have a rich liturgical experience ­ the high festivals, to plan and to work that through with a lovely choir... We at the parish church have two beautiful well developed choirs. It is joy to hear them.

The Bishopric will mean some adjustment in lifestyle as his new role will demand more of his administrative skills than his pastoral competencies. As a Bishop, he said, "I won't have the close and intimate relationship with a parish family. But I still hope that the prayer group that I meet with once a month, will continue to have me, because I will need them.

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