Sir Wilfred’s path of faith
A prophet is not without honour save in his own country, goes the old adage. How well does retired Barbadian Church of England Bishop Sir Wilfred Wood know this.
He was one of seven candidates nominated for the bishopric in Barbados in 1971. All seven failed in their bid and Wood received a mere four votes. In the end, it was left to the bishops of the Province of the West Indies to select a bishop for Barbados. They chose Bahamian Drexel Gomez.
It was ironic that on the day that the hierarchy of the Anglican Church here was meeting in Synod, the British Broadcasting Corporation broke the news to the world that the Church of England had elected its first black Bishop – “Barbadian-born Wilfred Wood”.
The Barbadian Anglican cleric had created history in the Church of England.
It was an appointment that made a lot of people happy, and the 703 congratulatory letters, cables and cards he received from well-wishers remain among his treasured possessions today.
Stashed in Sir Wilfred’s memories are the words of his late father-in-law Lloyd “Boychild” Smith. Sir Wilfred is married to Ina Lady Wood.
With a chuckle, he related how Smith, anxious that he might have been bumped from the flight to England to witness his son-in-law’s ordination as bishop, declared in true “Boychild” style: “It has taken the church 1 985 years to appoint a black bishop and I am certainly not going to miss it.”
Today, this Barbadian, who went on to make a distinguished contribution to religious and social life in Britain, says about his failure to secure the position of Bishop of Barbados, with no hint of rancour: “God had something more in store for me. I certainly would not have been the first black Bishop in England, and I certainly would not have done the amount of work that I was able to do there.”
Indeed, his contribution was outstanding.
During his interview with the Sunday Sun, Sir Wilfred talked about “seven things in which I have some humbled pride in being involved”.
He served on the World Council Of Churches Programme To Combat Racism, “a most controversial programme, but a key player in the days of the African liberation struggle”. That programme supported the humanitarian work of the liberation movement in Southern Africa, and Sir Wilfred was chairman from 1975 to 1980.
He was also part of the Archbishop’s Commission On Urban Priority Areas, and a member of the Royal Commission On Criminal Procedure. Like other members of the commission, he travelled about the world with a group looking at various justice systems.
In addition, he founded Shepherd’s Bush Housing Association, a voluntary housing association. The concept of purpose-built sheltered housing, which was the brainchild of the committee he headed, took off in Britain.
Today in Plaistow, East London, there is the Bishop Wilfred Wood Court. For posterity, one street, one close and two housing projects bear the name Bishop Wilfred Wood.
Deputy chairman of the Martin Luther King Foundation (later known as the Martin Luther King Memorial Trust) and chairman of the prestigious academic Institute of Race Relations are included in the long list of positions Sir Wilfred has held while making a sterling contribution to British society.
But this Barbadian who was born in 1936 in Proute, St Thomas, and attended Southborough Boys’ Primary School and Combermere, somehow never dreamed of the path his life has taken.
Spending a great deal of his boyhood life with his father Wilfred Coward, owner of the St Andrew Boston Bus Company, the young Wood got involved in many aspects of church life at the St Andrew Parish Church: Sunday School, Church Lads’ Brigade, and a host of other church activities. Yet the priesthood was off his radar.
“I realised that God was calling me to be a priest, and I didn’t really want to be a priest. So I resisted it for as long as I could and then I eventually went forward and was in Codrington College for five years.
“When it was being decided where I would work after ordination, there were the Nottinghill race riots in England, and the Mirfield fathers who were in charge of Codrington College arranged for me to go to England to do my curacy of four years, during which time I hoped to help West Indians understand the English and the English to understand the West Indians.”
That was 1962, and the four years turned into 40.
“I stayed on because there was more and more work to be done all the time.”
During those 40 years, Sir Wilfred moved through the Church of England ranks as curate, chaplain, vicar, rural dean, canon, archdeacon, and bishop.
His work did not go unnoticed by the British authorities.
He was made Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Croydon, a very rare honour – only awarded 37 times between 1898 and 2002.
Three honorary doctorates were conferred on him: Doctor of the Open University of England, Honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of the West Indies, and Doctor of Divinity by the Charles Theological Seminary in New York.
Of the last he said: “I was very moved by that one when in the citation I was referred to as a wise and trusted defender of the rights of minorities.”
Amidst it all there was a commitment to return to Barbados and he did in 2002 when he retired.
Sir Wilfred may have since lost his sight to diabetes, but he has certainly not lost the fervour for Christian witness and mission.
He told the Sunday Sun: “I must confess that it does seem that the prophetic voice of the traditional church is not being heard enough. I never hear what God says about the real issues that are affecting people’s lives today.
“It is almost as if the church has withdrawn into a religious ghetto, and I keep saying if we allow religion to be nothing more than a kind of recreation and entertainment – and I am afraid there is a lot of that – then the true meaning of the faith will lose its relevance in people’s lives.”