AROUND BARBADOS word has gone out that irreverent dress is not acceptable in the St Joseph Parish Church.
And the man who established a reputation for his zero tolerance of “half-nakedness” in church defends his position saying: “It is good to know that you stand for something and if I am a true minister I have to stand for what is right.”
Canon Errington Massiah established his reputation as a no-nonsense man of the cloth when he began his curacy at St Leonard’s Church 37 years ago. He retired as rector of St Joseph Parish Church and St Aidan Anglican Church last month with his legacy for speaking his mind well established.
The Ellerton, St George-born priest set the tone of his ministry early. Of his curacy at St Leonard’s Church where he began his ministry, he said: “I was unknown, so I had to make myself acceptable to the people . . . . Some of the things that I can say now and get away with, I could not get away with then.”
He set about putting his own stamp on his image as a new priest at the outset, mindful that he was being measured against “the big boys in the church” – stalwarts of the Anglican priesthood such as Jimmy Springer, Harold Tudor and Rufus Brome. “People were accustomed to those fellows so they probably would not have taken a young upstart like me that seriously,” Massiah told the SUNDAY SUN.
Now he is pleased that his is a household name in Barbados.
But there are some who view him as a controversial priest, a concept he challenges. “I am not. I call it as I see it.”
With his typical candour, he said: “I am honest, but some priests are afraid to offend people so they would not say certain things. I have a reputation that ladies can’t come in the church with all their busts exposed and the short skirts, and I stick to that because God made all of us. He made the parts on the female and when you are in church He does not want to see them. He made them, so he knows what they look like.”
Massiah’s fervent devotion to pastoral duties and church leadership was fostered in an Anglican household.
“I was born into the church,” he explained, and he has relatives who are still devoted members of St Luke’s Anglican Church at which Massiah and his seven siblings had a heavy dose of Christain instruction in childhood.
Sunday after Sunday they went to the 11 a.m. service, Sunday school at 3 p.m. and were back at church for evensong at 7 p.m. In addition there was attendance at the midweek service.
The retired priest thanks the late Canon William Brathwaite and Father Walter Henry Fairweather for assisting with the development of his vocation for the ministry.
The now 70-year-old schoolteacher-turned preacher talks about a Barbados of yesterday in which the church and priests held authority.
“People had respect for the priest, teachers, and policemen,” he said, in contrast to today when societal norms are rapidly changing.
“People expected the priest to be a man of God and they expected the priest to be there for them for every function.”
That the profile of the church has diminished over the years is a source of concern to Massiah.
He said: “That declining influence of the church is worrying me, because growing up as a youngster we saw the church as the place to be and if you are a member of the church we expect certain behaviour.”
Neither is he happy about Barbados’ rising level of violent crime. At his farewell service last month he was vocal about the proliferation of illegal guns in Barbados and repeated reports of gun crime.
“How can somebody take a gun and wilfully take the life of another,” he asked, and reiterated his warning that “those who live by the gun will die by the gun.”
“We have no respect for law and order and that is my biggest concern and we have to do something.”
He is a declared non-supporter of capital punishment, but in light of the dire state of crime, he said: “You have to bring some of them [criminals] to a Christian feel. I don’t believe in it but you are going to have to do it.”
Massiah believes in what he describes as “situation ethics”, a theory that the results justify the method that was taken.
“I find these days in Barbados the youngsters are not afraid of the police and the only persons that they are afraid of are the men with the guns – the ‘Task Force’.”
He is persuaded that capital punishment could be a deterrent and relates the following as was told to him by a former prison officer: “In those days when capital punishment was carried out, the prison was silent because the same prisoners dug the graves and after execution you could hear when a pin dropped.”
He added: “This is where my situation ethics comes in and I am not in favour of giving a murder accused bail to come back out like nothing happened. What I would like to see done is that we have to work fast with some of these murder cases.”
The Federal High School, University of the West Indies and Codrington College graduate does not subscribe to the view that unemployment is the root cause of crime. Rather, he sees parents surrendering responsibility for controlling and guiding their children.
He refers to his late father, a joiner/carpenter making less than $40 a week, persevering to send four children to secondary school when the school fee for one child was $12 a term.
“Parents had control of children then and the standpipe taught us what discipline was all about,” he said. He has memories of what it is like to stand in line at the village standpipe twice a week, awaiting his turn to fetch water to fill the 50-gallon barrel that serviced his home.
A “country boy”, he still rears pigs at his St Joseph home, a throwback to those days when he gave a hand with his planter grandfather’s cows and worked on their farm land.
The father of two girls credits Denise (his “Den Den”) to whom he has been married for 40 years, for supporting him in his every endeavour.
“I am a very likeable person, people like me” Massiah said with no hint of shyness but clearly comfortable in his belief that though he may have ruffled many feathers along the way he has still managed to endear himself to many.
The man who walked up to him recently in a popular restaurant and offered to pay his bill, was to him, evidence of the esteem in which he is held by those who appreciate his contribution.
On his retirement the outpouring of love from parishioners was equal to that from the fellows in the rum shop who “respect me because I am able to minister to them”.
“A priest is still a teacher and my greatest reward is that as a teacher, I have turned out a number of outstanding citizens,” Massiah said.
But his greatest satisfaction will always be that “as a priest I have touched the lives of many people”.