by Julia Cameron
South East Asia was tense in the early 1970s. The Vietnamese war continued until 1975; there was deep foreboding about Cambodia, and unrest in Thailand gave rise to a fear of a domino effect in the region. In April 1974 newswires transmitted reports of the kidnap of two European leprosy nurses by Guerrillas in South Thailand. They were members of the Mission led by Michael Griffiths, now known as OMF International.
It was a dreadful time. Within a few days, Mike Griffiths received a ransom note at the OMF headquarters in Singapore, addressed to him personally as ‘Dear Mike’, with two impossible demands. The captors wanted US$500,000 in cash, and for OMF to urge for the withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank. Griffiths had to respond to say the mission did not pay ransoms, or enter political disputes. A ransom would have lain every missionary open to kidnap. Negotiations began, but then were met only with silence. News would eventually reach Griffiths that the nurses had been shot. He described the whole experience as shattering.
The previous year, in Autumn 1973, Major Taing Chhirc, an officer from Lon Nol’s Army in Cambodia, who had been studying in Scotland, had pleaded for urgent help for the Cambodian church. Knowing he would probably die on his return, he left his wife and daughter in Edinburgh. He travelled back via Singapore to meet with the OMF directors. The mission was at full stretch and Griffiths’s senior team was divided in how to respond. Griffiths won them round, suggesting he issued a call for unmarried volunteers only, given the dangers. Five responded, entering Cambodia in 1974, but lasting only a matter of months before Phnom Penh fell in April 1975. The compelling and poignant story is told in Killing Fields, Living Fields (1997) by Don Cormack, one of those five.
In 1978 a minibus load of medical staff and their families from Manorom Hospital in Central Thailand were returning from a day out. A truck smashed into their vehicle, killing five adults and seven children. Mike Griffiths once more needed to give pastoral leadership to a mission in mourning, tracing the providence of a good God.
Michael Compton Griffiths was born in Cardiff, the oldest child of Idris Griffiths, a bank clerk, and his wife Myfanwy Jones. The family moved to Twickenham when Mike was two. Griffiths gained a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital, and an exhibition at Peterhouse, Cambridge. At Christ’s Hospital he became a committed Christian, and he went on to lead the renowned Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU), the largest voluntary society in the university. His parents’ marriage was troubled, and would end in divorce. Throughout adult life, he was conscious of having come from a broken home. In 1956 he married Valerie Kipping, his intellectual equal.
Griffiths had spent two years working with Christian Unions in UK universities straight after leaving Cambridge. He and Valerie would spend ten years in Japan, unsurprisingly working among students, pioneering and supporting Christian groups on most of its one hundred campuses in sprawling Tokyo.
At the age of 38, Griffiths was nominated as the next General Director of OMF, then the largest international Protestant mission. He took over aged 41. While relatively inexperienced for the role, was a visionary, and an instinctive change-agent. He led the mission through massive change. It had been founded by Hudson Taylor in 1865 as the China Inland Mission. Now it was working in ten countries in a fast-changing Asia, with tiger economies emerging; workers were now coming from many more countries, and policies were outdated. The church historian Latourette had observed that Hudson Taylor, who had died in 1900, held almost papal authority. Griffiths, seen as a young turk, restructured the mission, delegating more to field leaders, improving communications, and bringing greater informality. He was much amused to be presented with a book at a Thailand Field Conference entitled ‘Mike’s Mission Rules’, in which all the pages were blank!
Mike Griffiths was as inspirational on a keyboard as he was on a platform. His 25 books included Cinderella with Amnesia (1975), Tinker, Tailor, Missionary? (1992), and Lambs dancing with wolves (2001). He loved punchy titles, and when a young UK editor in 1996 relayed a publisher’s decision to call his upcoming book A Task Unfinished, he faxed back: ‘I nauseate the title. It will kill the book.’ He was right. Sales were not high.
After leaving OMF in 1980, Griffiths was appointed Principal of what is now London School of Theology. He turned it from an undergraduate Bible College to a college with doctoral students. Valerie taught Old Testament. In 1989 the board resolved to reshape the Principal’s role into that of a CEO position, akin to a business model. This was not Griffiths’s leadership style, nor was administration his gifting. It was a difficult period, and he was constrained to stand down in 1989, aged 61.
His final position would be in Canada. A new chair in Mission Studies was created for him that year at Regent College, Vancouver, as part of an eminent faculty which included old friends Jim Houston, Michael Green and J I Packer, known to Mike and Valerie from their student days. This brought a new lease of life after the painful departure from London. Griffiths loved it, but regretted the US-influence in the marking system, where students invariably gained an A grade. One student who received a B+ for his essay had the temerity to ask if it could be regraded, as he had never received less than an A grade. ‘Well, you have now!’ said Griffiths, firmly, but with a twinkle in his eye.
There will doubtless be doctoral theses on the life and legacy of Michael Griffiths. He is widely-regarded as one of the foremost missiological thinkers of the 20th century.
Dr Michael C. Griffiths, missionary and theological educator, was born on April 7, 1928. He died on January 9, aged 93.
A shortened version was published in the Times (£) on February 15 2022 here
PS Mike Griffiths trained for ordination at Ridley Hall Cambridge, an Anglican College, but did not proceed because of disagreement over infant baptism.