A brain worth ‘picking’
If there’s one brain that young Anglicans should want to “pick,” it’s that of The Right Reverend Gilbert Arthur Thompson, who has celebrated 50 years in the priesthood and has seen many things change and has countless stories that he could tell, not only about the country, but of his faith as well.
Since the day of his ordination into the priesthood in Christ Church Cathedral, on November 8, 1961, the Assistant Bishop of the Anglican Diocese in The Bahamas, has witnessed significant changes in the Diocese — the most significant to him — the indigenization of the Diocese of The Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
“In the past the majority of the priests and bishops were white and foreign,” recalled 76-year-old Rev. Thompson. “It took a long time for more local young men to find a place in the church and become priests. There were strict things men could do, women could do and children could do. People weren’t as involved in the church back then, but as times went on, all of this changed. Eventually when priests left we had our own qualified young men to take up the mantle. This gave us the opportunity to get more lay people involved in the church and when more locals saw they could be a part of this environment they started asking questions about why they couldn’t be a part elsewhere. Many changes just started to take place.”
Over the years he believes the Anglican Diocese has been very fortunate in its continued upward movement and the steady flow of young people entering the priesthood. Currently, however, for the first time in 30 years there is no Bahamian in training at Codrington College, the seminary school in Barbados. This does not alarm the priest, who is characterized as humble and caring. But he hopes this will turn around and says there are a number of young people currently being mentored who are considering the priesthood. He hopes they make a decision that follows their heart and pleases God as he says the priesthood is a noble path but, he admits, may not be for everyone.
In his youth, Rev. Thompson says becoming a priest was something special, and a challenge he wanted to meet since there were few black priests at the time.
Although he has seen some of the best days and achievements of the local Anglican Church the priest foresees things becoming even more outstanding in time. He anticipates the church continuing to build upon the great achievements it has made in the areas of outreach programs, pastoral works and education. Even though he wishes he could see another few decades in the church that he loves, the Bishop says no matter what, he knows he has put his best in the years he has been able to see.
“I am very happy to be celebrating 50 years as a priest in the Anglican church,” says Bishop Thompson. He was honored with a Mass of Thanksgiving at Christ Church Cathedral, and says he was humbled at the numbers of parishioners who came out to support him.
“It’s one thing if I was still a rector or designated to a particular parish, I could then expect for my congregation to support me at any special services. However, I am not currently stationary because I retired from official duties as Suffragan Bishop in 2005 so I was humbled to see that persons still remembered me and the church was filled. It was nice knowing I wasn’t forgotten. It was truly among my many favorite memories as a priest.”
During his 50 years, he served in two parishes in The Bahamas — St. Peter’s Parish, north Long Island from 1961 to 1968 and rector at St. Barnabas Parish, New Providence from 1968 to 2000. And on June 24, 2000, he was consecrated Suffragan Bishop of The Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, a capacity in which served until 2005. During the period he also served as diocesan registrar, chairman of the commission on ministry, and as a member of the provincial commission on ministry.
His consecration to Suffragan Bishop of the Anglican Diocese was one of the most bittersweet memories of his life.
“While I was happy to be given such an honor, my elder brother Archdeacon William Thompson died after fighting for his life for three weeks in the Intensive Care Unit after he was brutally attacked in his church. It was great, but it was also depressing knowing that my family and I would have to bury him a week later.
Although we were trying to be happy about the ordination, it (burying his brother) is something I will not forget.”
Throughout his five decades in the pulpit, the Bishop has experienced many happy moments including a 47-year marriage to Olga Louise Major, the birth and successes of his children and grandchildren, the achievements of the parishes he has ministered to, and the many opportunities he’s been able to experience, including the many people he has been able to impact.
For most people it would not be an easy feat dedicating your life to God and the service of mankind as fully as Bishop Thompson has done in the past 50 years, but in his eyes, life could not be more fulfilling than the one he has led. Although officially retired, he still works regularly in the Diocesan office, and visits a different parish every Sunday. He believes if he can be of service he will always try to do so. And continuing his work even beyond what is required of him is what life is about for Bishop Thompson who says he can’t remember a day when it wasn’t.
In fact, he recalls from a young age that there was nothing he wanted to do more than to become a priest. Growing up in a strong Baptist and Anglican family and always being surrounded by ministers, there was not a moment of hesitation in his decision to prepare himself to enter seminary school upon graduation from St. John’s College. What made his journey as a priest more special was that it was one he walked with is elder brother, the late Archdeacon William Thompson, who also chose to become a priest in the Anglican Church.
“Being a priest was always something my brother and I saw ourselves doing. Our grandmother even took us to the priest of our church when we were young and told him that we would become priests when we got older. Spirituality and religion were always topics in our household because everyone was deeply set in their faith, so it was almost second nature when we both went into the priesthood. So really and truly there was no ‘road to Damascus experience’ that got me in this field. But it was a long path in which many individuals, family members, the church and even our community supported us on this path. There were no sudden changes in my life that led me to become a priest. It was something I always wanted to do.”
As he looks to the future the priest says people take for granted what they have today, but he says it was not always as free and unsegregated as it is now, and that many things have changed and to him, it has all been for the better in spite of the increase in crime and violence.
Prior to testing his vocation to the priesthood, Bishop Thompson was an educator, and served as headmaster of the Victoria Point School in Andros from 1955 to 1956. He was a justice of the peace, member of council for the College of The Bahamas, chairman of the Anglican Central Advisory Council for Education (1985 – 1995); member of the public disclosure committee, member of Southern Library board (1972 – 1990); a member of Nassau Library board; national chaplain of the Girls Brigade Council (1972 – 2008); lecturer at Templeton Theological Seminary, Teacher at St. John’s College and chaplain to the Senate (2007).
In appreciation for his service to the church and community, he was honored by Queen Elizabeth II, and named as a companion of the distinguished order of St. Michael and St. George.
Bishop Thompson is the author of Instructions for Anglicans, and is currently writing the History of the Anglican Diocese of The Bahamas and The Turks and Caicos Islands.