ROBBIE LOW INTERVIEWS BISHOP DAVID THOMAS
IN THE LATE 1970’s, when Welsh rugby was at its rampant and brilliant best, the huge front sitting-room of the old vicarage at Westcott House filled up with the serious sportsmen, a large T.V. and several crates of home brewed lubrication. The English to endure their, by now, ritual humiliation, our resident Aussie to sympathise, the Jocks to gloat and the Taffs to exult insufferably in their God- given genetic superiority in matters of the oval ball.
In the event the unthinkable happened. England won. We tried to be gracious in victory - it was not enough. The following day our Welsh brothers were absent from college. Three days later they returned! They had caught the next train home to Wales. So appalling was the loss that they could not bear to be with us. As one said, “We needed to be with our own people at this time of national mourning not with your questionable parenthooded English!” Eventually friendship was restored and, to everyone’s secret relief, the English did the decent thing and went back to their losing ways the next year.
This is simply a long winded way of saying that Wales is a different country. The Welsh are far more conscious of it than even the most sympathetic Englishman, their sensitivities are keen and their sense of history acute. English politicians and churchmen misunderstand this at their peril. All this came back to my mind as I set off from Paddington on St. Patrick’s Day to meet the new flying bishop for Wales.
We met at Bristol Temple Meads Station, a compromise, and then off to a “safe house”.
The train pulled in bang on time and I’d scarcely time to make a dozen paces up the platform when the tall bespectacled cheerful and welcoming face of David Thomas hove into view. A brief walk to the car discussing computers, - he’s a novice, I remain resolutely a quill pen man - and then an enthusiastic drive to the church rooms at Clifton, his driving massively outpacing my map reading. The patron saint of parking places had reserved us a spot right outside All Saints and, seated in the privacy of the upper room, I asked Bishop David:
Where did you begin?
“I was born in Bangor, beside the Menai Straits, in 1942. My father was Warden of a church hostel for Anglican Theological students and ordinands. In 1945 he became Vicar of Swansea and then, in my mid teens, he was made Bishop of Swansea and Brecon.”
The ring and the pectoral cross Thomas wears now are his fathers and, as will become clear, they are worn with great affection and gratitude.
What about your Mum?
“Mum was the daughter of a priest who became Dean of Bangor. She was also niece of a priest, sister, wife, mother and grandmother in law of priests. I was very lucky as the only child of two very devout and wonderful parents.”
What did you like at school?
“Tennis. But I was too short-sighted to be much good”.
My mind went back to the exciting drive that has brought us here in record time!
“I discovered my real love at Oxford. Rowing. Sight is unimportant there because you can’t see where your going anyway. Then there was music. I became a very keen organist but sadly get little time to play now. It’s very handy as a vicars’ son because you just pop next door and the organ is always available. I was hopeless at Maths and loved Classics. Much of my lower sixth was taken up resitting the dreaded Maths”.
As one who had avoided a similar fate by the narrowest of margins I could fully sympathise with any noble soul condemned to spend yet another year in the company of men for whom the successful working of a quadratic equation was the intellectual equivalent of a hit of amyl nitrate.
What did you read at Keble?
“Mods and Greats. My particular love was the Latin verse of Horace and the thrill of reading Homer”.
Who influenced you most?
“My parents. They were a tremendous example. I have always measured everything by them. There were a couple of masters at Christ’s College, Brecon too. And, of course, the Warden of Keble, Austin Farrer. He was a remarkable man. Like many great scholars he was a shy man. But three things stuck in my mind and heart. He was a very devout, very prayerful man. He was a great pastor in spite of his shyness. He had a great effect on Christians and non-Christians alike. And his preaching, his humour, his simple, profound, prayerful preaching. But home was the great influence - to see a priesthood lovingly and conscientiously lived; it’s bound to have an effect”.
Did you ever drift away?
“Yes, briefly. Many of my friends at college were ordinands but at Oxford I thought ‘free at last’ and got angry with God and rebelled and tried to scoff. I didn’t want the priesthood - it involved too many sacrifices. But then I realised I was just doing a Jonah - running away from God’s will. So I wrestled with it and was greatly helped by a Mirfield father who was very discerning and compassionate”.
Was that the end of your Mirfield connection?
“No indeed. I became involved with the University branch of the Community and eventually became its secretary. As a result I was asked to get a team together to go on mission at St. James, Southampton with the brothers and some sisters from Ditchingham. In the home parish team was a lovely girl called Rosemary and we have now been married for thirty years.”
Rosemary’s Mum was devout Church of England. Dad was a strict and particular Baptist who, after his war service in the RAF returned to be confirmed, become church warden, a servant of the sanctuary and, at 88, is still editing the parish magazine!
When did you know this was it?
“After about six weeks. Our first physical contact was when she had to weep over my feet in a tableau! Her parents were horrified - we had no money and theological college to get through but they were really marvellous once they’d got over the shock. We were married on All Fools Day 1967 and I was ordained the following month in St. Asaph”.
“Well, I’d wanted to work in Wales but far away from my dad. In the event Bishop Bartlett was very ill and my dad was called in to do it. By the following year Bishop Bartlett had recovered and priested me. The strange thing is that I never set foot in St. Asaph again for twenty eight years - until I was consecrated.”
Where did you serve your title?
“Hawarden under Canon Norman Sidney Baden-Powell. Wonderful, very strict, old school, quite eccentric but utterly committed and hard-working. The parish was 10,000 souls and we had 1,000 plus Easter communicants, seven churches and four curates plus the retired dean of St. Asaph and the priests from St. Deiniol's Library. My district was Sandycroft - pretty deprived, you didn’t close the youth club in August, there was nowhere else to go. The under 12s were supposed to go home at 8.30 pm but usually they didn’t because nobody would be in. It was mainly steel workers at Shotton and the great strike while I was there almost turned it into a ghost town”.
“Chaplain to St. Michael's, Llandaff.”
“Don’t know. I’d published an article about Eucharistic Liturgy and I was appointed to teach it. Unfortunately it was not on the timetable at the Faculty so I found myself teaching Old Testament. The Old Testament man was plugging a gap in Comparative Religion - staying one chapter ahead of his students so I did the same for him in OT. It was very good for me as I am a Marcionite by instinct!”
There followed an animated discussion about the deplorable heresy of those churches that omit the Old Testament reading. My instinct is that we don’t get nearly enough of the Book of Judges!
And after that?
“Well I was hoping to go to a parish but David Hope, who had just become Principal, asked me to come and help him at St. Stephen's House in 1975. We had trained there together and it was in a difficult state, very unhappy and divided”.
Is it true that Hope issued one way tickets to those he was sacking?
“In Gothic Script”.
“Staggers” at that time was a legend with the notoriety of the Augean Stables and it took considerable courage and determination to root out the rottenness. Tragically, twenty years on, many colleges don’t bat an eyelid at such a culture but, to their eternal credit, Hope and Thomas did; and acted decisively.
How long did it take?
“By 1977/8 the tide had turned and we entered, I think, a golden age. There was a real supernatural transformation. It taught me anew that what God asks of us is simply to be faithful”.
What was Rosemary doing?
“Having babies. We have two children. Felicity is 29 and married to Nick Barry an R.A.F. Padre. It’s another levitical dynasty. His father, uncle and cousin are priests. John is 26 and is in computers in London”.
“Vicar of Chepstow, where they don’t regard themselves as Welsh. Then suddenly in 1982 David (Hope) went to All Saints' Margaret Street and they needed a continuity man to help St. Stephen's House in the years of change in the move to east Oxford. The identity of an institution changes when the physical surroundings are different though it enabled us to get much more realistic pastoral placements. Women students had come in and that was a source of some tension too. We tried to learn to live together”.
Do you think we should now have a separate college for orthodox ordinands?
“I’m uncertain. A separate college could imply a separate church. What I am clear about is that we need space and sensitivity from theological college staff and the orthodox faith must be taught fully and clearly. The faith once delivered to the saints must have the opportunity to win the day”.
In 1987 Thomas went back to his first love - parish life. He became Vicar of St. Peter’s Newton, an attractive parish on the SW outskirts of Swansea. Not very anglo-catholic but with a solid tradition of good Christian teaching and a eucharistic focus. It has a strong Sunday School and enormous choir (54 members!) the role is 300 + and Easter Communicants 400 -500.
How have you coped with leaving the parish?
“It’s been a tremendous wrench. The last ten years have been the happiest and most fulfilling of our lives. The people are our friends and the work with the children has been very special. It’s been a great sacrifice to take on this task. What’s kept us going is the knowledge that it is , in the end, for their sakes. I’ve had wonderful lay and ordained staff and support - we will miss it very much.”
Your job has arisen out of the division on women priests. Did you always have a view on this?
“It was not an issue until the 1970s until the Americans forced it onto the agenda. In 1979 “Staggers” Staff meeting asked for the college to be accredited to train deaconesses and help to revive the ancient order. Priesthood was not in any of our minds. In Wales there were few objections to women in the diaconate. I saw it as an opportunity for reviving the order. Then it moved on to women priests. There are considerable areas of objection to this innovation from the ecumenical argument to scriptural authority. The one that troubled me most was “cultural relativism”. You know, that Jesus’ decisions were due to the cultural conditioning of His time. Once you say that then everything He said and did is open to correction and revision by the fashion of the time and He ceases to be the Eternal Word made flesh.”
Can the church hold together?
“This issue, and others, are dividing every mainline denomination in Europe and North America. We will attempt to stay together in Wales and be a blessing and example to other churches. The Liberal agenda may divide the church but I don’t want to”.
How did you become first chairman of Credo Cymru?
“I was away on holiday when they met! Colin Amos and Martin Gough, two curates had made great efforts to get something organised. We owe much to them and then there is the tremendous energy and zeal for the faith of Alan Rabjohns which has been critical. Other key contributors include the Very Rev. Alan Davies, Archdeacon Martin Williams, The Revd. Peter Russell-Jones and Miss Joan Buckingham, the present chairman. We organized meetings and events, published tracts. These were treated scornfully by the Governing Body but the Bill was defeated in 1994. But as always in this process it kept coming back till they got the answer they wanted. The behaviour after the ‘94 vote was perfectly terrible. The acrimony and unkindness was almost beyond belief.”
Do you see any hope of reconciliation?
“On the one hand you get things like Richard Holloway appearing in Bangor Cathedral, where I was baptised by my grandfather, pouring contempt on us. On the other hand is Bp. Rowan Williams who has been a model of courtesy and honesty towards us. Rowan and I are going to do a joint service in a valley parish next week. There is also a great and genuine sadness amongst many clergy that they won’t be able to be with their diocesan bishops for Chrism Mass”.
What happens when women bishops come?
“It will be finally divisive. I have to live for the present and work for unity but I am under no illusion that there are those who, if listened to, will destroy the whole attempt.”
How does your job differ from a PEV?
“I’m an assistant bishop in each of the six diocese with ex officio membership of the Governing Body, Standing Committee and Boards of Mission and Ministry. I’m not a member of the Board of Patronage but will be consulted in relevant parishes.”
How do parishes opt for you?
“A simple majority of the PCC Where there is division the diocesan bishop sends in a representative to investigate.” It will be fascinating to see how this works in practice.
What vision do you have of your future journey?
“David Hope preached at my consecration about God’s gypsy and I have been increasingly conscious of the great example of Abraham. Faced repeatedly with impossible situations, faith and nerve sometimes stretched to near breaking yet finding that God never deserted him. I pray that we remain faithful to God, His church and His teaching and faithful and loyal to one another. The crisis has produced exciting new signs of a new openness between Catholics and Evangelicals. If the bishops want a new model of ecumenism it already exists in our integrity.”
Thomas is a warm man, clearly with a heart for God and for His people, determined to sacrifice the remaining years of his ministry on a work of unity and reconciliation that many fear may already be doomed. His fervent belief in the need to encourage the faithful and proclaim the faith once delivered to the Saints should, nevertheless, inspire our prayers for our brothers and sisters in his beloved Wales as they seek to reclaim the nation for Christ.
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