Peter Russell Jones remembers Bishop David Thomas
‘The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ 2 Tim.4.6-7. Thus wrote St. Paul to his younger colleague Timothy, convinced that his death was imminent. As we all know, Bishop David was granted no such awareness of how close his death was. It came suddenly and altogether unheralded. He had no opportunity to articulate anything in the face of it, whether profound or prosaic. But we can say on his behalf: he has fought the good fight, he has finished the race, he has kept the faith. He has fought the good fight – that moral and spiritual conflict against sin, temptation and the evil one which we must all engage in if we are to be disciples of Jesus Christ. For David, that fight is over; he has finished the race – the course that God allotted to him, that took him to a life lived between Oxford and Wales, as layman, deacon, priest, and bishop. He has kept the faith – kept it whole and uncompromised, undiluted and unadjusted by the passing ideologies and fashions of this world; he has lived and proclaimed the biblical, orthodox, catholic faith of Christ in its fullness and its glory right to the end of his life and ministry.
I mentioned a moment ago a rather obvious fact about David that is true of all of us – that he lived the first phase of his Christian life as a layman. Of course, the theological tradition in which he stood gave him a clear conviction of the dignity and place of priests and bishops in the divine economy, and a sense of the privilege that some of us have in serving God in the sacred ministry – but this was never to diminish the place of the laity. Some of you may remember the words of St. Augustine that David quoted at the time of his consecration as Provincial Assistant Bishop: ‘with you, I am a Christian; for you, I am a bishop’. David knew that as a bishop he did not cease to be a brother to all his fellow Christians, and that the episcopal dignity he was about to receive was for their good, not for his personal kudos and enjoyment. I suspect that his acute sense of the worth and value of the lay state owed much to Rosemary. Theirs was a shared ministry, though not in what may strike us as the rather curious manner in which that phrase is used in some modern Christian communities. There was never any doubt that David was the priest, the bishop; nevertheless their life and ministry was a shared one, whether that was expressed in obvious or subtle ways. They were, in St. Peter’s lovely phrase, ‘heirs together of the grace of life’ 1 Pet.3.7.
You will need no encouragement from me to keep Rosemary and all David’s family in your prayers in the coming days. Those of us who are here today feel that we have lost a very dear friend; how much greater must their loss be to whom he was husband, father, grandfather, or in-law. May the Lord uphold and comfort them in the weeks and months to come.
But let us turn back to St. Paul’s parting words to Timothy, for in this exhortation there is much that reminds us of David’s ministry. The Apostle lays certain responsibilities upon Timothy, reminding him that he does so in the very presence of Christ, the Christ who is to be the judge, in the full awareness of his future coming in glory. Timothy is to communicate the gospel under all circumstances, be they propitious or otherwise. He must not shirk the task of challenging inappropriate and sinful behaviour. He is commanded to ‘reprove, rebuke and exhort’, this last word meaning also ‘encourage’ – and God knows how much we need encouragement. He must recognise that Christians do not always have an appetite for what is good and wholesome. Then, as now, there will be those who are always wanting novelty (those with ‘itching ears’), or who desire a gospel which endorses their own desires and accommodates their own appetites; there are those who seek for the endorsement of their behaviour, whereas it is that very behaviour which calls for rebuke and challenge. Timothy must withstand these pressures, patiently and persistently preaching the divine word. He must reckon with suffering, and never cease to fulfil the evangelistic task of drawing others to Christ. It may be that St. Paul’s choice of words may suggest that Timothy was not a natural evangelist; nevertheless the evangelistic task was one in which he must engage. In short, he must fulfil his ministry.
As I have sketched out the tenor of these verses, I do not doubt that many of you will recall occasions on which we have seen Bishop David discharging precisely these tasks. I remember him coming to my parish to administer confirmation. As he preached I felt my heart lift as he challenged our candidates clearly and directly to the personal love and following of Jesus: this was just what I longed for our candidates to hear, it was what they needed to hear, and they were hearing it. Then there was that other occasion in Brecon Cathedral towards the close of our Credo Cymru annual Festival of Faith on Holy Cross Day (or thereabouts). It had been decided that year to conclude the day with a simple, said, ‘no frills’ Evening Prayer. But David chose to preach. I can still see him standing in the centre aisle of the cathedral in his convocation robes as he preached a short address, challenging any there who had some kind of controversy with God to have done with it and move into the peace of reconciliation with him. These are my memories; you will have your own. Many have spoken of the wonderful pastoral care that David showed to those committed to him: the distances he would travel to visit a sick or needy individual, the phone calls (which were never short) when he knew that things were difficult. But always, whether prominently or in the background, there was this care for the souls of men and women. Nothing of jurisdiction was ever conceded to him; he had only the power of persuasion, but he used that power. We knew that David’s pastoral care was driven by love; we also knew that he would not endorse in us anything that struck him as unholy. His very friendship rendered us accountable.
As I draw to a close I want to glance briefly at the passage from St. Luke’s Gospel which we heard for our liturgical gospel a few minutes ago. It concerned the return of the seventy-two from their mission, and their report back to the Lord. They are on what we might call a ‘spiritual high’. ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!’ Luke 10.17 Jesus’ reply is more accurately translated, ‘I was seeing Satan fall like lightning from heaven,’ as if he were describing what lay behind the spiritual victories experienced by his servants: their triumphs were the visible manifestation of the breaking of the power of Satan in the hidden spiritual realm. Furthermore, the Lord promises to his agents a continuing experience of that victory. Nevertheless – and this contrast is, of course, the central point of the passage – he urges them, ‘Do not rejoice in this, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’ Luke 10.20. Yes, we do rejoice in all that God did in and through David. We rejoice in all that manifested God’s love and grace, in all that spoke of the supernatural power of the gospel to raise and bless sinful and needy human lives. Nevertheless, this is not to be the focus of our rejoicing at this requiem eucharist. Rather, we rejoice that David’s name is written in heaven: that the saving power of Jesus Christ has touched and claimed his life, and that he is already ‘with Christ’, the Lord he loved and served. To that fellowship and glory may God in his love and mercy bring us all.
This homily was originally preached at the requiem mass for David Thomas, Bishop.