Richard Grigson remembers an inspirational friend, mentor, priest
To be the assistant curate of Fr Alan Jones at St Francis of Assisi, Friar Park, was to have an experience which is unique in the Church of England. Recently I was being interviewed for a training role by someone from the diocese and I was asked, ‘What was your curacy like?’
‘Brilliant’ I said, ‘I had a good relationship with my training incumbent. I was trusted, encouraged, expected and supported.’ My diocesan inquisitor was surprised by this, but I was so positive for two reasons: first, it was true—every word of it; second, I instinctively recalled the first rule of being Fr Alan’s curate: when talking to anyone from the diocese, we always back each other up. (This rule held good even when I became some of those ‘someones’ from the diocese.)
One of the first conversations I had with Fr Alan, nearly 30 years ago, was at the time that my dad had just had cancer surgery. The surgeon had opened him up, had a look, and sewed him up to send him home. My unguarded reaction was to say about the surgery: ‘We thought it would be alright.’ At that point, Alan put an image into my mind which has stayed with me ever since. It was the image of the person clinging onto the burning building who has to let go, trusting that, below, there would be people who would catch them. It really would be alright, but only if I let go and trusted God’s version of ‘alright.’ I’m sure he had used that image a hundred times before, and since. I’ve certainly quoted it myself. When I was asked to give the homily at his funeral Mass it struck me how much it sums up Fr Alan’s approach: the inter-relationship between faith and certainty.
Sacramental certainty is central: provisionality would be pointless. The church itself moves from one state of certainty to another, by clarification. When I heard of the suddenness of his death my mind went straight back to his words about moving from one certainty to another: ‘get on with it.’ That certainty derives, eventually, from our doctrine of the incarnation: ‘At various times God spoke through prophets [who occasionally misheard], but now he has spoken through his son.’ (Heb. 1.1)
Fr Alan Jones never went far from his roots in Bilston, in the Black Country. After university in Nottingham and training at Mirfield, and a brief sojourn in Coventry, he devoted himself to priestly ministry in the area which he knew best. Yet ministry in Sedgley, Friar Park, Wednesbury, and Ettingshall on the outskirts of Wolverhampton was to open up the vision for the people of God in those places. Just as he had a glimpse into heaven when he got off his bike, first pushed open the door of St James’ Wednesbury and met the formidable Fr Husbands.
In making the quality of worship paramount, he was no high church antiquarian. He had no time for old fashioned navel-gazing high churchery. The worship of God is to be renewed by a glimpse into heaven as a preparation for ministry in the world. As he put it: ‘we’re here to worship God, not entertain the troops.’
Fr Alan and I knew where we were because we always worked from first principles. Some principles were absolutely clear. After being ordained deacon at Lichfield Cathedral in June 1988, my first funeral was in the following week, and I had two weddings the following Saturday. As he put it, ‘you’re either in holy orders or you’re not.’ A trainer of curates would not be allowed to do that today. In truth I don’t think he was supposed to do it then, but it was a training in the importance of the bread and butter of parish pastoral ministry—an outworking again of incarnation, reaching out in the name of Jesus Christ to people at particular points in their lives, which has served me well to this day.
And there was fun: there were trips to Liverpool to be introduced to Peter Carrara, and to have a rummage in the second-hand room at Hayes and Finch. We came back via fish and chips at Formby or Southport. Fr Alan would make me drive so that he could give full concentration to what he wanted to say. That was just as well, because if he drove he would still give full concentration to what he wanted to say! Some situation would develop on the road ahead which he would eventually notice and greet with the exclamation: ‘Jesus Mary and her Husband.’
His was a clarity of principle, sometimes at personal cost. The closure of St James’ Wednesbury must have been intensely painful, yet he recognised that, with the parish demolished, there was no job to do there. Move on, let go. Or there was the new ecclesiastical vista after 1992. The issue for him was simple: authority. The Church of England had done something which it had no authority to do, but this conflicted with his confidence in his own Holy Orders. It was not a question of being old fashioned, or high, or responding to feelings, or sexism. He certainly could not be dismissive of the achievements of women, as anyone who knows Fr Alan’s wife, Karen, will attest.
That clarity made him easy to deal with—you know exactly where you were—and also impossible to deal with: there was no pushing back to an imagined line drawn in the sand, as the line was stated at the outset. There was the principle that if a difficult decision has to be made, for the good of the church make it clearly, and stick by it.
One of the many sayings of Fr Husbands which he quoted was ‘If you try to keep people happy, nobody will be happy. Please yourself, that way one person will be happy.’ Fr Alan was a great devotee of the principle of one man one vote. He was also absolutely clear that, as parish priest, he was that one man who exercised that one vote. But this was not bombast, it was the responsibility of pastoring the people of God. If I look back at some recent events in my ministry, at things which have not gone as well as they could have, I see that I should have made difficult decisions earlier and more decisively. I should have learnt better the lessons given by my training incumbent.
There was, alongside the principle, a pragmatism. When I was offered the move from Smallthorne, in Stoke-on-Trent, to become Rector of Stafford, I knew that it would mean setting sail from the safe harbour of Ebbsfleet into other waters. I phoned Fr Alan, clear about what this would mean. His immediate reaction was ‘good.’ Then he issued me with words of encouragement which were principled, pragmatic and pithily expressed. Indeed, so pithily expressed were they that they are quite unrepeatable. But encouragement it was, and which I value greatly.
And he could surprise. Invited into the fringes of a right-of-centre political group in Wednesbury, by those taken in by a forthright exterior, he criticised their sloppy, thoughtless opinions, because he had met and been influenced by that turbulent priest Trevor Huddlestone at Mirfield.
So what advice would my training incumbent have for me if he were listening to this sermon? Confronted by the totality of the justice and mercy of God, and therefore his own sin and God’s overwhelming redemption, it is unlikely that he would be interested in listening to a sermon from me. But if circumstances were different, and I were delivering this homily in his presence, he would be sitting, eyes fixed on a spot on the floor about two metres in front of him. His face would be impassive, maybe allowing himself an occasional wry smile, or polite chuckle. He would probably be thinking ‘Cut the character stuff. Tell us what the church teaches.’ So, fathers, sisters, brothers, the gospel: Luke tells us about two people on their way to Emmaus, wrapped up in their confusion, after the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus, faces downcast. They had their version of what should have happened, and they so clung on to that (as someone clings to the burning building) that they did not recognise the risen Jesus walking with them. Jesus opens the scriptures to them, and although afterwards they recalled that their hearts burned within them as he spoke, it did not shake them from their backward-looking version of the paschal events. Only when they reached their supposed destination, which turned out to be a mere staging post, and the stranger broke the bread, as he had done so many times for the thousands on the hillside, and in the upper room, did they recognise that the Lord is risen.
Luke is insistent: they rushed back immediately to the eleven and their companions, to test their experience with the nascent magisterium of the church. There they spoke and heard of the resurrection of Jesus. Talking between themselves, a committee meeting with the creativity of the oozlum bird, gets them nowhere. Even the ultimate bible study does not shake them from their introspection, although their hearts were strangely warmed. It is only when they are in the presence of the broken bread that they recognise that they can let go of their disappointment in the face of the certainty of the joy of the resurrection. That is why, today, in the face of the certainty of death, we have the faith to assert the certainty of the resurrection. So we break the bread, and pour the wine. We offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass for the repose of the soul of Alan Jones, priest. May he rest in peace.
The Revd Preb. Richard Grigson is Rector of Stafford St Mary and Marston and Vicar of Stafford St Chad. He gave this tribute at the requiem of the Revd Preb. Alan Jones.