Alan Rabjohns recalls Bishop David’s life and ministry
When I had a major crisis some years ago Bishop David Thomas phoned me as soon as he heard of it and came to see me within 12 hours. Not once did he doubt my integrity. He assured me of his prayers. Knowing my birthday, he said he would say the Michaelmas collect for me every day. I know he was still doing this until he died and am convinced that he still holds me and all with whom he has been concerned before the throne of grace now. That was the kind of man, priest and bishop he was.
David was born in 1942. His father was Bishop of Swansea and Brecon from 1958 to 1976. As the present Bishop of Swansea and Brecon has said, ‘There can be little doubt that in his life he repeated virtues which he had observed at first hand in the ministry of his late father, J. J. A. (Jack) Thomas, virtues which were shaped and honed during his time at Oxford and in his early ministry. In parochial ministry, in the academic world, and as a bishop, David revealed himself to be a person of empathy, learning, pastoral sensitivity and humour.’
After studying with distinction at Keble College, Oxford, and further training for the priesthood at St Stephen’s House, he was ordained deacon by his father in 1967 and he served his title at Hawarden in the Diocese of St Asaph. He was in academia throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s. He was Tutor at St Michael’s College, Llandaff, from 1969 to 1970 and University/Polytechnic Chaplain at St Michael’s from 1970 to 1975. Then he returned to St Stephen’s House, first as Vice-Principal under David Hope and then, from 1982 to 87, as Principal. Between the two St Stephen’s House appointments, Bishop David spent three years as Vicar of Chepstow.
He returned to Wales in 1987 and was Vicar of Newton for nine years. He also served as a Canon of Brecon Cathedral from 1994 to 1996 and was consecrated bishop in 1996. He celebrated the 20th anniversary of his episcopal ordination at a service in St Mary’s Priory, Abergavenny, in December 2016.
It was in 1967, the year of his ordination, that David married Rosemary, a perfect partner in his life and ministry. She is as firm a lover of the Lord and defender of the faith as her husband. They had two children, Felicity and John, to whom they in turn passed on their faith and devotion. All of them are held with love in our prayers as they come to terms with his sudden death, so soon after celebrating fifty years of married life.
Those who were with David in his time at St Stephen’s House speak of him with constant affection. Many are the priests ministering in the Church today who owe their spiritual and practical formation to him. I was once privileged to lead the retreat before one of his ordination services and saw at first hand how he held those candidates in his heart, both then but also before they got that far and well into the future, whatever it might be. The whole Church will continue to reap the harvest of this wonderful work as one involved in theological training and priestly formation. We pray that those formed and shaped by him may continue to form and shape the Church of God.
As well as this commitment to education, David’s academic contribution to the Church in Wales is shown in his work with the Liturgical Commission, which he served with great distinction. Much of the liturgical material in use in the province displays his hand, with its insistence on true scholarship and a keen awareness of developments in thinking throughout the Christian world and of the pastoral needs of the Church at large.
Those who experienced David’s unfailing touch in parish ministry still speak of him with great affection and deep thankfulness. He and I have recently been sharing in the pastoral care of his last parish, St Peter’s, Newton, in Swansea, and what an honour it has been to have some share in continuing his legacy there and preparing the parish for its new incumbent, one of his former students.
In 1992 work began in Wales to form a body to help and support those who opposed the attempt to ordain women to the presbyterate. Led by a group who might have been described as ‘usual suspects’, it took the name Credo Cymru ’94 (the number being dropped when it became clear that the defeat of a Bill 9 in 1994 was not the end of the story). David was the obvious choice to be the first Chairman of this organization: he was already well respected in the province, and easily able to communicate with those we needed to convince, and had a firm grasp of the theological and ecclesiological issues involved.
He led us with a sure hand during those early years, and then came a major surprise. Just before the second attempt to pass the legislation was to be discussed, members of the Governing Body received a paper which effectively said that if the legislation was passed then an assistant bishop would be appointed to provide alternative episcopal care for those who could not in conscience accept the change. The Bill was passed and we waited with baited breath to see who would be appointed to this role.
On 2 November 1996, the Vicar of Newton received a letter asking him to become the Provincial Assistant Bishop, licensed as assistant to all six diocesans. It was with great delight that we heard that he had accepted. On 21 December he was consecrated Bishop in St Asaph’s Cathedral, and he was welcomed at various centres throughout Wales during the next few weeks.
One religious affairs correspondent wrote that the Church in Wales had appointed not so much a flying bishop, more a tethered zeppelin. Bishop David Hope, preaching at the consecration, preferred the image of a travelling gypsy bishop, pitching his caravan wherever it was needed. David saw the humour in all this. One of his own favourite comments about the appointment was that the initials PAB were the Welsh for Pope – and a favourite photograph of him meeting the Holy Father in Rome was tagged ‘PAB meets PAB’!
But the tethered zeppelin description had validity. Unlike in England, there were no resolutions for parishes, no clear descriptions of how the system would work. Different dioceses might have different procedures, and indeed might vary the procedure from case to case. That it worked at all, that it worked as well as it did, was down to David. As the senior bishop of the Church in Wales wrote in his tribute, ‘Those with whom he profoundly disagreed, not least in relation to the admission of women to the priesthood and the episcopate, invariably found that he was able to demonstrate these characteristics as he wrote, debated and spoke not only with conviction but also with grace, good manners and effectiveness.’
It was a lonely life in many ways. Unlike the English PEVs, Bishop David was on his own. The PEVs did involve him in their meetings and that was a great help, but it still did not ease the situation where he attended meetings of the Bench of Bishops and could speak as he wished but had no vote. He would more often than not be cast in the mould of Athanasius contra mundum.
Yet, over his twelve years in office and twenty years as a bishop he maintained a firm and gentle hand in caring for those who looked to him for pastoral and sacramental care. His presence at and contributions to the meetings of Credo Cymru were of enormous value. The constituency remained firm, and orthodoxy showed ever more signs of being able to flourish and grow. But of course the story is not over. We moved from having no women priests to having women priests but with alternative episcopal care, and then lost that care when David was not replaced on his retirement in 2008. Now we also have women bishops, and a Code of Practice which is really little more than a statement of intent. His strength is needed more than ever now. We pray that another of his stature may be raised up and that his intercession may aid us in this.
He will be missed: missed by his wife and family; missed by those for whom he cared; and missed by a Church which as always needs holy and faithful pastors. I am sure that these words of St Paul to the Church in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2) describe not just the apostle and his companions but our loved and dear friend, David Thomas:
‘Indeed, we were unassuming. Like a mother feeding and looking after her own children, we felt so devoted and protective towards you, and had come to love you so much, that we were eager to hand over to you not only the Good News, but our whole lives as well.’
Fr Alan Rabjohns is a former Chairman of Credo Cymru.