Present at the death of a loved one there are always many emotions – sorrow, loss and grief at a life suddenly taken away from our midst, guilt about things said or about things that were not said but needed to be said but now too late to say, anger that such a thing has happened in the way it has without real warning, fear for the future, together with love and gratitude for the life of the deceased. A Christian funeral service tries to help us to come to terms with some of those conflicting emotions.
It reminds us of a number of things. First that we are human and not divine – “dust we are and unto dust shall we return”, “for in the midst of life we are in death”. The death of anyone has a finality about it as far as life on earth is concerned and grief and sorrow are perfectly natural and appropriate reactions, for we shall not see them again and we are never ready to let them go because we love them. Grief is the cost of commitment. But the funeral service of the Church also reminds us that we run out not into nothingness but into God. There is a greater reality and a greater finality than death and that is the love and the compassion of God. We may not be immortal but God is.
“Is that a death bed where a Christian lies?
yes, but not his
death itself there dies”
We do not know what kind of future God has in store for us, and both St Paul and St John the Divine struggle to put their vision into words, but the God of Jesus who cares for people and has compassion for people, and a God who has involved humans by making us his partners in a relationship of love, would be an odd kind of God to want to end it at death. As John Donne put it “whom God loves, he loves to the end and not to their end and their death, but to His end, and His end is that He might love them more”.
And so caught between those emotions of finality in one sense and hope in another, we are able to give thanks to God for Alwyn and for all that he was as a person, husband, father, grandfather, priest, bishop and archbishop. We will all have our own memories of him and our own cause for our own private thanksgiving of him.
In many ways, surprising for such a friendly, outgoing warm, engaging person it was difficult to get to know the real Alwyn because he didn’t always find it easy to articulate his emotions and he could be the master of the ambiguous statement. When sometimes, I was cheeky enough as a young cleric in his Diocese, to spell out to him aloud what I thought he meant, those eyes would sparkle, a half smile appear on the face, an even more cryptic remark would be uttered and a huge movement of the eyebrows would follow. But of one thing there is no doubt – he thought the world of Meriel, Nia and his family. They were his bedrock. Without them he could not have functioned properly and all that he did was possible because of the security and the love of his home life and the willingness of Meriel and Nia, when she was growing up, to welcome all kinds of people into their home and offering endless hospitality with grace and friendship. There must have been times when you thought, Meriel and Nia that the Church had taken over your life with its endless demands on you, but if you thought it, you never showed it, and Alwyn’s ministry was immeasurably enhanced by you. Your support of him and care for him were total and unstinting. He knew that and the Church in Wales is in your debt.
Essentially, Alwyn was a pastor and he showed his pastoral heart in individual encounters, in his ministry as parish priest at Porthmadog and Brecon and as bishop and archbishop. He was always totally approachable, anxious to help anybody and willing to listen. As Warden of Ordinands for the Diocese of Bangor he went out of his way to be helpful to the young ordinands in his charge and to nurture them. When new clergy came to this diocese, especially from other provinces, they were astonished at the amount of time he was willing to give them and the warmth and hospitality he extended. Casual visitors to Brecon Cathedral were spoken to warmly making them feel that they mattered. He was kindness itself to Staff at the Provincial Office, even if at times he muddled up their names. Encounters like that mean a lot to people and sometimes as clergy, we underestimate such exchanges, but they can leave a lasting impression as a living witness to the Gospel of graciousness and compassion.
Speaking personally, I have lots of reasons to be grateful to him. He appointed me at a young age to the largest parish in this Diocese when I had no experience of being an incumbent at all. And, when I was elected Bishop of Bangor the date for the Consecration had been fixed for early December, and it became obvious to me, if that went ahead, I would not have been able to cope for various reasons and I asked him if we could change the date to January. I realise now, as Archbishop myself, how difficult that was to do, with all the demands on an Archbishop’s diary. He never even gave me a hint that it was a problem and immediately changed it to January after consulting his fellow Bishops. Countless clergy and lay people will have benefited from his pastoral wisdom and judgement and lightness of touch. As new Bishops coming to a very experienced Bench, Rowan and I were never made to feel that our turn would come one day, but in the meantime our role was to observe and be fairly silent. On the contrary, he encouraged us to express whatever it was we wanted to say and do.
His real gift came to the fore in personal relationships and in analysing problems and seeing what needed to be done, be that in parish, diocese or province. The thing about him was, that he was always open to a contrary viewpoint and willing to embrace change. It was during his time as Archbishop, that women were ordained to the priesthood and people were allowed to remarry in church. We take all that for granted now, but we forget what huge steps those were and it was possible because he was the Archbishop and because he was willing even when the first attempt at ordaining women to the priesthood failed, to come back and try a second time. That was a courageous step to take. He managed at that time as well to retain not just the respect but the affection of those whose opposed him. The cost to him in personal terms of course was enormous because there would inevitably be the letters that were less than charitable but he bore the pain of all that with good grace and humour. He was meticulous about answering every letter and sloppy administration was no part of his agenda.
He had a distinctive sense of humour that wasn’t always easy to appreciate. He could never remember the punch lines of jokes, but it mattered not, for in the middle of the story he was laughing so much himself, often with tears pouring down his face, that it provoked you to laughter as well. He would often remember something funny ten minutes after it happened and would suddenly have a fit of the giggles, sometimes in the middle of a meeting. And if at times meetings of the Bench got a bit tetchy, a joke would quickly defuse the situation and he was more than willing to laugh at himself. He never stood on his dignity. I remember once at the Governing Body he fell of the platform. He got up and said “this gives a new meaning to flying bishops”. At my Induction in Wrexham as we processed down the aisle at the end of the service he got his Pastoral Staff stuck in the heating grid. He tried to pull it free and succeeded only in removing the top of it leaving the bottom half swinging in the grid. When I looked round he and his chaplain were convulsed with laughter.
And the night before my Consecration he said to me, “No clever stuff as a Bishop – just be clear and simple like me” and then we both laughed for a long time.
There was no one better at keeping confidences. If you said anything to him, you could be certain he would tell no one. I used to tease him that he was so good at it, that the left half of his brain did not know at any one time what the right half was up to. He was not best pleased if he thought that a confidence had been breached – usually with the words “who told you that?” But it had its comical side. Hilary told him one day that she liked his new glasses – “what do you mean?” said Alwyn, “who told you I had new glasses?” “Well” said Hilary “you told me last week that you were going to the optician and I can see that you are wearing a different set of glasses today from the ones you wore last week, so I assume they are new.” “Oh, well that’s all right then” said Alwyn. He obviously thought that Hilary had got confidential information on him from the optician.
He loved this Diocese where he was Bishop for 17 years and gave himself totally to it. His yearly mileage was incredible because he wanted to keep in touch with people and parishes. He encouraged the ministry of lay people, loved this Cathedral and fostered a sense of family and belonging, so much so, that one member of the Governing Body would always start by saying “member of the family of St Asaph”.
If it was Tony Blair who coined the phrase ‘Education, Education, Education’, it was Alwyn who embodied it as Director of Education in the Diocese of Bangor for 10 years, as Member of the National Society and Fellow of Trinity College Carmarthen. His expertise, knowledge and support of church schools were second to none. He was loved ecumenically because for him his ecumenical partners were his equal. He did not believe as one of his predecessors did that all Non-Conformist Churches had to do was to come back to the Church in Wales to be saved and he fostered ecumenical endeavours in this Diocese and provincially and for a time was the chair of ENFYS.
He was of course willing to play his part in the wider life of Wales, and served as Chair of the Religious Advisory Committee for S4C having been a member of the Broadcasting Authority earlier in his ministry. As Archbishop, he was willing to comment on current affairs because he believed that no aspect of life was exempt from God’s scrutiny. He was of course a Welshman to the core and a great Eisteddfodwr and a member of the Gorsedd of Bards and a firm believer in devolution. In the Anglican Communion he was also much loved and respected by his follow primates and served on its Finance Committee. A former Scottish Primus wrote to me this week of Alwyn’s gift of warmth and his potent mixture of wisdom and humour. Primates meetings today could certainly benefit from those qualities.
So for all of that, we give thanks. Alwyn gave his life to and for the Church in Wales for the sake of the Gospel. If it is true as the first letter to Timothy says “that we brought nothing into the world and it is certain that we can carry nothing out”, in terms of achievements, or fame, or prestige, or popularity, it is nevertheless true that we can leave something behind and Alwyn leaves a great deal behind, in terms of what he gave to the Church in Wales and what he gave to individuals within it and indeed outside it.
And so as we remember him with fondness, affection and gratitude, we now commend him to the God whom he served all his life. For the God who brought us into being is also the God who is with us at our departing for death is a journey into God. As Boethius a fifth century Roman senator and Christian talking about God put it, “To see you is the end and the beginning. You carry me and you go before. You are the journey and the journey’s end”. The biographer of St David described life in God’s presence in this way “Cymerodd Duw ei enaid i’r man lle y ceir goleuni heb ddiwedd, gorffwystra heb lafur, a llawenydd heb boen, a gorfoledd a disgleirdeb a phrydferthwch; lle y ceir iechyd heb boen, ieuenctid heb henaint, a heddwch a chariad am byth” or as the Christmas bidding prayer has it, “he rejoices with us now, but upon another shore and in a greater light, whose hope is in the Word made flesh”. Therein lies hope for all of us. To him be the glory.