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15 August 2007

The Most Revd Barry Morgan writes:

IN JANUARY this year, the Church Times carried a photograph of a beaming Alwyn Rice Jones at St Asaph Cathedral, surrounded by women priests celebrating the tenth anniversary of their ordination.

Most of them he had ordained to the priesthood himself, in 1997, and that small picture seemed to capture the essence of the man, as well as marking what was undoubtedly the most significant event in his episcopal ministry.

His essence, because it revealed the kind of person he was — warm, open, engaging, kind, and able to enter easily into the joys of others. Lord Habgood, the former Archbishop of York, has written: “By the age of 40, our faces reveal who we are — not the external features for which we are not responsible, but what shines through them.” That was certainly true of Alwyn.

The ordination of women to the priesthood in 1996 was achieved at the second attempt. The first attempt had ended in failure in 1994, although women had been ordained to the diaconate for 20 years in Wales, one of the first Anglican provinces where this was possible.

Convinced of the rightness of this next step, the Archbishop was courageous enough to risk failure a second time, but this time gained the necessary two-thirds majority in the three houses of laity, clergy, and bishops. Not one cleric took advantage of the financial provisions available for those unable to accept such a step — a factor in no small measure down to the Archbishop who was always generous and gracious to those who opposed him.

Few, of course, saw the private anguish and hurt that some correspondence engendered, but he never let that cloud his pastoral concern for people, whoever they were and whatever their viewpoint.

Alwyn Rice Jones was born in March 1934 in the little village of Capel Curig in Snowdonia. It was then a thoroughly Welsh-speaking community, and Welsh remained Alwyn’s first language. He went to Llanrwst Grammar School, and from there won a Welsh Church Scholarship to read Welsh at St David’s College, Lampeter, where he graduated in 1955. The college in those days was not part of the University of Wales but an independent Welsh Church College, able to grant its own degrees.

From there Alwyn went to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, to read theology. He trained for the ordained ministry at St Michael’s College, Llandaff, before being ordained deacon in his native diocese of Bangor in 1958. He served his curacy under Arfon Evans, who had been his parish priest in Capel Curig while he was growing up, and Evans, who later became Archdeacon of Bangor, had a great influence on him.

The Rt Revd Gwilym Williams had just become Bishop of Bangor at that time (he was to become Archbishop of Wales in 1971), and he spotted the talents of the young Alwyn and fostered them. Alwyn worked for a time for the Student Christian Movement in both schools and colleges, and was Chaplain of St Winifred’s School, Llanfairfechan, before becoming Bangor’s diocesan director of education in 1965, a post he held for 10 years.

His knowledge of the law pertaining to church schools was second to none, and he won the admiration and respect of his fellow clerics in the diocese. They found in him a ready ear for their problems, a willingness to help out with Sunday duties, as well as someone who knew his way around complicated legislation and local authority officials.

The Bishop made Alwyn in turn his youth chaplain, warden of ordinands, examining chaplain, and honorary canon of Bangor Cathedral. In addition, he served on the IBA’s religious advisory panel, and was an assistant tutor in religious education at the University College of North Wales.

He was to retain his interest in education throughout his ministry. When St Mary’s Teacher Training College (a church-owned institution) was sold in 1977, he became clerk to the St Mary’s Trust, an object of which was to foster religious education. He became Honorary Fellow of another Church College in 1991, Trinity College Carmarthen, and from 1972-80 was joint secretary of the standing committee on theological education in Wales, an inter-denominational body set up to encourage, among other things, in-service training for clergy, a matter close to his heart.

After a long period out of parochial ministry, Alwyn became incumbent of Porthmadog in 1975, where he remained for only four years before becoming Dean of Brecon in 1979. His stay there was to be even shorter — a mere three years. In these posts, his natural ability to relate to people, his outgoing manner and natural friendliness endeared him to churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike. He and his wife, Meriel, were generous with their hospitality and were always keen to include everyone and make them feel welcome.

Alwyn had been orphaned at 14 and he never forgot the importance of family. He was willing to share his with others. At Brecon, the Cathedral congregation was won over by his pastoral heart, as were members of the chapter, who spent a month in turn in residence at Brecon. He involved them fully in the life of the Cathedral, got their support for all he wanted to do, and was able to foster good relations between cathedral and diocese, not easy when the Cathedral is remote from the most populous part of the diocese. As Dean he was always willing to address gatherings throughout the diocese.

In 1982, at the age of 48, he was elected Bishop of St Asaph, where he remained for 17 years. Here he threw himself with his customary vigour into the life of the diocese, visiting clergy and parishes, and re-organising diocesan structures. Clergy and laity found him approachable, and his visits to parishes were memorable because he was able to mix easily with people, had a good sense of humour, and did not stand on his dignity. He came to know, by name, leading lay people in most parishes, and clergy knew that if they were in need they would get, however busy he was, his time, pastoral love and empathy.

He promoted a programme of training for readers, worship leaders, and pastoral assistants. As a former dean, he was very supportive of the work of the Cathedral, and was enthusiastic about the St Asaph festival centred there. He tried to foster a sense of “belonging to a family” in the diocese, and the Cathedral became the venue for all kinds of diocesan events — youth pilgrimages, children’s days, and general study days.

Alwyn had always played a leading role in ecumenical affairs. He was secretary of the Gwynedd Ecumenical Forum, set up to sponsor ecumenism at the local level after the passing of the Covenant between the Church in Wales and some of the Non-Conformist Churches in 1975.

He was later to chair the Commission of Covenanting Churches from 1985-87, and was responsible for sponsoring a Bill for Local Ecumenical Projects in 1991, which allowed for the creation of local ecumenical partnerships and a greater freedom in worship between churches than had hitherto been possible. He also fostered close relationships with the Roman Catholic Church at the parish level in Porthmadog and Ruabon, and had a good working relationship with the local Roman Catholic bishop.

In 1991, he was elected Archbishop of Wales, a post he now combined with his bishopric, since in Wales the Archbishop retains his see with the primacy. He engaged with the wider Church, attending the World Council of Churches Assembly in Canberra in 1991, and the Anglican Consultative Council in Capetown in 1993. He became a well known and respected figure around the Communion, serving on the finance committee, and bringing the same engaging manner to bear at Primates’ Meetings that he did in his diocese and province.

At the Lambeth Conference of 1998, by popular demand he hosted a special Welsh cultural evening, where, to a packed gathering of bishops, he persuaded the whole Welsh Bench, including the present occupant of the See of Canterbury, to entertain them either by singing or telling jokes.

In Wales he was not afraid of being embroiled in controversy, within or without the Church. It was during his time as Archbishop that divorced people were given permission to be remarried in church, ending years of uncertainty and wrangling about whether the Church in Wales could or should allow such a step.

He opposed the bombing of Kosovo when few other church leaders did. In fact, he was interviewed on Radio 4 about it after Archbishop Carey had come out in favour of such action. He supported small village stores against the advance of the big supermarkets. In Wales, he chaired the religious advisory committee of S4C, the Welsh-language channel, was a keen supporter of the National Eisteddfod, and a member of the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards.

When Dr Rowan Williams and I were elected bishops in the early 1990s at comparatively young ages, he went out of his way to make us feel at home at Bench meetings, never making us feel that we were just junior colleagues whose view were to be tolerated at best, ignored at worst. He had been delighted to be the one to consecrate Rowan, who had come from the Lady Margaret chair of divinity at Oxford, regarding his election to the diocese of Monmouth as quite a coup for the Church in Wales. Bench meetings were never acrimonious, and when at times things got tense, he would always diffuse them with laughter.

Towards the end of his ministry and into retirement, Alwyn did not enjoy the best of health, although his death was sudden and unexpected. He gave all he had to the Church in Wales, and tried valiantly to cope with both primacy and a large and scattered rural diocese.

He relied totally on Meriel, who supported him unselfishly throughout his ministry, and he was able to do what he did because she took care of all non-church matters. She survives him, as does his daughter Nia and two grandchildren.

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