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Giles Fraser: A saint who taught me to see real reverence

17 September 2008

I write in praise of one of my heroes, the great Terry Bunn of Walsall (Obituary, 12 September). Known to many as the “Archbishop of Walsall”, his home church was Christ Church, Blakenall Heath.

Few people will have heard of Blakenall. A deprived UPA outer-city housing estate on the outskirts of Walsall, Blakenall is by any register a tough place. Late one evening, out of the blue, I got a call from my bishop. He knew I wanted a university chaplain’s job, but he asked whether I would look after Christ Church in the mean time. He could not find anyone willing to go. Within two weeks, we had moved.

Blakenall woke me up. Drugged-out idiots in the flats opposite the vicarage would shoot air-rifles at each other over our roof. Skeletons of burnt-out cars littered the streets, and became play parks for children. Fascists firebombed the fish-and-chip shop because the owner was Greek. He spent months cleaning up and reopened. Then some bastard did the same thing again.

Within weeks of arrival, we were burgled. It was not just a TV-and-video job. They backed up a van and took everything — pots and pans, rugs, sofas, computer, the lot. I even lost the back-up disks for my Ph.D., and had to start the whole thing again. We made up a bed for our one-year-old daughter in the bath: it was the only place left to put her.

Amid all this chaos, Terry Bunn presided like some lanky Black Country angel. His was that increasingly derided ministry of presence at its finest: always there with a ready greeting; always treating the most unlikely visitors to church as if they were great dignitaries.

His passion for the place and its people was infectious. Partly it was a love based on a lack of judgement. Perhaps it had to be. When I got grumpy because the men popped out of church after the peace for a fag, and returned to receive communion, he would shrug: “We are all here for the medicine, Father.”

He taught me to look for the authentic signs of reverence in people not used to middle-class ways of church. Scruffy kids in cottas and garish trainers would serve with real dignity and sensitivity. Mums with short skirts and chewed nails would cross themselves as if their lives depended on it. And the blokes did always come back for communion.

Thanks, Terry, for showing me all this. You were a saint of Anglicanism. A dedicated layman all your life, if I become half the priest you were, I shall be a happy man. May you rest in peace and rise in glory.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.

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