The Revd Roger Williams writes:
ALTHOUGH the Revd Russen Thomas, who died on 16 April, aged 85, was born in Worcestershire, and spent his early years around Evesham, he was rooted in the Celtic culture of Wales and Cornwall, and loved its rich history, music, and poetry.
He trained for the ministry at Lampeter, and at St Michael’s College, Llandaff, and was ordained in the diocese of Monmouth in 1957. After two curacies, he became Rector of the rural parish of St Florence, near Tenby, in 1962, moving to a well-known Anglo-Catholic church, St Julian’s, Newport, in 1969. There, in the setting of that spacious building, enriched by the massive reredos acquired from the monastic church of Fr Ignatius and his community at Llanthony, he was able to present imaginative worship and drama.
After 11 years, he moved to Stratton, near Bude, in Cornwall, where he served as rural dean, and in due course became Chaplain to the Mission to Seafarers. There was a strong naval representation at the service of celebration held in St Michael’s, Bude, which included a traditional jazz band.
His first wife, Dorothy, died when he was Vicar of Stratton, and he then married Wendy, who had lost her spouse. Between them, there was a family of seven, which has become 20 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. After a short incumbency in south Cornwall, at Lanteglos by Fowey, he retired to Warwickshire.
It was a great joy to me when Russen and Wendy came to live in a village near Shipston-on-Stour, where I was Rector. They soon came to join us at St Edmund’s, and became very much part of our congregation. Russen radiated priestly friendship, enthusiasm, and encouragement, at a difficult and disturbing period of change, when it was much needed and appreciated. In the wider Church, we were approaching the decision to ordain women as priests, and locally in the parish Russen’s readiness to assist with services, play the organ, and help with church bell-ringing was a real asset.
His ministry was centred on both the altar and the family of the church. It was always the eucharist at the heart, with the people gathered for praise and thanksgiving.
After two years, he took a chaplaincy in Tenerife (1993-97), when we used to exchange annually for a month. He was indeed a great friend and companion on many outings to churches, and to Tewkesbury Abbey, in his speedy sports car, to rugby in Cardiff, and, on a memorable Boxing Day, to the races at Kempton Park. He had a special love for Caldey Island.
The Revd David Hathaway adds: The Revd Russen Thomas interviewed me to serve my title at the wonderful Anglo-Catholic parish church of St Julius and St Aaron, Newport, something of a dream curacy at the time. He did not immediately put me at my ease. Fr Russen was a very imposing figure in his cassock, with a very rich tone to his voice, erudite and bright-eyed.
Although very firmly in the Catholic liturgical tradition, he had some very challenging, fresh thoughts on the life of the Church which would enable him, in later life and ministry (for he never really retired), to sit comfortably with the more liberal developments of the Church of England. At the end of the interview, I was assured that it would be a good training experience, but that he expected absolute loyalty. From my very first moments in the parish, he did not disappoint me in sharing a wide range of experiences.
Aside from the daily treasures of Offices and mass, which never ceased, life with Russen was never dull, and he always seemed to be preparing for the next big event, which he orchestrated with great flair. My first Sunday in the parish coincided with a solemn pontifical high mass, for the first visit of the late Bishop Derrick Childs. The rehearsal took up most of the afternoon, after I returned from ordination at the cathedral. As soon as Bishop Derrick’s visit was done, Russen began preparing a very lavish and highly acclaimed production of Jesus Christ Superstar with the Diocesan Youth Committee, drawing young people from all over the diocese.
His flair for music and drama produced at St Julian’s Godspell, Christmas in the Market Place, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and more, but, no matter what the stage setting of the building, the daily round of liturgy, with properly attired clergy, never ceased, apart from Russen’s love of cars and tinkering under the bonnet.
One day, when he was lying under the car on the vicarage drive, curate in attendance, a rather gruff middle-aged woman, daughter in tow, came over, and demanded that her daughter be churched: “No, it has to be now; she wants to go out.” Russen thought about it for a moment, and then sent me, greasy overall and stole, into church; mother and daughter went away happy.
Russen was not precious or aloof in his priesthood, or the Catholic tradition in which he exercised it, and made it as easy as possible for people to get alongside what he believed our blessed Lord was doing in his Church and world. In recent years, he blessed a village pub after its refurbishment. The landlady reported that he blessed “every part of the pub, including the kitchens, with readings and incense”.
Russen could be very demanding of those who practised their faith day by day, on the grounds that they ought to know better than not to give of their best. He once admonished the Sunday congregation because only 60 had turned out for the solemn mass for St Peter and Paul the previous weekday evening.
Russen had a wonderful singing voice that adorned the liturgies, and entertained at social events. He was an excellent preacher, often without notes. He would occasionally say to me, as we left the sacristy before mass, “Are you preaching this morning?” to which he usually got the nervous reply “No, Father, it’s you.” Then, one day he replied, “Oh no, Father, it is you.” From then on, I always had something prepared, just in case.
He was always more generous about keeping in touch with me than I with him and, when I heard his voice on the phone or, occasionally met him, I still had the feeling that Father was looking out for me; he was a totally loyal friend and priest.