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Obituary: The Rt Revd Saunders Davies

13 April 2018

The Rt Revd Dr Barry Morgan writes:

BISHOP Saunders Davies, who died on Good Friday, was Bishop of Bangor from 1999 to 2004, having previously been the Archdeacon of the southern part of that diocese, Meirionnydd, for six years.

Although born in the Gwaun valley in Pembrokeshire, in the diocese of St Davids, Francis James Saunders Davies read Welsh at University College, Bangor (at that time a constituent college of the University of Wales), and so became an ordinand of the diocese of Bangor. He went on to read theology at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and trained for ministry at St Michael’s College, Llandaff.

He served in the diocese of Bangor from 1963 to 1978, successively as Assistant Curate of Holyhead, Chaplain of Bangor Cathedral, Rector of Llanllyfni, and Canon Missioner. He was then persuaded by the then Bishop of Swansea & Brecon, Benjamin Vaughan, previously Dean of Bangor, to become the Vicar of Gorseinon, where he also undertook the duties of Rural Dean of Llwchwr for three years. He moved to be the vicar of Dewi Sant, Cardiff, in 1986, the only church in the diocese of Llandaff to conduct all its worship and every activity in Welsh.

Brought up as a farmer’s son where Welsh was the language of the hearth, Saunders was a Welshman to the core, and won the prestigious Sir John Morris Jones prize at Bangor for being the best student of his year. Modest to a fault, he never told people of his knowledge of Welsh literature, but the depth of his understanding of the Welsh language, and its complicated grammar, was impressive, and his fellow clerics often drew on his expertise. During his theological training, he spent nine months at the University of Bonn, and so could speak and read German fluently.

Saunders was a diligent parish priest who did all the conventional things that a dutiful parish priest does in caring for people. But he also challenged the parishes in which he served to pray more deeply and to study the scriptures more thoroughly, and he set up various groups to enable that to happen. He also encouraged his parishioners to accept that all God’s people, not just clergy, were meant to be agents of God’s mission in the world when that was not a widely held view.

The then Bishop of Bangor, Gwilym Williams, also Archbishop of Wales, recognised these qualities in Saunders when he appointed him Canon Missioner of the diocese, an appointment that was a pioneering one in the Church in Wales of the 1970s. Many clergy, while having great affection for Saunders as a person, viewed such a post as a bit of a luxury, since they could conceive of no appointments other than parochial ones. Freed from having responsibility for a parish himself, he was able to give time to clergy and parishes, encouraging them to look outwards to God’s world and to being part of a world-wide Church.

Saunders was tireless in both producing materials for parishes and visiting them frequently. He himself, however, eventually came to the view that he should have a parish himself as Missioner — partly to gain credibility with some clergy, but partly because he could put into effect what he was trying to encourage others to do, so that they could see that what he was advocating was possible. The Bishop, however, having made what was a brave appointment of someone who was only 38 and elevated him to the Cathedral Chapter when it had been usual to appoint older clergy, was not persuaded, and so Saunders returned to full-time parochial ministry after only three years as Missioner.

He was a deeply spiritual person, to whom people were drawn because they saw the depth of his own prayer life and faith, and his open, welcoming personality with that wide smile of his, and because he was a great help to both clergy and laity who were experiencing difficulties. He was also a great encourager of people as parish priest and of clergy as archdeacon and bishop. He took his responsibilities as their father-in-God very seriously.

He visited parishes and clergy frequently in that rural diocese, and his door was always open. He was particularly good with those in trouble of any kind, and he and his wife, Cynthia, would often have such people to stay. Cynthia, also a graduate in Welsh language and literature, whom he had married a week before beginning his curacy, exercised a ministry alongside him in a totally unobtrusive way, not just by offering hospitality, but also by helping him to lead retreats.

In retirement in Cardigan, they both continued to offer ministry and took services frequently; Cynthia was a licensed Reader. She cared for Saunders devotedly during his last years when he developed Parkinson’s disease, an illness that he bore uncomplainingly, and with courage and faith. They were also glad, during their retirement, to be able to devote time to their two beloved children and eight grandchildren.

Saunders acknowledged that he had preferred being an archdeacon to being a bishop; and some clergy took advantage of his gentle non-confrontational nature to oppose plans, which had long been thought about and partly implemented, to re-structure the diocese and its parishes. It is testimony to his far-sightedness that those have now largely been implemented and realised, as was necessary in the diocese of Bangor.

The priest poet R. S. Thomas, who spent the latter part of his ministry in the Bangor diocese, once wrote of God that he was remarkable for “an absence of clamour”, meaning that God’s approach was gentle and persuasive rather than dramatic and loud. That, too, was Saunders Davies’s approach to ministry.

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