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Obituary: The Ven. Raymond Roberts

13 December 2019

The Revd Peter Hore writes:

RAY, as he was universally known, was born in a terraced house in the small Welsh mining village of Wattsville. His elder sister, Marian, was studious and well-behaved, his younger sister, Avril, was not, and they were the parameters of Ray’s character: self-discipline versus mischief. His miner father, Tom, was determined that Ray would never go down the pit, where Tom’s brothers worked and some died too; Tom thought that education was the way to avoid this fate. His mother idolised him, saving her Green Shield stamps so that he could bicycle to Pontywaun Grammar School where Ray had w on a place and rose to be head boy.

Ray was a committed member of St Catherine of Alexandria’s, Crosskeys, and felt called to the priesthood, but National Service beckoned, and he entered the Navy on the lowerdeck, beginning a deep interest in and a love for the Navy and its people.

He read English at Teddy (St Edmund) Hall, from 1951 to 1953, when Oxford was an amalgam of a great university and a finishing school for the children of the elite, mostly public-school boys. Grammar schoolboys were beginning to infiltrate Oxford, where Ray immediately fitted in, becoming the sacristan of the chapel and leading a vigorous social life.

As an ordinand, he combined pranks with serious religious observance: on Saturday night he would be climbing monuments (and over the college walls after the front gate closed) and on Sunday morning he was at worship in Pusey House. Vacations were for adventure, hitchhiking in Europe, and undergraduate idylls in rented villas on the Costa Brava. Ray showed the same mixture of fun and faith throughout his life.

After Oxford, Ray went back to Wales to study at St Michael’s College, Llandaff. He was ordained in the Church in Wales in 1956, and priested the following year in St Woolos’ Cathedral. During a curacy at Bassaleg, Ray’s abounding and natural enthusiasm for making a difference found an outlet when he worked with a passion to help build St Anne’s, in Bassaleg: the church was dedicated in December 1958, just ten months after the building work had begun. The sea had entered his blood, however; he found time to join the Royal Naval Reserve at HMS Cambria, and, in 1959, he transferred from the Reserve to the Royal Navy as a chaplain and was sent to Singapore.

For more than two decades, Ray’s parishioners were the men and woman of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. Unlike the other services, naval chaplains do not hold any rank, and, for Ray, the benefit was that he held the rank of to whoever he was talking, be it a very youthful sailor or marine or a crusty admiral. When not in clerical robes, Ray wore a grey suit and a dog-collar: while serving in Aden in 1965-66, he would avoid meeting the senior Army padre, a full colonel arrayed in his purple banded cap, but in the evenings he would be chatting informally to the commander-in-chief.

At other times, Ray could be found on the mess deck, or involved in the dangers of patrols with the Royal Marines ashore. One commanding officer recalled: “He had unrestricted access to my office. I always knew that when there was a knock on the door closely followed by Ray that there was a problem which only he and I could start to solve.” Once, while, on holiday in Crete, he visited three sailors serving time in civil prison. When he returned, it was to report that all was well and that the sailors were running the jail successfully, using as currency the cigarettes which he had delivered. Of sailors, he mused, “You can’t call them miserable sinners, because no one sins so cheerfully.”

Ray fulfilled the promise of an early personnel-report which said “he is painstaking in the preparation of any work … he would seem to have plenty of ability in both pastoral and administration skills”, and, in 1980, he was appointed Chaplain of the Fleet, Archdeacon for the Royal Navy, and an Honorary Chaplain to the Queen.

Ray followed high Anglican tradition, was no supporter of women priests, nor did he approve of the ceremony of Passing the Peace. He worked closely, however, with the Free Church and Roman Catholic priests whom he met in the Navy.

After retiring from the Navy in 1984 and being appointed CB, Ray returned to parish ministry. From 1985 to 1989, he was an assistant curate of St George’s, Badshot Lea, Surrey, and General Secretary of the Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association. From 1990, he was a chaplain of Llandaff cathedral, retiring from full-time ministry in 1995. He died on 26 September, aged 88.

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