Obituary: The Very Revd John Lewis

22 March 2019

Diocese of Llandaff

The Dean of Llandaff writes:

THE Very Revd John Thomas Lewis, or JT as many of us knew him, was born in 1947, a son of the vicarage; his father, David Islwyn Lewis, had been a well-loved priest in the Rhondda Valley during the late 1940s and 1950s, later moving to Baglan, near Port Talbot. It was obvious through his schooling that John had a fierce and sharp intellect; his mother, Eleanor, a mathematics teacher, kept him and his sister, Margaret, academically focused. John went up to Jesus College, Oxford, to read mathematics, after which he studied theology at St John’s, Cambridge, while training for the ministry at Westcott House.

John was ordained priest in 1974, serving his titles at Whitchurch and Lisvane in the diocese of Llandaff, after which he became Chaplain to the University in Cardiff, and Warden of Ordinands. He served in Swansea & Brecon and Monmouth dioceses, before taking up in 2000 the post of Dean of Llandaff, where he remained until his retirement in 2012. He had been closely involved in the selection and nurturing of those training for the ministry, most notably as Secretary to the Provincial Selection Panel and Board of the Church in Wales, an appointment that he held between 1987 and 1994.

John’s instinct and intellect served him well: he fostered close friendships with those fortunate enough to gain his trust; to those he found inauthentic or pretentious, he could reserve withering judgement. John could hold strong views, which made it difficult for him to put up with trivia. His eye for detail, especially in the written word, became legendary; his quirks and habits were a source of delight and amusement for those who knew him well. Never predictable, John had the capacity to surprise and entertain, as well as disarm and even dismiss.

John was an able and serious preacher; his love of hymnody would surface throughout his teaching and preaching, illustrating what was an embracing and liberal theology that revealed a generous and questioning faith. Outwardly, he never gave the impression of deep piety but, without doubt, his spiritual centre of gravity took him regularly to such places as the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, and the Augustinian Sisters at Ty Mawr Convent.

Many speak of John’s great skill as a teacher and his warmth as a pastor. The young, in particular, found his sometimes irreverent and occasionally outrageous humour hugely attractive; and he would always take great interest in them, their studies, likes, and dislikes. John could speak to the young on the ordinary level, especially where football was concerned — his avid support for Arsenal in the midst of those supporting Cardiff City spoke volumes about John’s naughty relish in being different.

John became a dean just as the old models of cathedral governance were being re-evaluated. He found himself dealing with the need for a new commercial and business model for his ministry, as well as the pedagogical, pastoral, and sacramental output that he was originally called to provide.

Under John’s leadership, changes to the cathedral included the reordering of the paved areas to the west front, a new lighting scheme, and, latterly, the replacement of the organ, which had suffered a serious lightning strike in 2007. These projects were the first real attempts to improve the fabric since the reordering and restoration works after the devastation of the building by an air raid in January 1941.

John’s concern for overseas mission and aid resulted in the cathedral’s raising substantial funds for several appeals, notably a project run by Fr Nicholas Stebbing, of the Community of the Resurrection. The Tariro Hope for Youth in Zimbabwe project also received financial support.

Like any dean, John sometimes found the post a lonely one: deans are often surrounded by critics who think that they could do the job better. John, for all his strength, could be deeply affected by the darker side of church life, but he never let it dominate his sense of purpose. In the weeks before his retirement, he reportedly said: “We have had seven years of plenty, and now we are facing seven years of want.” He knew that the cathedral faced turbulent times ahead. He was right, and, as the reordering of the cathedral’s governance at Llandaff is about to be unveiled, John would have wholeheartedly approved of the direction in which it is heading.

Just weeks before he retired, the cathedral received a visit from the Queen as she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. John was relaxed and confident, walking beside her as he welcomed her to the cathedral. In many ways, it seemed like his crowning moment, too.

John died on 18 February, aged 71. He leaves his wife, Cynthia, and their two sons, James and Andrew, thankful for a life well spent and trusting in the Lord whose promise called John into his service.

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