From Craftsman to Chaplain

Canon Bev John 66A

He said, “I’ll stick you down as C of E!!”

I was born into a truly ecumenical family. My paternal great-grandfather was a Deacon in a Welsh Congregational Chapel. All Welsh Deacons are black suited, white shirted, black tied, funeral director looking, with an inborn scowling countenanced. In every Welsh village Deacons are respected by the grown ups and feared by the children. My paternal grandparents were Methodists, and my maternal grandparents were members of the Salvation Army. Their five children (my mother was the youngest) were all brought up as Anglicans ( Church of England / Church in Wales ). Any Anglican influence ended when my mother died in 1958.

As children, my friends and I were sent to Sunday School in our local chapel by our parents to give them an hour’s peace and quiet.

When, with others, I was driven through those unforgettable gates, in a less than luxury coach, on 11th January 1966, Sunday School was very much a distant memory.

We were herded into the WVS for squad allocations and in no time at all I found myself in ‘D’ Squad. We were marched (marched?) to Junior Company Block and sent to Charlie for a light trim (remember this was the 60s!), then, ‘that’ form to fill in. We were all helped by an A/T NCO and here I met, for the first time, A/T Cpl Johnny Hartley (a Brummie, I seem to remember). Filling in the form was proceeding to plan until we arrived at the little box marked, ‘Denomination’. Now, as you have already read, the number of denominations in my family was confusing and here I was trying to decide which of these denominations had had the major influence on me “Well,” I said, “I’m a Christian.” Johnny Hartley’s reaction, having had to fill so many other forms, no doubt, was completely barren of patience. He roared, “We’re all ### Christians! WHAT DENOMINATION ARE YOU!!” Timidly, I replied that I wasn’t sure. Then he roared words that would open a door for me that would slowly, but surely, change my life. “I’LL STICK YOU DOWN AS C of E!!” Had I chosen a particular denomination or, out of exasperation, had he put me down on the form as OD (other denomination, of course), then there would be no church service, I would have simply sat in a room for an hour, reading a book. But Johnny Hartley had pushed open that door and I walked straight through realising it at the time

Like everyone who ticked the C of E box, we were marched to church, the Camp Hall, of course, every Sunday morning for a service led by our chaplain, The Rev’d Brian Morris. Jim Schofield persuaded me to join the church Choir and, reluctantly at first, I agreed. It wasn’t long before Padre Morris persuaded me to be confirmed. Early one Sunday morning, in the Spring of 1966, I was baptised in the camp chapel by Padre Morris, and confirmed that evening, in Windsor, by the Bishop of Windsor.

Padre Morris moved on and Padre Bob Woods moved in. I remember that at the end of his first service, as a witness to his faith, he knelt before the altar for a few seconds. An amazing gesture, I thought, in front of an assortment of 16year old – 18year old young men. I remember thinking that there has to be more to faith than I had realised, and I wanted to know more.

Padre Morris was quite introverted, Padre Woods was the opposite. He thoroughly enjoyed provoking arguments! He would make a controversial statement and encourage us to challenge him, with freedom and confidence. He forced us to think things through. E.g. he once said, “If you plan to marry, deliberately take the young lady out in the rain and take note of how she reacts to getting soaking wet. If she laughs it off you will know that she would be worth marrying.” I was horrified and told him, in no uncertain terms, that I found the suggestion appalling! The argument took off, with the whole of the choir arguing against him. Padre Woods was a man, I thought, who was ahead of his time, and he had an important influence in the development of my journey of faith.

My first posting was Tidworth and, unknown to me, Padre Woods had been posted to Tidworth, too. He was to oversee the Garrison Church there. Our first encounter in Tidworth was, for me, embarrassing. We literally bumped into each other at a corner of our QM store. As we collided, I was both startled by him and delighted to see him. Gentlemen, he was by now a Major and I, a mere craftsman and the first word out of my mouth were, “What the ‘ell are you doing ‘ere!” He was laughing too much to tear me off a strip, giving me the opportunity to respect and salute his commission.

I was posted to Tidworth in 1969 and met and married Sher in 1970 and, eventually, we were allocated a married quarter. One Sunday morning (for old times’ sake, really) I went to a service and was amazed to discover that the service or Padre Woods or both, had ignited a ‘God spark’ within me. I felt compelled to attend not only a service every Sunday, but all three Sunday services.

Our next posting was to Germany where we lived, first, in a private hiring and then in a married quarter. This was approximately half a mile from the Garrison Church and we soon became regular attendees. The church was overseen by Padre Fred Preston, an eccentric firebrand who was attached to the Staffs. The poor soul was, for a while, responsible for five churches and he would, literally, run into our church, take the service and run out again, to get to the next church! To help him, Sher and I would prepare the church for his arrival and, following his whirlwind departure, we would replace whatever had been disturbed! Clearly personal commitment to the Anglican Church was continuing to grow.

In 1973 several new chaplains were posted in and Padre Fred Preston ceased to visit our church. (In fact, the only other time I saw him was when he was speaking to a television reported at the beginning of the first war against Iraq. He was suggesting to the reporter what he would do with captured insurgents. Perhaps you saw him, too?) Padre Dodson was posted to our church and he asked me to work alongside him. Over the next few months a sense of vocation within me became more and more intense and, through Padre Dobson’s wise advice and guidance, I knew that, sometime after entering civvy street, my ordination as an Anglican priest would be initiated.

Sher and I actually entered civvy street in 1976 and moved to Clydach, in the Swansea Valley, in 1977. We regularly attended the local church and it wasn’t long before my vocational conviction returned and continued to intensify. In 1980, there was a moment (when, like John Wesley, “I felt my heart strangely warmed”). I knew, then, without any shadow of doubt, that Christ had died for me (you, too, of course) taking on himself the punishment I deserved, for things I had said or done, in order that my relationship with God might be restored. My relationship with God was, for him, more important than life itself. ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ What a message to share! I spoke with our vicar many times until, gradually, he became convinced that God was, indeed, calling me to the priesthood. Following his recommendation, Sher and I successfully negotiated several selection boards, sometimes together, sometimes as individuals and there followed two years theological study at Trinity College, Carmarthen and two years theological study at Queen’s College, Birmingham.

I was ordained in 1985 and, following two curacies, I was licensed as Vicar of my present parishes in 1988.
In 1991 Sam Weller wrote to me regarding the Reunions and, later that year, Sher and I attended our first reunion. We actually spent the weekend with Ian and Jan Swinton, close friends, who were stationed at Arborfield. The Garrison CO invited me to take the Drum Head Service in 1992 and I leapt at the chance. Unfortunately, illness prevented me from attending and this remained the situation for some years.
In July 2006 I trawled the internet for anything on Arborfield Reunions with success, obviously, and signed up immediately. At that time I was chaplain to the High Sheriff of Mid Glamorgan and, as a result, Sher and I were invited to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace and the date clashed with that year’s Reunion. We were ‘forced’ to chose the Garden Party, concerned that a refusal would lead to being thrown into the Tower. Besides, Sher had invested in an expensive hat! One of my fellow AOBAers (who shall remain nameless, E.T.) gave me a rough time, demanding to know how seeing the Queen could be more important than seeing the guys! The Garden Party proved to be one of the highlights of my ministry. More highlights were to follow.

Because of parish commitments, the only event that I was able to attend at the 2007 Reunion was the Dinner on Saturday evening. I drove up for it and drove home after it. It was definitely worth the effort though, to meet so many friends that I had not seen for forty years. Another highlight.

In 2008, Sher and I were able to be at the Reunion from early Saturday morning until late Saturday night. Bill had invited me to lead the Drum Head Service, such a privilege. To lead the service before so many fellow Arborfield Old Boys was overwhelming and humbling and I felt that, at last, I was able to give something back to a place that had given so much to me. The highlights were getting higher.

During the afternoon barbecue, David Ashton Jones, the Garrison Verger (alongside me during the Drum Head Service), asked if I would be available, and willing, to lead the Dawn Service on 11th November. The Garrison chaplain had been posted out and his replacement was not expected until the New Year. As I had no parish commitments, I readily agreed. Gentlemen, it is difficult to explain the atmosphere at that service. We were quite a large gathering at the monument on the lawn of the Sgt’s Mess, standing in silence on that chilly, slightly misty November dawn, waiting for the light to become strong enough for us to read the words on the Order of Service. As the words became clear I inhaled to read the opening sentence, simultaneously, it ‘dawned’ on me that, 90 years ago, at that precise moment, the Armistice to end the First World War was being signed. At that very moment! The relevance was so moving that the hair on the back of my neck stood up. That thought moves me even as I write. Here I was back at Arborfield, being allowed, again, to give something back. A higher highlight.

As David drove me around the old familiar places (shadows and echoes, now), I asked him what the procedure was at the two minutes’ silence. He said that a gun was fired at 11am and wherever people were, they stopped working for two minutes, after which the gun was fired again and work continued. There was only one place I wanted to be for the two minutes’ silence and that was with Bill, and all my friends, at the museum. At 10.30am, David and I popped into the museum to see Bill and to ask for his permission to join him at 11am and then we sat in the shop cafe with a cuppa. After a few minutes, Bill sat down with us and asked if we and the museum staff could meet in one of the rooms there and would I begin and end the two minutes silence with a short prayer. I, of course, leapt at the opportunity. Studying, with two of their teachers, was a party of, about twelve, Junior School children. They were scattered among the displays, making notes and drawing relevant items and the children were all wearing gas mask boxes. I asked one of the teachers if the boxes contained anything. She said, “Yes, their sandwiches!” We met, as planned, in the Medal Room (where better?) just before 11am and the children, with their teachers, came in, too. We stood, different generations, but of one mind, for two minutes of absolute silence. Again, the relevance of the moment ‘dawned’ on me. Ninety years ago, to the second, at 11am, the guns of the First World War ceased, silence like no other. It was so moving, and I remember thinking, that surely, ‘Remembrance’ is safe in the hands of children such as these. Another higher highlight.

Sher and I were able to stay for the whole of the weekend of the 2009 Reunion (thank you, Bill), and, as well as having the privilege of leading the Drum Head Service, I had the privilege of dedicating Ken Schofield’s Memorial Tree. Now, for the first time, Sher and I were able to spend quality time with very dear friends.
Parish duties prevented me from taking the 2010 Drum Head Service, though, thanks to Phil and Megan Graham’s invitation to their Thursday Evening’s Barbecue, and Michael White’s thoughtful offer of accommodation, I did have a flavour of the weekend. On Friday morning I was able to pop into the museum for a short visit, because I needed to be home, by lunchtime, to take up those parish duties.

David (Tich) Schofield had e-mailed me earlier in the year, to ask if he could nominate me, at the 2010 Reunion AGM, for the position of AOBA official chaplain; I found it impossible to refuse. At 3pm on 25th November 2010, Bill Cleasby confirmed, by telephone, that the nomination had been accepted. In my ministry, so far, there has not been a higher highlight.

As I mentioned earlier, Arborfield has given me so much, and now, as the AOBA Chaplain, I feel that I am able to give back even more. My journey has travelled full circle, from Arborfield (11.1.1966) to Arborfield (25.11.2010). Experiences and highlights will, of course, continue;

But today, I thank God for those words, “I’LL STICK YOU DOWN AS C of E!!” and I thank God that A/T Cpl Johnny Hartley spoke them.

God bless you, Johnny.

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