Herefordshire People: Meet Brecon's New Bishop - John Davies

PUBLISHED: 17:20 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013

Bishop John Davies

Bishop John Davies

Corinne Westacott meets John Davies, the new Bishop of Swansea and Brecon, who took an uncommon route to the mitre. Photographs by Jeff Morgan.

You know you're not going to meet a stereotypical bishop when, in the waiting room of the Right Reverend John Davies's office in Ely House, Brecon, you spot the reading matter on offer - Private Eye. The new Bishop of Swansea and Brecon confounds all hide-bound expectations.

As he comes to the end of his first year, Bishop John is the first to admit that his route to office has been unconventional. Born in the South Wales valleys in 1953, he attended Basseleg Grammar School, where his games master described him as "a pleasant individual not given to physical exertion". He studied law at Southampton University in the 70s, delighting in the magnificent burgers dished up in the local pub and listening to James Taylor and Don McLean.

He came from a family of regular churchgoers but there was nothing in his early years to suggest an episcopal future. If there was one particular element of the church which drew him in and kept him in thrall it was the deep, resonating music produced by the organ. "There's quite a long history of me doing anything I could to get my hands on church organs," he recalls: he used to sneak into churches to play hymns.

"You got to learn where people kept the keys," he explains.

All through his time at university his passion for the organ continued and kept him involved in the church "at an age" he says "when many people leave."

After graduation he became a solicitor in Newport and tramped the corridors of the magistrates' courts, getting to know the town's criminal underclass. At the same time he served on various lay committees in the Diocese, his legal knowledge proving very useful to the Church. "I absolutely adored my work in the law," he says.

So why the startling change of direction? "I became organist and choir master at Basseleg and, whilst I was doing that, one of the clergy said, 'Perhaps you ought to think about ordination'." The cleric had noticed a promising understanding of the scriptures and a gift for communication. "What brought it to a head was my being offered a partnership in the law firm. I thought, 'Do I really want to be doing this?'" He resigned and offered himself for ordination.

He served in a succession of parishes in Monmouthshire after being ordained in 1984, including Chepstow, where he met his wife, Jo. He says he "agonised dreadfully" about whether to make the move to Brecon: he confesses to being a bit of an unadventurous home-bird. "But I have to say," he adds, "coming to Brecon Cathedral was probably the happiest move I've ever made."

He is passionate about the Cathedral. "When I came the place was in pretty poor shape. How my predecessors kept sane I will never know: you had a beautiful building in that lovely setting and never enough money to put it into good order." Then, right on cue, two large legacies were made to the Cathedral twelve months after he had become Dean.

New lead-work, the re-roofing of the tower, new wiring, lighting and new chairs were all paid for. The stunning stone walls were lime washed using a slurry put on, in the traditional way, with hessian sacks. "Now we're penniless," says Bishop John. "So I've left!" He bursts out laughing.

He and his family have now moved into Ely House, the Bishop's residence, and his immediate responsibility for the Cathedral has gone. However, he is still tied to it by the heartstrings. When I asked if he had any special places in the county where he would go for inspiration he nodded his head towards the place "up the road" which draws him like a magnet.

Not surprisingly, given his musical background, the Cathedral's music was something he wanted to improve as Dean. An appeal was launched to raise a million pounds so that professional musicians could be employed. At the moment, the fund is half way to its target. "Just over 12 months ago we appointed the present director of music and his assistant and they are stunning. Absolutely stunning! They are making enormous strides with children who have never sung a hymn or an anthem or anything like that in their lives before."

You only have to take a look at the Cathedral website to see that music is now integral to the way it works. This autumn alone has seen piano recitals, choral works, traditional harp music and Welsh male voice choirs performing under the Cathedral's magnificent open-rafter roof. The Cathedral also has a jazz service during Brecon Jazz in August.

For the enthusiastic Dean, things were going swimmingly. "Here I was, having got the building in good order, with one colleague in particular who was wonderful with liturgy - plus a new organist, a new choir which was blossoming - and then they go and elect me Bishop!"

However, as Bishop, John Davies is well placed to pursue his abiding interest in social justice. Fluent at all times, his lawyer's eloquence comes into its own when he speaks on the subject. He sees his wider remit as "lobbying, not in a party political way, but for the disadvantaged; lobbying for better educational opportunities for those who would otherwise be shunted to one side, and speaking up for people who haven't got the confidence to speak up for themselves."

He is unequivocal about the Church's role in all this: "There are those who caricature the church as being a kind of old people's home with candles and organ music. Well, maybe it's like that in some places. But, by and large, the church ought to be a vehicle for, if not achieving, then at least encouraging social justice."

He is at pains to emphasise that, despite its image as a pleasant market town, Brecon has its share of the social problems he is talking about; the ward in which the Cathedral is located has high levels of social deprivation. The diocese has a Board for Social Responsibility which has helped set up drop-in centres for families both in Brecon and the Swansea Valley.

All this radical thinking seems far removed from a Church which is sometimes seen as stuck in the past with its reluctance to allow women bishops and its difficulty with issues of personal sexuality.

Bishop John explains the Church's conservative approach by emphasising the importance it places on diplomacy, respect and tradition. "I have to say that, in terms of the way in which the women's issue in the Church has moved, it has probably moved very slowly indeed; but that's because there are people of perfectly good conscience elsewhere in the family, if you like, that you do not want to feel rejected, undervalued or degraded. You don't turn to someone and say 'what you've believed all your life is totally barking and we've got to change it now - so, if you don't like it, shove off'. I mean, that's not the way to deal with your family."

In the down to earth language that peppers his conversation, Bishop John says the idea that this summer's Lambeth Conference was "civil war" is "absolute twonk".

Instead he saw a gentle acknowledgement that "we aren't all the same. We don't all understand things the same. We do things differently is different places but the route by which we've come to do the things we do is legitimate."

As for John's more immediate family of wife Jo, daughter Kate and son Christopher, this coming Christmas Day will be the first in a long time that they can all be together. As Dean of the Cathedral, John was at services for much of the day. Because of this, Jo would volunteer to do the Christmas Day shift in the intensive care unit of the Heath Hospital where she works as a senior staff nurse. Christmas Day and all the trimmings would get moved to Boxing Day. This year, with Jo on secondment to the University of Glamorgan as a lecturer, they can have their Christmas on the proper day and on Boxing Day they will go up to Rhayader to the cottage they have there.

It will be a time to unwind with hot baths, log fires and perhaps one of his favourite films, Carry On up the Khyber, on video. Bishop John says that many people, when they first meet him, say "You're actually quite normal!" - expecting, no doubt, some haloed entity. His children, Kate, a sports science student at UWIC, and Christopher, currently doing voluntary work on his gap year, bring him down to earth. "They nag me and I irritate them," he confesses. He says he's a cross between Victor Meldrew and Basil Fawlty and he is wont to rant at the sensationalism of TV news and the prevalence of poor grammar.

He is actually far too friendly and exuberant to qualify as a Meldrew figure. When I met him he had recently been urging "the girl who cuts my hair down in town" to go to London to savour the delights of Mamma Mia on stage. His Desert Island luxury would be Radio 4 (long wave) so that he can listen to the cricket. He delights in church music, opera and Keats's poetry, but also likes his telly - Armstrong and Miller, Little Britain, New Tricks, Spooks...

Welsh bishops have often been controversial figures and Bishop John is certainly willing to be outspoken on important issues. But parishes in the diocese need not put on their best behaviour when he visits. This is one bishop who is far more likely to tell an actress and the bishop joke than to be outraged by one.

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