Recently I learned of the death of Tom Thompson. Tom was the Lancashire vicar who provided my training during a 3 year curacy in the early 1990s. I owe a lot to Tom and his seemingly inexhaustible patience when it came to shaping the ministry of the newly ordained. Faithful, wise and unflagging, Tom kept a sense of perspective which fuelled his resilience and meant his beliefs were always grounded in the lives of the people he was called to serve. As Anglican clergy we were both familiar with ‘physical distancing’, even before it became a sad consequence of Covid-19. However, when I returned from London after taking part in the demonstration for women’s ordination on the day the Church of England voted for change, he greeted me with an instant and heartfelt hug.
There was a lot of laughter in the three years we worked together. Tom was involved with various projects and responsibilities in the Diocese of Blackburn. Blackburn was not seen as one of the most progressive dioceses in the Church, which had the advantage that church-going was still widespread and consistent. It meant that our figures for church attendance were somewhat out of step with the wider church. I’ll never forget Tom returning to the parish from Blackburn when some new data had been revealed. At the meeting one of his colleagues had responded to the news with the excited exclamation: “At last, we’re catching up with the decline!” Only in Blackburn…
While I was in the parish the local amateur dramatic society, based in the church hall, was resurrected. It led to a host of pantos and plays, the kind of institution which acts as a place occupied by both church and non-churchgoing people. It enabled the church to extend its pastoral ministry beyond the congregation and also, in time, see some people join the church family. Perhaps the most ambitious production during that time was ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ by TS Eliot. Tom took the part of Thomas Becket, with the play running for some eleven performances after Easter. It was a demanding schedule but Tom put his heart and soul into it and found reward in the combined theology and poetry of the piece. I was one of the tempters and recall the line I delivered to Becket: ‘the easy man lives to eat the best dinners’. Tom was calm and persistent – not the clubbable type that used to do so well in the Church of England. His best dinners were always with friends and family, not the suppers that nudged towards preferment.
As the Bishop of Norwich wrote in his obituary about him in The Church Times, it was Tom’s custom to give his curates a book when they were priested – usually a year into their curacy. I shall never forget the moment Tom handed me this gift. It was a book by the 20th century Catholic monk Thomas Merton, entitled ‘A Vow of Conversation’. As I received it Tom said simply: ‘it’s what priesthood’s all about’. In the 28 years that have followed I have learned the wisdom of his reflection as my understanding of what it means to be a priest has been widened and deepened by a host of conversations – with those close to me; with people confronting some of the most demanding experiences of life; and in prayer with God.
As I remember Tom and give thanks for his faith and ministry I look forward to the day when we can renew our conversation once again. May he rest in peace.
“Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his elect,
and he watches over his holy ones.”